Thursday, March 02, 2006

That Pufnstuf will kill you

Jack Wild, the English actor known to my generation (because, as Pete Townshend once wrote, I'm talkin' 'bout my generation) as Jimmy, the boy with the talking flute, on the seminal Saturday morning TV series H.R. Pufnstuf, has died.

That cracking sound you heard was another chunk of my childhood breaking off.

Jack Wild first came to worldwide attention in 1968, when he portrayed the young thief nicknamed the Artful Dodger in the Academy Award-winning musical Oliver! Shortly thereafter, Canadian kidvid producers Sid and Marty Krofft cast the nascent star in Pufnstuf, a show that changed the face of children's television forever.

In a world filled with tame Hanna-Barbera cartoons, Romper Room, and Captain Kangaroo, Pufnstuf struck like a smack alongside the head from a psychedelic two-by-four. The Kroffts' view of children's fantasy resembled nothing less than The Wizard of Oz on mescaline.

For the Sixties-impaired among us, I'll summarize. Wild's character Jimmy is at a riverside park one day when a talking boat offers him and his magic flute, Freddie, a short sailing trip. Little does Jimmy know that the boat belongs to the flamboyantly evil Witchiepoo, who has designs on his flute. (You know this ain't no ordinary kids' show when the central plot involves a wicked witch who's chasing after a teenaged boy's flute.) But when the boat arrives on Living Island — a fantastical realm where all of the animals and the usually-inanimate objects are alive and can converse — Jimmy is snatched from Witchiepoo's clutches by the heroic H.R. Pufnstuf, a cowboy-boot-wearing dragon who serves as Living Island's mayor and chief of police. Mayhem and hilarity ensue.

Like any number of child actors one could name, Wild's career nosedived into alcoholism and dissipation as he matured into adulthood. Still, he occasionally popped up in a small character role. He played one of Sherwood Forest's Merry Men — Much the Miller's Son — in the Kevin Costner vehicle Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. But in 2000, decades of chain-smoking resulted in mouth cancer, a series of aggressive treatments for which robbed Wild of his voice. The cancer now has taken his life at the age of 53.

Let this be a lesson to you kids. Put. The Pufnstuf. Down.

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