Tragic downfall of 'Oliver!' star Jack Wild told in new memoir

Tragic... Jack Wild suffered years of alcohol abuse following Oliver! success - Credit: Getty
Tragic… Jack Wild suffered years of alcohol abuse following Oliver! success – Credit: Getty

Jack Wild was the child star who stole the show as the Artful Dodger in Lionel Bart’s classic ‘Oliver!’, the 1968 musical based on Charles Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’.

But behind the gleeful dance numbers, Wild was a tortured soul, and saw his Hollywood dreams crushed by his own alcohol abuse.

He died in 2006 after a long battle with mouth cancer, which he blamed on his drinking and smoking, his acting career having dried up by the early 80s.

New memoirs have now emerged, published in the Daily Mail, finished by his widow Claire Harding, detailing both his success with ‘Oliver!’ and his struggles with substance abuse.

(Credit: Getty)
(Credit: Getty)

He describes a Hollywood of excess, drinking heavily by the time he was 17 – he’d snagged the role of Dodger for director Carol Read aged 15.

After his success in ‘Oliver!’, which saw him nominated for the Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, he took the lead role in US kids TV series ‘H.R. Pufnstuf’ for NBC, made by luminaries Sid and Marty Krofft.

“While I was filming H. R. Pufnstuf, I lived at Marty’s house in LA. I was invited out to expensive restaurants and wild parties where the tables would be laden with bowls of drugs – you could take your pick of uppers or downers. Instead of Twiglets, crisps and peanuts, one ashtray was full of speed, another of cocaine, marijuana, LSD, everything,” he writes.

“I just stuck to a glass of wine and maybe a Bristol Cream sherry when I got home. At the time, alcohol seemed the lesser of the two evils.”

(Credit: Rex Features)
(Credit: Rex Features)

But by the age of 25, he described himself as a ‘serious drinker’.

“When I was filming in Poland the following year, the barman at the hotel we stayed at used to give us double measures and the vodka was twice as strong as normal,” continues.

“I drank it every day, partly to keep out the freezing cold, and barely ate anything as the food was terrible. One day I felt a terrible stabbing pain in my stomach. It was acute pancreatitis and I was flown back to England for emergency treatment.

“’If you carry on drinking you will die,’ the doctor said. It was like vodka off an alcoholic’s back. I just cut back on spirits and stuck to wine and beer.

“On a typical day I’d consume half a bottle of vodka and a couple of bottles of wine. Despite all this, I honestly believed I was in control.”

He added that a meeting with Lionel Bart about a future project saw him fall off the wagon after a nine-month dry spell.

(Credit: Rex Features)
(Credit: Rex Features)

“Once I managed to come off the booze for nine months, but then I had lunch with Lionel Bart (who wrote the musical Oliver!) to discuss a work project and he came out with the famous line: ‘Go on mate, just have one glass of wine. It won’t do you any harm.’ I refused three times, but eventually succumbed. My resolve was gone and I was back on the booze. I needed it constantly to stop me shaking. I thought I needed it to live.”

He later quit booze, began working again, appearing in 1991’s ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’, but the damage had been done, and in 2001, he contracted oral cancer, having his tongue and voice box removed in 2004.

He died aged 53 in 2006, but said that he had no regrets.

“I only wish I’d invested the money and not drank quite so much,’ he told wife Claire. “But other than that I don’t think there is much else I’d change. And I did have a lot of fun.”

The book, ‘It’s A Dodger’s Life’, by Jack Wild is out now.

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