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Jack Wild is a Actor Who found fame as the Artful Dodger in Oliver

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Jack Wild

Jack Wild: The actor who found fame as the Artful Dodger in Oliver! At 16, he was a millionaire at 18 and an alcoholic by 21, has died after a long battle with oral cancer, aged 53.

 The former child star was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as the amoral street urchin in the musical film of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist in 1968. But like many actors who found fame at an early age, he spent almost two decades of adulthood in what he later admitted was “a drunken haze”.

 “He wanted to be remembered as an entertainer,” said his agent and friend Alex Jay yesterday. “He was just a great guy. There was never a dull moment with Jack. You never heard him complain, even with his illness.”

Jack Wild is a While living in Hounslow, his parents

Jack Wild

 Wild was discovered while living in Hounslow, west London, with his parents, who had been mill workers in Lancashire. A promising footballer, he was spotted playing alongside Phil Collins by Collins’ mother, June, a talent scout, and won the role of Oliver in the West End production of Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver! Too old at 14 to play the lead when it came to casting the film, he became the pickpocket, the Artful Dodger, alongside Oliver Reed, Harry Secombe, Ron Moody and fellow child star Mark Lester, then nine, who played Oliver.

 Lester said Wild was like an elder brother during the making of the film. “The chemistry between us was just something very, very special, which lasted throughout our lives,” he said.

 Wild’s impish charms stole the show. Although he did not win the Oscar for best supporting actor, the film collected five Academy awards. On the back of its global success he landed the starring role in the surreal American TV series HR Pufnstuf, in which he played a boy marooned on an enchanted island. Wild increasingly looked lost in life as in art: he featured in Alan Parker’s first movie, Melody, in 1971, and recorded three albums, but his cherubic features masked a growing struggle with alcoholism. He was diagnosed diabetic at 21.

 He married his childhood sweetheart, Gaynor Jones, and appeared in the BBC’s adaptation of Our Mutual Friend in 1976 but struggled to land other acting roles. Jones, who became a backing singer for Kim Wilde and Suzi Quatro, left him in 1985 because of his alcoholism.

 After giving up drink in 1989, Wild appeared in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner in 1991 and in the Channel 4 series Lock, Stock in 2000.

 Wild admitted his heavy smoking and drinking made him a “walking time bomb” for mouth cancer. The disease was diagnosed in 2000. Although unable to speak after an operation two years ago, he raised awareness of mouth cancer for Cancer Research UK.

 “We are very saddened to hear of the death of Jack Wild,” said Alex Markham, head of the charity. “Jack was keen to use his experience to help people understand the disease and its risk factors.”

 Despite his illness, he continued to perform. Due to star as Baron Hardup in Cinderella on stage in Worcester after his operation to remove his tongue and voice-box, the play was rewritten around him. “Jack wild was brilliant at mime, and he mimed the whole thing,” said Mr Jay.

 Wild met his second wife, Claire Harding, 34, when they were both appearing in panto in Worthing, East Sussex, 11 years ago. “I had an expectation of a man who was going to be a complete ass, but when I met him, he was lovely,” she said. After surgery in 2004, Harding would lip-read and speak for the star in interviews. He died at home yesterday.

 Wild’s last film reunited him with fellow Oliver! Star Ron Moody, who played Fagin in Moussaka and Chips last year.

 “We’ve lost a great artist, and I’ve lost a great friend,” said Moody. “We were more like Laurel and Hardy. We used to call ourselves Fagin and Dodger. We had that kind of bond between us. Jack wild really was cheated out of a great career.”

 Wild urged other young actors not to repeat the mistakes he desperately regretted. When Daniel Radcliffe landed the role of Harry Potter, he wrote an open letter to the teenager warning of the dangers of becoming a child star.

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