Just as Jack Wild WAS the irresistible Artful Dodger, Mark Lester simply WAS the pure-hearted Oliver Twist. Was there ever a better recipe in all Hollywood?
One could go mad having a crush on the late Jack Wild. What was it about the charming British child actor from the late 60s that was and is so bloody compelling? Countless young girls (and I dare say a fair share of adults) swooned over Jack, who stole their hearts as the Artful Dodger in the 1968 hit musical “Oliver!” Even Hollywood’s Oscar fell in love; his role as the Dodger won him a nomination for best-supporting actor.
With such a spotlight on his fast-growing popularity, Sid and Marty Kroft soon handed him the role of the loveable Jimmy in the 1969 hit TV series “H.R. Pufnstuf;” every Saturday morning we gleefully welcomed him into our homes.
As one of those young girls whose heart he stole, I can give you MY reasons for falling for him: His cheeky, maddening smile; his friendly, Cockney accent that on Jack was so irresistible; his warm, liquid eyes that could melt the coldest heart.
The flame was rekindled for me late last year when I first discovered the 1971 British film “Melody,” which came out when I was ten years old. How could I have missed this perfect gem of a movie so full of young teen angst and Bee Gees music? I can only conclude that it mysteriously went highly underrated in the United States.
Jack played the teen-age Ornshaw, who had a surface cheeky bravado similar to the Dodger, but his portrayal was in no way a typecast. Beneath Ornshaw’s outer layers bubbled a multi-faceted, complex, vulnerable character that Jack exquisitely unfolded so well I am inclined to say it was his best role, rivaling even his exquisite work in “Oliver!”
Mark Lester, who had the starring role next to Jack in “Oliver!,” melted hearts as the endearingly sincere Daniel; he became Ornshaw’s friend and confidant.
As I watched “Melody” a second time, gaining new appreciation for every nuance of Ornshaw’s heart, I wholeheartedly tipped my hat to the talented Jack. The Dodger and Ornshaw were very different characters. The fact that Mark Lester costarred next to him in both films occurred to me with growing curiosity; they certainly had the ability to light up a screen together.
During the 1970s Jack starred in other movies and British TV shows, including the moving 1973 film “The 14” as Reg. While I applaud each and every one, in my heart the Dodger and Ornshaw remain on the top shelf as my favorite Jack characters. They strike a deeper chord with me than his other roles, and it seems to me Jack shines just a little brighter in them. Did Mark Lester lend inspiration to Jack’s performances? After a bit of sleuthing, I strongly believe that to be the case.
Jack and Mark obviously spent time together making two movies, but they were good friends as well as costars. Not only are there many pictures available to the public that depict this, but on the show “Where Are They Now Australia 2007,” when asked via live satellite video if he and Jack were “mates,” Mark answered,
“Absolutely; we were mates on set, we were mates off set, we were friends our whole lives until sadly, Jack died.”
In an audio interview during a British newscast in March of 2006 soon after Jack’s death, Mark had this to say about his relationship with Jack:
“Jack was like a brother to me during the making of the film (“Oliver!”) and was always very protective; I gained a lot. The chemistry between us was just something very, very special and lasted throughout our lives.”
These statements resonate in me with deep conviction, and leave me smiling in warm appreciation. This chemistry was always very palpable to me in “Oliver!” and shines through in their performances in “Melody” as well.
Some sources reportedly say that after “Melody” they were no longer friends, and completely went their separate ways. Granted their lives took them in different directions, but obviously theirs was a friendship that lasted beyond the relationships of everyday life; the type of friendship that lasts through time and distance.
Jack had a natural charismatic charm and acting talent unrivaled thus far by any other child actor or Dodger ‘wanna be’. He had something ELSE, though, that will help ensure he goes down as the best Artful Dodger ever; he had Mark Lester for his Oliver. This would turn out to be the role of Jack’s life, and he couldn’t have had a better costar.
While in many YouTube circles Mark’s contribution to “Oliver!” is erroneously underrated, Mark was a necessary ingredient in what could well be the most ingenious bit of casting in all cinema. The director Carol Reed could have searched every kid on the planet and not found a better Oliver to complement Jack’s Dodger.
Mark Lester, who has his own following of fans, WAS the angelic, vulnerable waif, and he reflected the cheeky, streetwise Jack with brilliant light. Their energies and talents mingled and fit together like a perfect recipe in a science laboratory, and this recipe created incredible magic on the screen; a recipe that is not likely to be repeated any time soon…if ever.