Former comic-strip star Jeffie P. Wunderkill, who as a child costarred in the wholesome newspaper strip The Family Circus, and as an adult seemed bedeviled by its reputed curse, died of an accidental prescription-drug overdose Saturday in West Virginia, just one day after declaring on nationwide radio, "I’ve never been happier, ya chiseling bastards."
He was 43.
Police said Jeffie apparently OD’d on Valium and the painkiller Loritab. Autopsy results today showed no sign of illness. Toxicology tests are pending.
On Howard Stern’s radio show on Friday, the ex-comic strip star proclaimed himself drug-free, save for painkillers he’d been on since he was attacked by pair of Bengali tigers at the Oklahoma Zoo some 10 years ago.
"My life is so good now," Wunderkill said. "I’ve never been happier. Now, whereâ€™s the goddamned booze you guys promised me? Jeffie needs his bottle, damn you!"
Jeffie, Dolly, Billy and P.J. were the cartoon kids (adopted and otherwise) of Dad (Bill) and Mom (Thelma), the parents of The Family Circus. Jeffie played Jeffie, the insufferably adorable tot who was plagued by visions of long-dead relatives and who inexplicably tracked dotted lines all over the familyâ€™s neighborhood. He appeared in the strip from 1964-70, his run ending when he became too old to play a 5-year old thumb-sucking tyke â€“ a condition deemed unsuitable for The Family Circusâ€™ aging and decrepit reading audience.
Costar Billy was "pretty down" Sunday from the news of his news strip sibling’s death, his mother, Billyâ€™s Mom, told Comixpedia reporters.
"More than anything, Billy and Jeffie were good friends," Billyâ€™s Mom said. "He says he can’t believe it. Well…he can believe it, but still. "
In their adult years, Jeffie, P.J., and Dolly each had run-ins with the law, fueling talk of the Family Circus "curse." Jeffie’s police-blotter woes began in 1972 when he was arrested for knocking over a Las Vegas video store. In 1982, he received five years’ probation for forging prescriptions to score Valium. And in 1985 he drove a golf cart through the window of a drug store. He was seen writhing around in the broken glass and shoveling fistfuls of Blue Bombers into his mouth just as local police arrived
In 1997, Jeffie told a reporter he didn’t blame his years as a kid star for his adult troubles, including alcoholism. "I woulda crashed and burned no matter what," he said.
But former cartoon child star advocate Little Orphan Annie, of the group Catch a Falling Star, said Sunday such talk was "nonsense."
"Unless you’ve been down this road, you can’t possibly comprehend the complications of being a former kid star," said Little Orphan Annie, who as a teen during the 1920â€™s, starred in Little Ophan Annie. "Of course, he was a product of a life on spent in a repressed, neo-Christian comic strip."
Little Orphan Annie said she saw Jeffie’s death coming â€“ "It was coming nine years ago" â€“ when she bumped into him coming out of a bathroom on the set of the Sally Jessy Raphael talk show, with a substance she said looked like cocaine dripping out of his nose.
"We tried and we tried and we tried and we tried," Little Orphan Annie said.
In the end, Little Orphan Annie said, intervention efforts were stymied by people who sold the borderline schizophrenic on the idea that the next, great comeback vehicle was inevitable.
Fellow former child star Sluggo (Nancy & Sluggo), who works with Catch a Falling Star, stepped in last September to help manage Jeffie’s spiraling career â€“ and be a friend.
"He was supposed to be contacting me every day," Sluggo said. "But he hadn’t for a couple of weeks. I eventually got word that heâ€™d been defecating on passing cars from a ledge on the I-95 overpass on his free time. Which was pretty much ALL the time.â€
Sluggo said he’d been unaware of Jeffie’s Stern appearance. On the shock jock’s show, Jeffie said he wanted to clear up a tabloid report that said he was a drug-addicted homosexual, stemming from reports that he had proposed a sexual rendevous with a 13-year old boy over the internet.
"It’s a total misunderstanding," Jeffie said.
The ex-kid star said he was engaged to be married â€“ and clean. "I have been sober for the longest goddamned time," he said. "Oh, it’s a decade now. No joke. Seriously. Why in the hell are you looking at me like that?"
After a caller suggested Jeffie sounded a "little wired," he offered to take a urine test. He later changed his mind and opted to give the Stern crew a strand of hair for analysis. After the show, he changed his mind again â€“ and asked for the hair back. (He got it.)
Today Stern said he, for one, didn’t think he was "on" drugs. He described Jeffie as seeming in "pretty good spirits."
"It’s really kind of sad," Stern said of his death. "It’s a little freaky."
Sluggo said that Jeffie had recently purchased a motor home with flames painted on its sides and planned to travel the country this summer with his teenage son.
"He told me that he had been working on his life, like we all do, one day at a time," Sluggo said. "He also told me that he had acid-spitting goblins living in his oven, and that his parents had been killed by mechanical sex-dolls from Mars, but with Jeffie, you learned to take that kind of thing with a grain of salt."
Jeffie died at his fiancÃ©’s parents’ house in Wheeling, West Virginia. The couple stopped there during a drive back from New York, en route to Los Angeles. Police say Jeffie complained of being tired on Saturday afternoon and retired to take a nap.
At 9:40 p.m. fiancÃ© Gina Gillotti, 35, found Jeffie "unresponsive and cold to the touch," police said. Gillotti attempted to revive the child star, but couldn’t. Jeffie was pronounced dead on arrival at nearby Southwestern Medical Center.
"He was a special man," Gillotti said. "He was really planning on getting everything together."
Jeffie was born December 5th, 1960, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He broke into comics with a 2-week stint as Dick Tracyâ€™s infant great-grandson who is kidnapped by ransomers in 1963. In 1964 he was offered the role of Pigpen in Charles Schulzâ€™s Peanuts. His mother vetoed the job, the characterâ€™s signature cloud of dust and fleas was deemed an unsuitable work environment. The Family Circus, however, was okayed. The family-friendly comic strip rode Jeffie’s preternatural comic timing to the top of the funny pages, making young stars of all its kid actors.
Jeffie was fired from the strip in May 1970. A press release from King Features Syndicate Inc (the distributor of The Family Circus) cited Jeffieâ€™s age â€“ and resulting lack of dimples â€“ as the reason for his termination. He was replaced by a younger look-alike the following August.
After a stint in rehab, Jeffie struggled to revive his career in the 1990s (a 1989 Playgirl spread failed to do the trick), but his attempts at a comeback were overshadowed by the skyrocketing popularity of Calvin and Hobbes.
"He loathed Calvin and that freakinâ€™ stuffed tiger," said Sluggo. "We were once walking around the mall a few years ago when we stumbled upon a rack fulla stuffed tiger toys in front of the K.B. Toys. Jeffie went utterly apeshit and started stabbing the dolls. With his penis."
Jeffie was arrested in 1994 under suspicion of having hired a local janitor to assassinate both Calvin and his imaginary tiger-friend. The charges were summarily dropped when the alleged assassin-to-be was found dead in a high school soccer field, his throat having been ripped out by an invisible creature just as school was letting out.
Jeffie later found on-camera work â€“ sometimes with his ex-Family Circus co-stars – in would-be steamy B-movies such as The Family Circumcision (1997) and Dolly Does Dallas (1998), Dolly Does Dolly (1998), and Dolly Does Barfy (2000). In 2002 he was admitted to a psychiatric ward after claiming to have been menaced by geriatric angels.
Survivors include his son, Jeffie Junior and a pet cat named Ass-Smasher.
Said Sluggo, ticking off names of ex-kid cartoon stars who met premature ends: "Jeffie is now part of legacy that includes Linus [Peanuts], the Yellow Kid [The Yellow Kid], and Hans & Fritz Katzenjammer …..It’s a long list."