Billie Hayes, Witchiepoo on 'H.R. Pufnstuf,' Dies at 96
Billie Hayes, whose character Witchiepoo became one of pop culture's most famous witches, has died at 96.
Hayes' death on April 29 — from natural causes — was announced by her family, and reported by Deadline.
Hayes was born in Du Quoin, Illinois, on August 5, 1924, working in entertainment from the time she was a child tap dancer. As a teenager, she was in an orchestra, and she went on to perform as a soloist across the Midwest.
In 1956, she made her Broadway debut in "New Faces of 1956" alongside future superstar Maggie Smith and Paul Lynde, who became a close friend. That same year, she quickly landed her breakthrough role, replacing Charlotte Rae as Mammy Yokum in the original Broadway production of "Li'l Abner," a part she recreated in the 1959 movie version and for a 1971 TV special.
In 1967, she appeared as a character similar to Mammy — this time Maw — on an episode of "The Monkees." Speaking a few years ago about her experience on that iconic series, Hayes said it was fun because, "I love people who have a freedom about themselves. They're not afraid to approach other people or to open up to other people — you don't have to tell people your laundry list, but just open up! And the Monkees were like that."
On Sid and Marty Krofft's 1969 Saturday-morning TV series "H.R. Pufnstuf," she brought to life Wilhelmina W. Witchiepoo, a hyperkinetic, cackling spell-binder who lured a curious boy (the late Jack Wild) to her castle on Living Island in order to swipe his talking flute. Only her nemesis, the goodnatured dragon-mayor of Living Island H.R. Pufnstuf, kept Witchiepoo at bay.
Thanks to the series' wild costumes and psychedelic vibe, it became a cult hit in spite of its meager 17-episode run. A 1970 film version with Hayes and the show's other stars, including a guest appearance by Mama Cass Elliott, was equally treasured for its mix of kid-friendly slapstick and mod '60s influences.
Witchiepoo was so over-the-top that in spite of being the show's villainess, she was also its main draw. She said in a rare 1969 interview, "Oh, I love that fan mail! I'm the Ann Landers of the witch world — I am! The kids write me and I don't know why they pick the witch to write to unless they figure, you know, 'Either she's so dumb she'll give ya a funny answer,' or 'She's so smart I'll get out of trouble,' right?... What a feeling of power!"
Witchiepoo made such a strong impression that Hayes played a similar witch on an episode of "Bewitched" (1971), a hit for her lifelong friend Alice Ghostley, whose dog she inherited upon the actress' death in 2007. Witchiepoo was conjured up several more times, including on campy TV shows like "The Bay City Rollers Show" (1978) and "The Paul Lynde Halloween Special" (1976). It was on the latter gig that Margaret Hamilton, the legendary Wicked Witch of the West of "The Wizard of Oz" fame, confessed to Hayes that she was her favorite witch.
For an encore, Hayes played the equally flamboyant, infinitely kinder Weenie the Genie on the Kroffts' "Lidsville" (1971-1972), set in a land of living hats.
Hayes continued acting, including on episodes of "General Hospital" in the '80s, and went on to become a busy voice-over artist including on the Disney film "The Black Cauldron" (1985), the series "Paw Paws" (1985-1986) and her final project, "Transformers: Rescue Bots" (2012-2016).
In her later years, Hayes ran Pet Hope, a nonprofit devoted to the rescue, care, and placement of abandoned animals. In 2012, Hayes said she founded it partly because she could not count how many times she had pulled over to save an animal in distress.