Obituaries

Marty Krofft, Co-Creator of Fantastical TV Shows, Dies at 86

Marty Krofft, who, with his brother Sid, created a string of television shows that captured audiences from Saturday morning to prime time, including fantastical children’s fare, like “H.R. Pufnstuf” and “Land of the Lost,” and variety shows, like “Donny and Marie,” died on Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 86.

His publicist, Harlan Boll, said the cause was kidney failure.

The Kroffts came from a line of puppeteers, and Sid, who as a child traveled the world performing an elaborate puppet show, was usually the creative force behind the partnership.

But Krofft shows, which featured elaborate puppets and scenery, were often expensive to produce and sometimes had premises that could be a hard sell; one show, for instance, focused on magical, talking hats. Marty’s business acumen and ability to woo studio executives ensured that some of the strangest programs ever to appear on the small screen actually got made.

“Sid was always ‘the artist,’” Marty was quoted as saying in “Pufnstuf & Other Stuff: The Weird and Wonderful World of Sid & Marty Krofft” (1998), by the critic David Martindale. “He never did have a business sense. So I came in and filled that vacuum.”

The shows often had psychedelic sets and a trippy feel, leading many older viewers to read drug references in them. The Kroffts said that had never been their intention.

The first Krofft television show, debuting on NBC in 1969, was “H.R. Pufnstuf,” which was about a boy who is spirited away to a magical island by a witch who wants to steal his talking flute. On the island the boy meets H.R. Pufnstuf, the dragon mayor of a town where virtually all the animals and objects can speak. Pufnstuf and island denizens try to help the boy get home in spite of the machinations of the witch and her doltish minions.

Only 17 episodes were filmed, but they aired as reruns for years and in time inspired a made-for-TV movie, an ice show and extensive children’s merchandise.

“He’s our Mickey Mouse,” Mr. Krofft said of Pufnstuf.

“Pufnstuf’s” success also proved to studios that far-out Krofft programs could draw viewers.

Mr. Krofft on the set of “H.R. Pufnstuf.”Credit…Photos Courtesy of Sid & Marty Krofft Pictures Archive

The Kroffts went on to produce “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters,” about a tentacled lump of seaweed who befriends humans; “The Bugaloos,” about a rock group made up of teenage insects; and “Lidsville,” about the hats.

Those shows were all lighthearted fantasy. The next show the Kroffts produced, “Land of the Lost,” was more serious.

In “Lost,” which premiered on NBC in 1974, a family plunges into another dimension populated by dinosaurs, primates called Pakuni and dangerous lizard-men called Sleestaks. Like “Pufnstuf,” the show was about the family’s attempts to get home while navigating their strange new surroundings.

Episodes were written by seasoned science fiction writers like Ben Bova, Larry Niven and Norman Spinrad, and a linguist developed a language of sorts for the Pakuni.

The Kroffts produced new episodes of “Lost” until 1977, and simultaneously made several other children’s shows, which starred, among others, the actors Bob Denver (“Far Out Space Nuts”), Ruth Buzzi and Jim Nabors (both in “The Lost Saucer”).

A scene from the Kroffts’ science fiction show “Land of the Lost,” which premiered in 1974. Credit…Ron Tom/NBCU Photo Bank, via NBCUniversal, via Getty Images

They also went into prime time with the popular variety show “Donny & Marie,” starring two siblings from the singing Osmond family act. It premiered on ABC in 1976 with guest appearances by Farrah Fawcett, Vincent Price and Lee Majors.

New episodes of “Donny and Marie” were produced for four years. But later Krofft prime time offerings had far shorter runs, like “The Brady Bunch Hour” (1976), which featured much of the cast of the sitcom singing and dancing. As a series, it lasted eight episodes.

“It was like a freak show,” said Susan Olsen, who played Cindy Brady.

Marty Krofft was born in Montreal on April 9, 1937, the youngest of four brothers. Sid, who learned puppetry from their father, Peter, was already touring professionally by the time Marty could walk.

Marty Krofft displaying some of the marionettes of Les Poupées de Paris backstage at the 1962 Seattle World’s FairCredit…Publicity Photo

The brothers officially became partners in 1959, and the next year they debuted their signature production, “Les Poupées de Paris,” a risqué extravaganza that initially required 12 puppeteers working 240 marionettes.

Les Poupees ran alongside the New York World’s Fair in 1964 and ’65, and traveled to Australia and Japan before closing in 1967. It also caught the eye of Angus Wynne, who owned the Six Flags amusement park chain; he asked the Kroffts to create an elaborate puppet show for his parks.

The Kroffts went on to design puppets, costumes and props for clients like the Jackson 5, the Ringling Brothers Circus and the Ice Capades, working out of a former airplane hangar in Southern California. Years later, they briefly opened their own theme park, “The World of Sid and Marty Krofft,” at the Omni Hotel in Atlanta.

Marty Krofft, right, and his brother Sid in 2020, when they were honored with stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Credit…Nina Prommer/EPA, via Shutterstock

Many Krofft programs had short initial runs but resurfaced decades later, first as reruns on networks like Nick at Nite and as streaming options for nostalgic Gen-Xers. For instance, a “Land of the Lost” feature starring Will Ferrell, Danny McBride and Anna Friel was released in 2009; and in 2017 Amazon rebooted “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters,” starring Rebecca Bloom and David Arquette.

Mr. Krofft’s wife, the former Playboy playmate Christa Speck, died in 2013. He is survived by his brothers Sid and Harry; his daughters Deanna Krofft-Pope, Kristina Krofft and Kendra Krofft; five grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

Mr. Krofft’s daughters continued the family business, guided by their father, who kept working until recently.

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