Billie Hayes, Witchiepoo on ‘H.R. Pufnstuf,’ Dies @ 96

Billie Hayes — whose Witchiepoo character was one of pop culture's most fabulous and famous witches, so much so that Margaret Hamilton of The Wizard of Oz fame told her she was her favorite — has died at 96.

Hayes in 2012 with the author, and with Jack Wild. (Images by Matthew Rettenmund/via NBC)

Hayes died April 29 of natural causes, her family announced, requesting that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to Pet Hope.

Hayes, born in Du Quoin, Illinois, on April 11, 1925, worked as a child tap dancer, joined an orchestra, and went on to perform solo all across the Midwest.

She made her Broadway debut in New Faces of 1956, which also starred Maggie Smith and Paul Lynde, who became a close friend. Hayes later described Lynde as a dark, serious man, the opposite of her other close friend, Charles Nelson Reilly, who she deemed gregarious and fun-loving.

Also in 1956, Hayes replaced Charlotte Rae as Mammy Yokum in the original Broadway production of Li'l Abner, a part she had been seen for and had been disallowed to take during the run of New Faces. She made it her own, recreating it in the 1959 movie version and for a 1971 TV special.

Billie Hayes, Peter Palmer and Joe E. Marks in Li'l Abner (Image via Paramount)

In 1967, she appeared as a character similar to Mammy, Maw, on a well-remembered episode of The Monkees.

Speaking 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 cackling cauldron of energy who lured a boy (Jack Wild) to her castle on Living Island — on which every object is sentient — in order to steal his talking flute.

Only the sweet-hearted dragon-mayor of Living Island, H.R. Pufnstuf himself, kept Witchiepoo from achieving her dastardly goals.

Thanks to the series' costumes and psychedelic vibe, it became a cult hit over a 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 beloved for its vaudevillian slapstick and mod '60s influences.

Witchiepoo was so overwhelmingly popular 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 appeared other times, too, including on campy TV shows like The Bay City Rollers Show (1978) and the infamously kitschy The Paul Lynde Halloween Special (1976).

Hayes next played the much nicer Weenie the Genie on the Kroffts' Lidsville (1971-1972), set in a land of living hats.

Hayes continued acting, including as Scorpio's mentor O'Reilly on General Hospital in the '80s. She also went on to become an in-demand voice actor, including on the Disney film The Black Cauldron (1985) and her final project, Transformers: Rescue Bots (2012-2016).

After that, Hayes steadfastly refused to come out of retirement for any more projects.

Instead, 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.

Rest in peace, dear lady.

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