Ron Moody ‘Oliver Twist’ effort: Fagin in 1968 box office and critical hit ‘Oliver!’
(See previous post: “Ron Moody: Oliver! Actor, Academy Award Nominee Dead at 91.”) Although British made, Oliver! turned out to be an elephantine release along the lines of – exclamation point or no – Gypsy, Star!, Hello Dolly!, and other Hollywood mega-musicals from the mid’-50s to the early ’70s.
But however bloated and conventional the final result, and a cast whose best-known name was that of director Carol Reed’s nephew, Oliver Reed, Oliver! found countless fans. The mostly British production became a huge financial and critical success in the U.S. at a time when star-studded mega-musicals had become perilous – at times downright disastrous – ventures.
Upon the American release of Oliver! in Dec. 1968, frequently acerbic The New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, best remembered as an ardent supporter of gritty films such as Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris and Hector Babenco’s Pixote, penned “The Concealed Art of Carol Reed.” In her essay, Kael extolled the virtues of the veteran filmmaker while affirming that with Oliver! Reed had “just made the kind of movie they don’t make anymore.”
Admittedly, not every major U.S. critic was a fan. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby began his review with the following:
Oliver! is an elaborate and faithful movie enlargement of the Lionel Bart operetta in which a wistful little Oliver Twist sings “Where is love? / Does it fall from the skies above?” Although the program notes say that Oliver is yearning for a mother, one fully expects Alice Faye – looking seductive and moon-faced – to appear in a balloon over his head.
About Ron Moody’s performance, he remarked:
There is a jolly Fagin, played by Ron Moody in a London music hall style, which is very well if you insist on turning Fagin into an only slightly bent scoutmaster.
Despite Canby’s seemingly negative take on Moody’s characterization, further down in the review he stated that Fagin and John Box’s production design were two of the “nice things” about Oliver!.
Below: Ron Moody as Fagin and Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger at the 41st Academy Awards.
Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences clearly felt that Oliver! had more than two nice things going for it. Carol Reed’s film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, taking home five Oscar statuettes – including Best Picture and Best Director – in addition to an Honorary Oscar for choreographer Onna White.
Ron Moody was one of three British performers shortlisted for Best Actor, but they all lost to Hollywood’s own Cliff Robertson. As compensation of sorts, Moody did at least take home a Golden Globe – back then a lesser-known award – in the Best Actor (Comedy or Musical) category.
On the other side of the Atlantic, he was, as to be expected, nominated for the British Academy Awards. The winner that year, however, was another Hollywood performer: veteran Spencer Tracy, who received a posthumous BAFTA for Stanley Kramer’s blockbuster Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (a 1967 release in the U.S.).
Ultimately, Oliver! would remain not only the highlight of Ron Moody’s movie career, but for all purposes his one major big-screen vehicle.
Ron Moody movies
In-between the stage and film versions of Oliver!, Ron Moody could be seen in two Margaret Rutherford movies:
- Richard Lester’s political satire The Mouse on the Moon (1963), with Moody as Rupert Mountjoy, the prime minister of the tiny European Duchy of Grand Fenwick, out to get money from the U.S. by claiming that the microstate has entered the space race.
- George Pollock’s Murder Most Foul (1964), one of Rutherford’s modestly budgeted, MGM-released Miss Marple movies.
In the early ’70s, Ron Moody had two other important roles:
- Based on Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov’s 1928 novel, the Soviet Union-set comedy The Twelve Chairs (1970) starred Moody as an impoverished Russian aristocrat running after the titular furniture objects, one of which has had jewels sewn into its seat cushion. Frank Langella and Dom DeLuise were his two rivals.
- In the moderately entertaining Flight of the Doves (1971), based on a novel by Walter Macken, Moody played the greedy actor-uncle of two children – eager to see them dead so he can inherit their fortune. This adventure tale reminiscent of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events – Jim Carrey’s Count Olaf has a number of similarities with Moody’s Hawk Dove – also featured teenage actor Jack Wild (the Artful Dodger in Oliver!), and veterans Dorothy McGuire (The Spiral Staircase, Gentleman’s Agreement) and Stanley Holloway (Passport to Pimlico, My Fair Lady).
Most of the Ron Moody movies that followed went under the radar upon their release and are now largely forgotten.
Titles include the following:
- The horror / mystery drama Legend of the Werewolf (1975).
- The all-star horror drama Dominique (1979).
- The convoluted – though at times quite clever – political satire Wrong Is Right (1982).
- The Walt Disney Studios’ A Kid in King Arthur’s Court (1995). Moody was cast as Merlin, a role he had previously played in Unidentified Flying Oddball a.k.a. The Spaceman and King Arthur (1979).
No ‘Harry Potter’ movies
As found on the IMDb, Ron Moody’s final big-screen role was in Danny Patrick’s little-seen adventure drama Moussaka & Chips (2005), which also happened to be Jack Wild’s last appearance in front of the camera.
Additionally, Moody would provide the voice of one of the characters in James Tovell’s 2010 animated short The Lizard Boy, and would be seen walking at night through the streets of London – including Fagin’s old haunts – in Tim Shore and Gary Thomas’ 2012 short Fits and Starts of Restlessness, made for the British Council.
Somewhat curiously, he was one of the (seemingly) few renowned British performers of the 1960s and 1970s absent from the Harry Potter movies. Age may have been a factor. After all, Disney’s Merlin was already 77 when the first entry in the franchise, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was released.
“Ron Moody: From Dickens to Disney (But No Harry Potter)” follow-up post: “Ron Moody: ‘Doctor Who’ Biggest Regret of Oscar-Nominated Actor.”
Below: Ron Moody remembers ‘Oliver!’ in 2013.
‘Ron Moody: From Dickens to Disney (But No Harry Potter)’ notes
 Below is a long, long – but hardly exhaustive – list of big-screen, big-budget, big-marketed Hollywood or Anglo-American musicals released between the mid-1950s and the early 1970s. Most of them were adaptations of Broadway hits – for a while a surefire means to lure audiences away from their television sets.
- The blockbuster Oklahoma (1955).
Director: Fred Zinnemann.
Cast: Gordon MacRae. Shirley Jones. Gloria Grahame. Gene Nelson. Charlotte Greenwood. Eddie Albert. James Whitmore. Rod Steiger. Barbara Lawrence. Jay C. Flippen.
- The popular Carousel (1956).
Director: Henry King.
Cast: Gordon MacRae. Shirley Jones. Cameron Mitchell. Barbara Ruick. Gene Lockhart.
- The Oscar-nominated blockbuster The King and I (1956).
Director: Walter Lang.
Cast: Deborah Kerr. Yul Brynner. Rita Moreno.
- The multiple Oscar winner Gigi (1958).
Director: Vincente Minnelli.
Cast:Leslie Caron. Louis Jourdan. Maurice Chevalier. Hermione Gingold. Isabel Jeans. Jacques Bergerac. Eva Gabor. John Abbott.
- The blockbuster South Pacific (1958).
Director: Joshua Logan.
Cast: Rossano Brazzi. Mitzi Gaynor. John Kerr. France Nuyen. Juanita Hall. Ray Walston. Russ Brown. Tom Laughlin. Doug McClure (bit).
- The popular Flower Drum Song (1961).
Cast: Miyoshi Umeki. Nancy Kwan. James Shigeta. Benson Fong. Juanita Hall. Jack Soo.
- The multiple Oscar winner West Side Story (1961).
Director: Robert Wise. Jerome Robbins.
Cast: Natalie Wood. Richard Beymer. Russ Tamblyn. George Chakiris. Rita Moreno.
- The box office hit Gypsy (1962).
Director: Mervyn LeRoy.
Cast: Natalie Wood. Rosalind Russell. Karl Malden.
- The multiple Oscar winner My Fair Lady (1964).
Director: George Cukor.
Cast: Audrey Hepburn. Rex Harrison. Stanley Holloway. Gladys Cooper.
- The blockbuster Mary Poppins (1964).
Director: Robert Stevenson.
Cast: Julie Andrews. Dick Van Dyke. David Tomlinson. Matthew Garber. Karen Dotrice. Glynis Johns. Elsa Lanchester. Ed Wynn. Hermione Baddeley. Jane Darwell. Marjorie Bennett. Reginald Owen. Reta Shaw. Arthur Treacher.
- The multiple Oscar winner The Sound of Music (1965).
Director: Robert Wise.
Cast: Julie Andrews. Christopher Plummer. Eleanor Parker. Peggy Wood. Richard Haydn. Charmian Carr. Nicholas Hammond. Heather Menzies. Angela Cartwright. Marni Nixon. Anna Lee. Norma Varden.
- The box office hit Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967).
Director: Francis Ford Coppola.
Cast: Julie Andrews. James Fox. Mary Tyler Moore. Carol Channing. John Gavin. Beatrice Lillie. Pat Morita.
- The widely panned box office dud Doctor Dolittle (1967), which, thanks to 20th Century Fox’s savvy Oscar push, managed to receive a Best Picture nod.
Director: Richard Fleischer.
Cast: Rex Harrison. Samantha Eggar. Anthony Newley. Richard Attenborough.
- The box office disappointment Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1967).
Director: Ken Hughes.
Cast: Dick Van Dyke. Sally Ann Howes. Lionel Jeffries. James Robertson Justice. Robert Helpmann.
- Oliver! Best Picture Oscar competitor and box office hit Funny Girl (1968).
Director: William Wyler.
Cast: Barbra Streisand. Omar Sharif. Anne Francis. Kay Medford.
- The critical and box office disaster Star! (1968).
Director: Robert Wise.
Cast: Julie Andrews. Richard Crenna. Daniel Massey.
- The critical flop and downright box office disaster Sweet Charity (1969).
Cast: Shirley MacLaine. Ricardo Montalban. Chita Rivera. Sammy Davis Jr. Paula Kelly. Stubby Kaye.
- The critical and box office flop Hello Dolly! (1969), another widely dismissed 20th Century Fox release accorded a Best Picture Oscar nomination.
Director: Gene Kelly.
Cast: Barbra Streisand. Walter Matthau. Michael Crawford.
- The critical and box office flop (relative to its cost) Paint Your Wagon (1969).
Director: Joshua Logan.
Cast: Lee Marvin. Jean Seberg. Clint Eastwood. Harve Presnell. Ray Walston.
- The critical and box office disaster Darling Lili (1970).
Director: Blake Edwards.
Cast: Julie Andrews. Rock Hudson. Jeremy Kemp. Gloria Paul.
- The critical and box office disaster On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970).
Director: Vincente Minnelli.
Cast: Barbra Streisand. Yves Montand. Jack Nicholson.
- The controversial, commercially disappointing The Boy Friend (1971).
Cast: Twiggy. Christopher Gable. Glenda Jackson. Tommy Tune. Max Adrian. Georgina Hale.
- The Oscar-nominated blockbuster Fiddler on the Roof (1971).
Director: Norman Jewison.
Cast: Topol. Leonard Frey. Paul Michael Glaser. Molly Picon. Rosalind Harris. Norma Crane.
- The all-star critical and box office disaster Lost Horizon (1973).
Cast: Peter Finch. Liv Ullmann. Charles Boyer. Sally Kellerman. George Kennedy. Michael York. Olivia Hussey. John Gielgud. James Shigeta.
Mid-to-late 1970s/early 1980s musicals such as Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975), Randal Kleiser’s Grease (1978), Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979), Milos Forman’s Hair (1979), Nancy Walker’s Can’t Stop the Music (1980), and Alan Parker’s Fame (1980) – plus Fosse’s 1972 Cabaret – were of a different breed. Unlike their old-fashioned predecessors, they were either youth- or strictly adult-oriented.
Below: ‘Oliver!’ cast members Mark Lester, Kenneth Cranham, and Ron Moody at the 2012 BFI event “Dickens on Screen.” Watch the 88-year-old Moody register shock when he learns that ‘Oliver!’ cinematographer Oswald Morris (November 1915–March 2014) was still alive at age 93 [sic].
‘Oliver!’ cast members
Ron Moody (Fagin). Shani Wallis (as Nancy). Oliver Reed (as Bill Sikes). Mark Lester (as Oliver Twist). Jack Wild (as the Artful Dodger). Hugh Griffith. Peggy Mount. Megs Jenkins. Leonard Rossiter. Hylda Baker. Kenneth Cranham. Sheila White. Joseph O’Connor. James Hayter. Harry Secombe.
Mark Lester’s film acting career (Black Beauty, Night Hair Child) never quite took off. He became instead an osteopath and acupuncturist.
In 2004, a British tabloid revealed that Lester’s singing voice in Oliver! had been dubbed by Kathe Green, daughter of the film’s Oscar-winning musical arranger Johnny Green. Nearly a decade later, Lester turned into tabloid fodder as a result of a paternity claim regarding one of singer Michael Jackson’s daughters.
Mark Lester would remember Ron Moody as being “very jolly” on the Oliver! set.
Chiefly a stage performer, Shani Wallis, like Ron Moody born in the London district of Tottenham (April 14, 1933), never became a film star.
Following Oliver!, Wallis’ handful of movies included a couple of low-budget, all-star 1973 horror releases – Terror in the Wax Museum, Arnold – and, most recently, John Putch’s little-seen Mojave Phone Booth (2006), toplining Annabelle Gish and Steve Guttenberg.
Despite a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his Artful Dodger, teen actor Jack Wild was unable to keep his professional momentum going. He would be featured in Pufnstuf (1970) and The Pied Piper (1972), and was reunited with Moody in Flight of the Doves; yet his film career would be virtually over by the mid-’70s.
Later on, Wild developed a chronic alcohol problem. A few years after writing an open letter to Daniel Radcliffe about the dangers of child stardom, Wild died of cancer at age 53 in 2006.
“We’ve lost a great artist and I’ve lost a great friend,” Ron Moody said at the time. “We were more like Laurel and Hardy. We used to call ourselves Fagin and Dodger. We had that kind of bond between us. Jack really was cheated out of a great career.”*
For the record, the 1968 Best Supporting Actor Academy Award winner was veteran Jack Albertson for Ulu Grosbard’s The Subject Was Roses.
* Ron Moody quote re: Jack Wild via The Guardian.
The most prolific film performer among the key cast members of Oliver!, Oliver Reed was featured – in roles big and small and tiny – in nearly 100 movies, including several for 1970s cult icon Ken Russell, e.g., Women in Love, The Devils, Tommy.
Reed’s final big-screen effort was a memorable supporting role in Ridley Scott’s Best Picture Academy Award winner Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe.
Oliver Reed died at age 61 in 1999.
‘Oliver!’ box office
Oliver! cost a reported $10-10.5 million. According to the website The Numbers – their source is unclear – the musical took in $37.4 million at the domestic box office, or approx. $230 million today, based on average ticket prices for 1969 (Oliver! opened in the U.S. in Dec. 1968) and 2015.
Of course, such estimates should always be taken with caution, especially in the case of movies like Oliver! – a roadshow release with tickets priced quite a bit above the average.
Below: Ron Moody as Fagin in ‘Oliver!’ singing ‘Reviewing the Situation.’
Pauline Kael: ‘Oliver!’ fan
Kael’s capsule review of Oliver! is found in her book5001 Nights at the Movies and, online, in an Aug. 1984 edition of The New Yorker. Here’s a snippet:
On the stage Oliver! was an undistinguished musical that people took their children to, dutifully; it was an English variant of Broadway Americana. The movie [adapted by Vernon Harris] transforms the material; it’s not only a musical entertainment but an imaginative version of the novel as a lyrical, macabre fable.
Filmmaker and critic Lindsay Anderson (This Sporting Life, If….) must have begged to disagree. He would later say that the director of Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, and The Third Man was “a very curious and sad case really. He’s obviously a man of immense talent who somehow went astray. He ended up in Oliver somewhere.”
Anderson’s comments are found in “The Tradition of Independence: An Interview with Lindsay Anderson,” conducted by Lester Friedman and Scott Stewart. The interview can be found in ReViewing British Cinema, 1900–1992, edited by Wheeler Winston Dixon.
Also of note, two years after Oliver! another musical adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel, the Ronald Neame-directed Scrooge, failed to make much an impact. Pauline Kael would call it an “innocuous musical version of A Christmas Carol, starring Albert Finney looking glum. The Leslie Bricusse music is so forgettable that your mind flushes it away while you’re hearing it.”
Screenwriter Vernon Harris
And finally, Vernon Harris had been writing British films long before Oliver!. Among his screenwriting credits were these three collaborations with filmmaker Lewis Gilbert – who, coincidentally, had been initially mentioned as the possible director of the 1968 musical:
- The Good Die Young (1954).
Cast: Laurence Harvey. Gloria Grahame. Richard Basehart. Joan Collins. John Ireland. René Ray.
- The Admirable Crichton (1957).
Cast: Kenneth More. Diane Cilento. Cecil Parker. Sally Ann Howes. Martita Hunt.
- Carve Her Name with Pride (1958).
Cast: Virginia McKenna. Paul Scofield. Jack Warner. Denise Gray. Maurice Ronet.
Best known for the Michael Caine star vehicle Alfie (1966) and for the Roger Moore James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), Lewis Gilbert turned 95 last March 6.
Alan Arkin only surviving Best Actor Oscar nominee
- Alan Bates for John Frankenheimer’s The Fixer.
- Peter O’Toole for Anthony Harvey’s The Lion in Winter.
Cliff Robertson won that year for his performance as a mentally handicapped man who (temporarily) becomes a genius in Ralph Nelson’s Charly, co-starring Claire Bloom.
The only surviving 1968 Best Actor nominee is now 81-year-old Alan Arkin, who was shortlisted for Robert Ellis Miller’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter – and who finally took home an Oscar statuette at the 2007 ceremony, as Best Supporting Actor for Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ sleeper hit Little Miss Sunshine.
Besides Ron Moody and Spencer Tracy, the other two 1968 Best Actor BAFTA nominees (only four performers were listed) were:
- Nicol Williamson for Jack Gold’s The Bofors Gun.
- Trevor Howard for Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade.
As found on the IMDb, Oliver! also earned Ron Moody the Best Actor Award – shared with Tadeusz Lomnicki for Jerzy Hoffman’s Colonel Wolodyjowski – at the 1969 edition of the Moscow Film Festival.
Based on Leonard Wibberley’s novel – a sort of send-up of Ruritanian tales – The Mouse That Roared starred Oliver!‘s would-be Fagin, Peter Sellers, in three roles. These included the Grand Duchess Gloriana XII (Margaret Rutherford was the Grand Duchess Gloriana XIII in The Mouse on the Moon) and Prime Minister Count Rupert of Mountjoy (Ron Moody in the sequel).
Jean Seberg (Breathless, Airport) was Sellers’ leading lady.
Ron Moody movies cast info
- Legend of the Werewolf (1975).
Director: Freddie Francis.
Cast: Peter Cushing. Ron Moody. Hugh Griffith. Norman Mitchell. Renee Houston.
- Dominique (1979).
Director: Michael Anderson.
Cast: Cliff Robertson. Jean Simmons. Jenny Agutter. Ron Moody. Judy Geeson. Simon Ward. Michael Jayston. Flora Robson. Michael Jayston. David Tomlinson. Jack Warner. Leslie Dwyer.
- Unidentified Flying Oddball / The Spaceman and King Arthur (1979).
Director: Russ Mayberry.
Cast: Dennis Dugan. Jim Dale. Ron Moody. Kenneth More. John Le Mesurier. Sheila White. Robert Beatty.
- Wrong Is Right (1982).
Director: Richard Brooks.
Cast: Sean Connery. George Grizzard. Robert Conrad. Katharine Ross. G.D. Spradlin. John Saxon. Leslie Nielsen. Henry Silva. Robert Webber. Rosalind Cash. Hardy Krüger. Dean Stockwell. Ron Moody. Jennifer Jason Leigh.
- A Kid in King Arthur’s Court (1995).
Director: Michael Gottlieb.
Cast: Thomas Ian Nicholas. Joss Ackland. Art Malik. Kate Winslet. Daniel Craig. Ron Moody.
Image of Ron Moody as Fagin in Oliver!: Columbia Pictures.
Image of Ron Moody apparently in The Mouse on the Moon via The Cinema Museum.
Image of Helen Raye, Jack Wild, and Ron Moody in Flight of the Doves: Columbia Pictures.
Image of Omar Sharif and Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl: Columbia Pictures.