Ron Moody: ‘Oliver!’ actor nominated for an Oscar dead at 91
Two well-regarded, nonagenarian British performers have died in the last few days:
- 93-year-old Christopher Lee (June 7), best known for his many portrayals of Dracula and assorted movie villains and weirdos, from the title role in The Mummy to Dr. Catheter in Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
- 91-year-old Ron Moody (yesterday, June 11), among whose infrequent film appearances was the role of Fagin, the grotesque adult leader of a gang of boy pickpockets, in Carol Reed’s 1968 Best Picture Academy Award-winning musical Oliver!. Based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the box office hit also earned Moody a Best Actor Oscar nomination.
Having been featured in nearly 200 movies and, most importantly, having had his mainstream appeal resurrected by way of the villainous Saruman in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies (and various associated merchandising, including video games), Christopher Lee expectedly received most of the media attention on Thu., June 11, when his death was finally made public.
Ron Moody, for his part, was mostly – even if only erratically – a stage actor who was featured in less than 40 movies over the course of more than 40 years. Compounding matters – in terms of media attention, that is – there were no major Hollywood franchises in his career.
Nevertheless, Moody did make his mark on both the British and the American stage, as his Fagin became a one-character franchise of sorts, being revived several times on both sides of the Atlantic over the course of more than two decades.
From vaudeville to Leonard Bernstein
The son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Ron Moody was born Ronald Moodnick on Jan. 8, 1924, in Tottenham, North London. According to various online sources, his father was Bernard Moodnick, a Russian-born studio executive (it’s unclear which studio); his mother, Kate, was Lithuanian.
His name legally changed to Moody while at a young age, he served in the RAF and studied at the London School of Economics.
As the story goes, while writing a thesis he was cast in a musical comedy revue, thus coming down with the acting – and revue-writing – bug. Unluckily, a chance to write comedy sketches for popular British entertainer Frankie Howerd went nowhere, as the comedian’s interest on Moody were more than merely professional.
The aspiring actor-writer would eventually make his first professional stage appearance at age 28 in the 1952 revue Intimacy at Eight at the New Lindsay Theatre. The show was successful enough to warrant a couple of sequels: More Intimacy at Eight (1953) and Intimacy at 8:30 (1954).
In 1959, he landed the role of the governor of the Buenos Aires province in the West End production of Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide, based on Voltaire’s 18th-century novella – with book by Lillian Hellman, and lyrics by Richard Wilbur, John La Touche, and Dorothy Parker. Despite its being, in Ron Moody’s own words, “incredibly literary,” Candide was not a local hit (nor had it been a popular success on Broadway three years earlier).
At around that time, Moody was also cast in his first film part: an uncredited bit in Michael Relph’s Davy (1958), starring Harry Secombe in the title role.
Moody’s movie career failed to take off, but his luck on the London stage was about to change.
‘Oliver!’: Ron Moody vs. Lionel Bart
“At first I never wanted to do it. They told me there was this [Lionel Bart-created] musical of Oliver Twist so I went to see the Alec Guinness film, which I found to be so antisemitic as to be unbearable,” Ron Moody was quoted as saying in The Guardian. “But Bart is as Jewish as I am and we both felt an obligation to get Fagin away from a viciously racial stereotype, and instead make him what he really is – a crazy old Father Christmas gone wrong.”
However, Moody’s and Bart’s conceptions of what a crazy old Father Christmas would look and act like apparently weren’t quite the same. Moody’s autobiography, A Still Untitled (Not Quite) Autobiography features a number of diary entries, including the following:
Go into theatre to find a stupid letter from Bart in which he takes four pages to tell me what an awful performer I am and how anti-Semitic many Americans feel I am as Fagin. What a bloody stupid little bastard.[3a]
Moody, in fact, went on to claim that, “crazy old Father Christmas” or no, from the get-go Bart had been unwilling to cast him as Fagin. After being selected by director Peter Coe – Rex Harrison, Sid James, and Peter Sellers had previously turned down the role – Moody was to remain with the production for, at least initially, a better than expected £95 per week.
Also featuring night-club singer Georgia Brown (as Nancy), Keith Hamshere (as Oliver Twist), and Danny Sewell (instead of fellow contender Michael Caine, as Bill Sikes), and with choreography by Malcolm Clare, Oliver! opened at the New Theatre in London’s West End on June 30, 1960.
Without feigning an iota of modesty, Ron Moody duly noted in his diary the musical’s 17 curtain calls on opening night. “I have a great cheer at the end,” he added, “establishing me, in all humility, as the star of the show.”
‘Destined to play Fagin’
In 2005, Ron Moody would tell The Sunday Times, “Fate destined me to play Fagin. It was the part of a lifetime.” But difficulties remained throughout the production, as he had the habit of ad-libbing his lines, much to the irritation of both Lionel Bart and Georgia Brown – who, compounding matters, saw her role from a dramatic standpoint. In one of his diary entries, Moody wrote: “This witch [Brown] is fighting me by trying to kill my laughs.”
Yet he proceeded with his shtick. In A Still Untitled (Not Quite) Autobiography, he claimed to have “quietly put Dickens back into my script” by changing Fagin’s lines such as “How d’ya do?” into “I hope I shall have the honor of your intimate acquaintance.”
Whether or not because Fagin became more Dickensian, Moody’s tour de force and Oliver! itself were embraced by audiences and critics alike: the show (undergoing several cast changes) ran for 2,618 performances – a record-breaking feat for a British musical – while most theater reviewers raved about Moody’s star turn. “Exemplary … like Ivan the Terrible in a ginger wig” opined The Observer, while the Daily Mail called him “a dustbin Boris Godunov, a kitchen-sink Rasputin.”
Less impressed were The Guardian‘s Philip Hope-Wallace, who felt Bart had softened Fagin to “a queer old auntie,” and, according to Moody’s Daily Mail obit, the actor’s own mother. Finding the whole thing “dirty,” at one point she asked her son, “Why don’t you put on a nice suit and sing a nice song?”
‘Oliver!’ on Broadway: 10 Tony nominations
Unsurprisingly, Ron Moody opted not to go with the Oliver! troupe to Broadway, where the show – under the auspices of the legendary David Merrick – opened in Jan. 1963 at the Imperial Theatre. Clive Revill was his replacement. Oliver! would remain on Broadway until Nov. 1964, for a total of 774 performances.
The show went on to receive three Tony Awards, in addition to seven nominations, including Best Musical, Best Actor in a Musical (Clive Revill), Best Actress in a Musical (Georgia Brown), and Best Author of a Musical (Lionel Bart).
Although absent from the successful Broadway production, later in the decade Ron Moody – somewhat unexpectedly – would make a grandiose comeback as Fagin.
Peter Sellers as Fagin, past ‘backstage hostilities’
For the film version of Oliver!, distributor Columbia Pictures wanted the internationally known Peter Sellers cast as Fagin. Instead, as Ron Moody would recall, producer John Woolf (possibly at the insistence of Carol Reed) invited him to reprise his West End stage role.
Decades after the film’s release, Moody would tell The Guardian that he was surprised with the support:
I never dreamed I would be offered the role of Fagin in the film, because of the backstage hostilities during the original stage show. I’d watched the David Lean film of Oliver Twist before performing the West End role, and realized that as a Jew, I could never play such an evil, corrupting character. So I made him into a clown and turned the songs, which Lionel Bart had intended to be sung straight, into comedy. … Bart accused me of ruining the show. I had to throw him out of my dressing room. There was also an intense feud between me and Georgia Brown, who played Nancy, because she tried to kill my laughs.
According to Moody, the musically inexperienced director Carol Reed – best known for dramas and thrillers such as Night Train to Munich, The Fallen Idol, The Third Man, and Our Man in Havana – allowed him “the freedom to direct myself,” adding that his big-screen Fagin was partly inspired by the 18th- and 19th-century clown Joseph Grimaldi (the subject of the unsuccessful stage musical Joey, written and performed by Moody in the early ’60s) and “stories such as the Pied Piper.”
Onna White was responsible for the choreography of the numerous musical numbers.
Despite the presence of an “inexperienced” director and the absence of any major box office names, the final result would turn out to be a massive critical and box office hit.
“Ron Moody: ‘Oliver!’ Actor, Academy Award Nominee Dead at 91” follow-up article: “Ron Moody: From Dickens to Disney - But No Doctor Who.”
‘Ron Moody: “Oliver!” Actor, Academy Award Nominee Dead at 91’ notes
 Christopher Lee became a movie star following the release of Hammer Films’ Terence Fisher-directed Horror of Dracula / Dracula. For the next decade or so, even though he would also be featured in (mostly spooky) movies for other studios, Lee would become nearly synonymous with Hammer.
Unlike one of his most important predecessors in the horror genre, Lon Chaney, Lee’s star vehicles were mostly B fare.* In that regard, his career followed a similar path to that of his other two major predecessors: Boris Karloff (the 1931 Frankenstein) and Bela Lugosi (the 1931 Dracula).
Christopher Lee’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies are:
- The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014).
- The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012).
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003).
- The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002).
- The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001).
* Coincidentally, Lon Chaney was also a Ron Moody predecessor. The Man of a Thousand Faces played Fagin in Frank Lloyd’s 1922 version of Oliver Twist, with Jackie Coogan in the title role, Gladys Brockwell as Nancy, George Siegmann as Bill Sikes, and Edouard Trebaol as the Artful Dodger.
“Incredibly literary” and other Ron Moody quotes not sourced in the text are found in his autobiography, A Still Untitled (Not Quite) Autobiography, where he (erroneously) states that Candide was written by both Lillian Hellman and Stephen Sondheim. In truth, the latter would add lyrics to later stagings of the operetta.
‘Oliver Twist’ and anti-Semitism
 Ron Moody is referring to the David Lean-directed Oliver Twist (1948), which was temporarily banned in the U.S. because some found Alec Guinness’ Fagin – a more faithful portrayal of Charles Dickens’ villain – blatantly anti-Semitic.
Regarding Lionel Bart’s Oliver! lyrics, Moody wrote in a diary entry, “He is no marvel and all his tunes are derivative, some incredibly so, but he is workmanlike and clear cut in his decisions.” In his autobiography, he adds, “How strange to read that opinion fifty years later, when the entire score has been enshrined in the archives of musical comedy greats.”
Below: Ron Moody in ‘Oliver!’: Singing ‘You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two’ with Jack Wild, while Mark Lester looks on.
[3a] In Oliver!: A Dickensian Musical, Marc Napolitano asserts that director Peter Coe – whose credits in the early ’60s also included West End productions of The Miracle Worker and The World of Suzie Wong – found Lionel Bart’s “increasingly public objections to Moody’s West End performance counterproductive.”
Napolitano quotes a January 1961 letter Coe sent to Donald Albery:
I have received telephone calls from the press concerning Lionel Bart’s admission to several people outside our immediate circle in this country & and abroad that he is dissatisfied with Ron Moody’s performance in Oliver [sic], that the performance is anti-Semitic, & that he would not consider lettering [sic] Ron play the part in New York. This is not only disloyal conduct affecting the whole company it is utterly without scruples and vaguely slanderous towards Ron.
Prior to Oliver!, Lionel Bart had written songs for the likes of Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard. Despite Bart’s credits, no less than 12 London managements turned down offers to buy the rights to his planned musical version of Oliver Twist. Eventually, singer-comedian – and Bart’s friend – Max Bygraves (Charley Moon, Bobbikins) bought the rights to Oliver!, while New Theatre manager Donald Albery agreed to stage the show for £15,000.
‘Judy Garland is in!’
 Critics’ quotes about Ron Moody’s Fagin via Samantha Ellis’ The Guardian article.
 Bruce Prochnik played Oliver Twist while Davy Jones, later of The Monkees fame, played the Artful Dodger in the Broadway production.
Fagin portrayals: Broadway vs. West End
Another version of the Ron Moody-Clive Revill Broadway switch has it that Georgia Brown refused to go the U.S. – where Oliver! was also performed in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Detroit (plus, north of the border, Toronto) – as long as Moody remained as Fagin. A third version has Moody being too “ethnic” for American audiences; hence his being replaced.
As quoted in Marc Napolitano’s Oliver!: A Dickensian Musical, Carol Reed did remark, “I didn’t see who did it here in New York – Clive Revill, wasn’t it? – but I understand it was smoothed down for Broadway as well.”
That season’s Tony Award winner for Best Musical was the Harold Prince-produced, George Abbott-directed A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which also earned Zero Mostel the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical. For her performance in Tovarich, Vivien Leigh was chosen Best Actress in a Musical.
Lionel Bart did take home the Tony Award for Best Original Score Written for the Theatre.
Would-be Fagin Peter Sellers
 As explained in Barry Monush’s Everybody’s Talkin’: The Top Films of 1965-1969, in 1963 The Mirisch Corporation (a.k.a. The Mirisch Company) attempted to acquire the film rights to Oliver! to star Georgia Brown and Peter O’Toole, but nothing came to pass. (O’Toole was a particularly curious casting choice, as that year The Mirisch Corporation produced Peter Sellers’ star-making vehicle The Pink Panther.)
Enter Peter Sellers’ production company, which also tried to buy the movie rights to Oliver! so Sellers could star as Fagin – ironically, a stage role he had previously turned down. Donald Albery, however, opted to sell his show to a higher bidder, Romulus Films (The African Queen, The L-Shaped Room), headed by brothers John and James Woolf.
That’s when Columbia Pictures got in on the deal. They wanted the internationally known Sellers to star in the film, but Carol Reed (hired in place of the originally mentioned Lewis Gilbert) insisted that Moody reprise his West End stage role.
Jack Wild, Mark Lester, and Ron Moody Oliver! images: Columbia Pictures.
Image of Ron Moody ca. 1970s via the BBC.
Christopher Lee Dracula image: Hammer Films.