Remembering Fagin and Ron Moody, the Man Who Played Him

The British Jewish actor Ron Moody, who died on June 11 at age 91, will be remembered for making Charles Dickens’ harshly anti-Semitic character Fagin into someone loveable. In stage productions and the 1968 film of the musical Oliver!, Moody, who was born Ronald Moodnick, became the definitive interpreter of the role, despite the reservations of the show’s Jewish composer/lyricist Lionel Bart. As explained in Marc Napolitano’s “Oliver!: A Dickensian Musical” (2014), Bart was hoping for a bigger star for his adaptation which premiered in London in 1960, such as Sid James, (born Solomon Joel Cohen), the low comedian celebrated for performing in Carry On films, a series of bawdy comic romps. When Moody was finally cast, Bart repeatedly objected, even to the press, that his Fagin was far too anti-Semitic an incarnation, reflecting the ferociously villainous Fagin portrayed onscreen by Alec Guinness in David Lean’s “Oliver Twist” (1948). As it was, Moody, a highly analytical and self-aware actor, consciously deconstructed the paradigmatic Guinness performance as Fagin. Guinness, with David Lean, echoed the vilest anti-Semitic imagery of the Nazi era in the immediate postwar era.

In 2012 Moody told an audience at the British Film Institute (BFI) that when he was first proposed the role, he felt the image of Fagin was “pretty vicious and unpleasant; I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to perpetuate what I considered to be an unfair, unpleasant image of Jewish people.” He asked himself, “How can you make a musical about a monster? [Fagin is] a monster in the book, a corrupter of children. I could only change it.” Bart’s sprightly song “Pick a Pocket or Two” gave him a clue, as a comic improvisation: “I realized that the only way to play Fagin was to forget Dickens and create a clown and I used every trick I could think of to take Fagin away from Dickens’ concept and to bring it into more of an entertainment situation.”

Moody added other layers of allusion, including the aspect of the Pied Piper, “all intended to distract from, to push away the monster of Dickens.” As his “Still Untitled (Not Quite) Autobiography” (2013) states: “I couldn’t resist adding a schmeckel (you should excuse the expression) of Yiddish to Fagin’s voice, a heimishe inflection, a hint of that marvellous klezmer music in the words that Leo Rosten has so brilliantly demonstrated in ‘The Joys of Yiddish.’”

The result must have succeeded, because Moody’s characterization instantly became beloved, and he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. At the same BFI event, fellow actor Kenneth Cranham told Moody that in “Oliver!,” “You’re like a Rembrandt painting,” referring to the director Carol Reed’s carefully presented dramatic chiaroscuro. In a 2013 video interview for Red Carpet News TV he likewise described his Fagin as “malevolently naughty…but charming and nice.” This transformation of a viciously anti-Semitic literary portrait into a joyous musical onscreen image was the result of serious ratiocination, the product of Moody’s earlier training.

As noted in his memoir, his initial career plan was to become a sociology professor at the London School of Economics. There he devoutly attended lectures by the philosopher of science Karl Popper, of Austrian Jewish origin. Popper’s course on scientific method, Moody admitted, “has stayed with me to this day, shaping everything I think or do or act.” Only in his late 20s, after successful amateur theatrical sketches in which he would imitate Groucho Marx and others, did Moody seriously consider a professional career in performing. His first high-profile London performance was in a 1959 production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.”

Although his years of concentrating on Fagin onstage and onscreen may have hindered career advancement – along with deciding to turn down the role of Doctor Who, a British science-fiction TV staple - Moody did play other challenging parts. One was Ippolit Matveevich Vorobyaninov, a delectably snooty Russian aristocrat in Mel Brooks’ underrated “Twelve Chairs” (1970). Affecting an accent doubtless learned at home from his Russian Jewish father - his mother was from Lithuania – Moody’s masterly comic timing and explosiveness prevailed opposite the flaccid characterization of Ostap Bender by a young Frank Langella, never an inspired comedian. Moody’s concentrated, wall-climbing energy meant he could hold audiences’ attention onscreen even with such veteran scene-stealers as the brilliantly Basset Hound-faced Margaret Rutherford, in “The Mouse on the Moon” (1963) and “Murder Most Foul” (1964).

Moody continued to perform small comic roles in films and on TV, yet when asked about career highlights, he would mention a serious half-hour program filmed for the BBC in 1970. As the sadistic gym teacher Cracker Carstairs, Moody terrified his pupil Waller, played by the young Michael Kitchen in his onscreen debut, in “Is That Your Body, Boy?”

If this and other Moody performances, currently languishing in archives, were to be rebroadcast, the unjustly one-sided impression of his career and talent might be corrected. He was repeatedly cast as Sherlock Holmes, a character in which the actor’s Basil Rathbone-like profile and capacity for conveying thought helped him excel. Another such was a 1985 Thames Television production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle,” co-starring Alison Steadman and Alun Armstrong. Playing Azdak the judge with scenery-chewing relish, Moody seemed to consciously allude to the Judgment of Solomon from 1 Kings 3:16-28 as well as the opening scenes of “King Lear” in delivering his judicial verdicts. With this density of dramatic allusion, Moody tried to tackle other anti-Semitic stereotypes, notably by writing “All the Way To The Bank,” a so-far unproduced musical version of “The Merchant of Venice,” turning the Shakespearian villain Shylock into a “clown” in the process. Although this project, along with others, was never realized, Moody’s achievement with Fagin in “Oliver!” will continue to be appreciated, especially with ongoing international revivals of the musical under the aegis of producer Cameron Mackintosh, and “Consider Yourself: The Lionel Bart Story,” an upcoming musical film starring Geoffrey Rush.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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