If there was one part that Ron Moody will always be remembered for, it was his role as Fagin in Lionel Bart’s 1960 musical Oliver! However, there was more to the actor than just a single, successful role, as Michael Darvell explains…
Ron Moody (born Ronald Moodnick in Tottenham, north London) was the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He apparently had a yen to act from the age of five. However, beginning a pattern that was to spread throughout much of his life, he did nothing about it until he was nearly 30 years old. Like Prince Hamlet, Moody was a man who could not make up his mind. He thought he was a straight actor who was also a writer, whereas the public saw him as a comedian who also appeared in revues and musical comedies.
His first job after leaving school was as a clerk at the Elstree Studios in north London where his father was in charge of the studio’s plaster workshop. From there he went into the RAF where he became an instructor in the education department. On quitting the service, he then set about getting a further education degree at the London School of Economics, studying philosophy, economics and psychology.
As he said later on in life, he might well have become an accountant or a sociologist. His studies, however, obviously prepared him for his eventual work as a performer. While at the LSE he became involved with student revues, writing and performing sketches and stand-up material. He passed his examinations, gaining a Bachelor of Science degree in 1950, but within two years he was treading the professional boards.
His debut came in 1952 in Peter Myers and Ronnie Cass’ revue, Intimacy At Eight, after they had seen Moody perform at the LSE. The revue was at the New Lindsey Theatre in Notting Hill where he also appeared in its sequel, More Intimacy At Eight, the following year and then in the West End in Intimacy At 8.30 at the Criterion in 1954 with the likes of Joan Heal, Joan Sims, Dilys Laye, Eleanor Fazan, Ronnie Stevens, Digby Wolfe, Stephanie Voss and Hugh Paddick.
Having established himself as a revue artist, Moody also appeared in For Amusement Only at the Apollo in 1956 with Judy Carne, Dilys Laye, Vivienne Martin, Hugh Paddick, Thelma Ruby, Ronnie Stevens, Barry Took, Jimmy Thompson and Barbara Young, and finally in For Adults Only at the Strand in 1958, also with Paddick, Took and Miriam Karlin among many others budding performers.
Along the way Moody subsequently made some television appearances, beginning with The Hostage, an episode in 1958 of the series The Vise with Donald Gray as the one-armed detective Mark Saber. He subsequently appeared in TV movies including playing the Mad Hatter in Alice Through the Looking Box (1958), also with Donald Gray, and a BBC version of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (1960) with Robert Shaw and Rosalie Crutchley in which Moody played Autolycus. Future TV appearances came in Armchair Theatre, Comedy Playhouse, Festival, Thursday Theatre and ITV Play of the Week etc.
As well as writing and performing his own material, Moody had mastered the art of the mimic and part of his stage act was imitating other artists of the time such as Trevor Howard and Alastair Sim. In fact he was so good that Moody’s impersonation of Sim was used to promote baked beans, which led to a court case by his fellow actor.
From 1958 he also began to appear in films. His first was as an (uncredited) unicyclist in the Harry Secombe film Davy. His first film with a credited part was the Norman Wisdom comedy Follow a Star (1959) after which he became a regular in British comedies of the 1960s including Make Mine Mink, Five Golden Hours, A Pair of Briefs, Summer Holiday, The Mouse On the Moon, Ladies Who Do and The Sandwich Man.
Moody’s first musical show was the London production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide in 1959 at the Saville Theatre. He played the Governor of Buenes Aires and had the number ‘Bon Voyage’. The show had played a mere 73 performances on Broadway and in London could only manage 60. It established Moody as a musical comedy performer, and yet when approached the following year to play Fagin in Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, Moody initially turned it down but was persuaded against his better judgment to take on the part. Having looked at Alec Guinness as Fagin in Carol Reed’s film of Oliver Twist, Moody was determined not to make it a stereotypically anti-Semitic performance. Instead he turned the role into a comic villain.
This may have been why his performance endeared him so much to his audiences and he eventually became associated with the role so much that it was difficult to see anybody else tackling it. Of course many did because Moody left the New Theatre’s cast after just a year, even though his two numbers, ‘You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two’ and ‘Reviewing the Situation’ were showstoppers.
Although he claimed he needed a rest, he was probably making a mistake that he would one day regret. He left to write Joey, a musical about the legendary clown Joey Grimaldi which eventually appeared at the Bristol Old Vic in 1962 with book, music and lyrics by and starring Moody. Four years later it reached London at the Saville Theatre with a new book by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, but it was a flop. Moody wrote other shows but none of them ever saw much light of day. Included among them were his one-man show Move Along Sideways, The Showman and another called Saturnalia.
He coasted along in television shows and the odd film but managed to turn down the title part in Dr Who when the second incumbent, Patrick Troughton, left. That may have been another crucial mistake because Moody never really became as well known as he should have been. Back in the theatre he appeared four times as Captain Hook in Peter Pan between 1966 and 1977. He tackled Shakespeare (Polonius and the Gravedigger in Hamlet, the title role in Richard III), Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, David Garrick’s The Clandestine Marriage, opposite his old sparring partner Alastair Sim, as well as the Leslie Bricusse musical Sherlock Holmes.
Moody was able to return several times to his most successful performance, that of Fagin in Oliver! He staged his own productions in the US in 1973 and appeared in the London revival in 1983, which transferred to Broadway and for which he was nominated for a Tony Award. He had of course had a further success with it in the film of Oliver! in 1968. The producers originally wanted Peter Sellers to play Fagin but director Carol Reed and Lionel Bart insisted that Moody should repeat his performance on film. It is now captured for ever and in the process Moody was nominated for an Academy Award and a BAFTA, and won a Golden Globe and the Best Actor Award at the Moscow International Film Festival. He was also nominated in the Male New Face category of the Laurel Awards (Motion Picture Exhibitor magazine) and won Best Performance in a Foreign Film at the Sant Jordi Awards in Barcelona.
Moody made many more films and television series. He played a splendid ham actor-manager called H. Driffold Cosgood in Murder Most Foul (1964), with Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple, appeared in Mel Brooks’ farce The Twelve Chairs, in Where is Parsifal with Orson Welles, and was Merlin in Unidentified Flying Oddball and A Kid in King Arthur’s Court.
On TV he played Uriah Heep in David Copperfield and did Starsky and Hutch, Murder She Wrote, Gunsmoke, Tales of the Unexpected, Dial M for Murder, Hart to Hart etc. Latterly he was in EastEnders, Last of the Summer Wine, The Bill, Casualty and Holby City. It has been said that he was difficult to cast but, considering his long list of appearances, that would appear not to be true. Many of his experiences were used for the several books he wrote including some novels and an autobiography.
If Moody found it difficult to make the right decision, it might account for the fact that he didn’t marry until he was well over 60. His wife, Therese Blackbourn, a pilates teacher, then had six children who along with his widow all survive him.