Obituary: Ron Moody, actor

Born: 8 January, 1924, in London. Died: 11 June, 2015, in London, aged 91.

Ron Moody, pictured in 1980 to publicise his novel, The Devil You Dont. Picture: Hulton Archive
Ron Moody, pictured in 1980 to publicise his novel, The Devil You Dont. Picture: Hulton Archive

Ron Moody appeared in dozens of films and television series, but will be remembered for one role above all, as one of cinema’s most popular and enduring villains.

In the original Charles Dickens novel of Oliver Twist, Fagin was a violent and essentially evil criminal, who corrupted the impoverished youth of London, exploited them, beat them and forced them into a life of crime. The character prompted allegations of antisemitism from initial publication onwards.

In the musical Oliver! – on stage and then on film – Ron Moody looked like a stereotypical Jewish villain, but he transformed Fagin into something of a lovable rogue, with a twinkle in his eye and a delicious sense of irony, assisted in no small measure by some fabulously catchy songs from Lionel Bart.

Moody’s Fagin justified his life of crime in You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two. And while Dickens ended the novel with Fagin awaiting the hangman’s noose, Bart had him Reviewing the Situation in song. Fagin determines to go straight, but when the Artful Dodger appears with a newly pilfered wallet, the fickle Fagin changes his mind again and they dance off together.

Moody was himself Jewish or “100 per cent kosher”, as he once put it, born Ronald Moodnick in North London in 1924. His father was of Russian-Jewish stock, though he grew up in London’s East End. His mother was also Jewish and had been born in Lithuania.

At the time antisemitism was rife throughout Europe and to make life a little easier Moody’s father anglicised the family name a few years after Moody was born. The family had a sweet shop and Moody recalled “I grew up surrounded by boiled sweets.”

He did well at school, though he recalled he also had a sense of mischief, making scary noises into an air vent that caused havoc in a nearby classroom. “There was never any malice involved; I was just having fun,” he said. He tried to draw on that sense of mischief for Fagin.

Moody worked briefly in an accounts office and was a radar mechanic in the RAF before going to the London School of Economics to study sociology and psychology. He considered teaching as a career, but while at LSE he began appearing in and writing for student revues.

“I got the stage bug,” he said. “I was ‘discovered’ in an end-of-term show by two writers who put me in their stage revue and I’ve never looked back.” That first hit revue, Intimacy at Eight, was followed by More Intimacy at Eight and Intimacy at Eight-Thirty.

In the late 1950s he began appearing in small roles in films and in 1960 he played Fagin in the original London West End production of Oliver!. He also began getting more prestigious parts in film and television.

He was the Mad Hatter in a television adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, with Dora Bryan, Ronnie Corbett and Fanny Cradock. He was the French mime artist The Great Orlando in the Cliff Richard film Summer Holiday, the Prime Minister of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick in the comedy The Mouse on the Moon and the manager of the theatre company at the centre of the Miss Marple mystery Murder Most Foul.

Oliver! was an instant smash in the West End, with the original production running for 2,618 performances, though Moody quit after a year, claiming he was exhausted by the role. It opened on Broadway in 1963 and ran for almost two years.

This was also a golden age for film adaptations of stage musicals. Between 1959 and 1966 no fewer than four musicals won the Oscar for Best Picture. In due course Oliver! would book-end that golden decade with its win in 1969.

A film version was almost inevitable. With Columbia Pictures on board and a $10 million budget, there was talk of all sorts of star names. Peter Sellers, Dick Van Dyke and Laurence Harvey were seemingly considered for Fagin, before the veteran director Carol Reed decided to recall Moody. He won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar as best actor.

Moody went on to play Uriah Heep in a starry American-backed adaptation of Dickens’s David Copperfield and was Baden-Powell in another television drama. He was reunited with Artful Dodger actor Jack Wild in the film Flight of the Dovers and ironically, considering all the allegations of Jewish stereotyping, he played an Arab statesman in The Man with the Deadly Lens, one of Sean Connery’s lesser-known movies.

He also appeared in some well-paid, high-profile American ­television series, including Starsky and Hutch and Hart to Hart. He was even given his own show on American television in 1980, Nobody’s Perfect, in which he played a British police detective who transfers to San ­Francisco.

But it did not last long and he struggled to find another role to rival Fagin, a character he reprised on several occasions, including a Broadway revival in 1984 that brought him a Tony nomination. His greatest regret, however, was turning down the chance to play Doctor Who when Patrick Troughton left the BBC in 1969.

He played the title role in the stage musical Sherlock Holmes, which had the misfortune of coinciding with a London Tube strike and closed after a couple of months in 1989. Other later credits include the wizard Merlin in Disney’s A Kid in King Arthur’s Court and several episodes of EastEnders in 2003 when his character Edwin Caldecott clashed with Jim Branning.

Even as an adult Moody continued to live with his mother, his sister and her family for years and he did not marry until comparatively late in life. He married a yoga instructor, Therese, in 1985 and is survived by her and six children.