Today is the birthday (1924) of Ronald Moodnick, a British actor who used the stage name Ron Moody, best known for his portrayal of Fagin in the film version of Oliver! (1968) as well as the original stage version in London in 1960 and its 1983 Broadway revival. Moody rather reminds me of actors such as Joel Grey (MC in Cabaret) and Clive Dunn (Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army) in that his professional life was dominated by a single role. He once wrote:
My proudest moment was the number “Reviewing the Situation”. I suspect that, because I gave my all to the role, and because I was working with such a fine team of people, it inhibited my future career. I turned down quite a few offers afterwards because I thought the people didn’t come close to those I’d worked with on Oliver!—which in retrospect was a mistake.
Here’s that number from the film:
Moody was born in Tottenham in north London. His father, a studio executive, was a Russian Jew and his mother was a Lithuanian Jew. Moody once said, “I’m 100% Jewish—totally kosher!” He was a cousin of director Laurence Moody and actress Clare Lawrence. He changed his name legally to Moody in 1930.
Moody was educated at Southgate County School, which at the time was a state grammar school, and based in Palmers Green, Middlesex, followed by the London School of Economics in Central London, where he trained to become an economist. During World War II he enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF) and became a radar technician. Despite training to be an economist, Moody began appearing in theatrical shows and later decided to become a professional actor.
Moody created the role of Fagin in the original West End production of Oliver! in 1960, and reprised it in the 1984 Broadway revival. For his performance in the 1968 film version of Oliver!, he received the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor (Musical/Comedy), the Best Actor award at the 6th Moscow International Film Festival and an Academy Award nomination in the same category. Moody wrote: “Fate destined me to play Fagin. It was the part of a lifetime. That summer of 1967 [during filming] was one of the happiest times of my life.” As well as performing on Broadway, he reprised his role as Fagin at the 1985 Royal Variety Performance in Theatre Royal, Drury Lane before Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh.
There is no question that Fagin, as originally conceived by Dickens in Oliver Twist, is a stereotypical, anti-Semitic portrayal of Jews in 19th century London. The first 38 chapters of the book refer to Fagin by his ethnic origin 257 times, calling him “the Jew”, against 42 uses of “Fagin” or “the old man.” In later editions Dickens took out 180 references to “the Jew” but the basic image remains. In Oliver Twist Fagin has no redeeming features; he ruthlessly beats and exploits his boys, his lies get Nancy murdered, and in the end he is hanged (as one expects of all of Dickens’ villains). But the scripts of the original play and screenplay of Oliver!, along with Moody’s interpretation of the character, softens the anti-Semitic tones considerably (though not completely). He ends up being more a figure of comic relief than of evil, although he does have introspective moments.
In 1969, Moody was offered, but declined, the lead role in Doctor Who, following the departure of Patrick Troughton (which would have made him the third Doctor). Apparently he later regretted the decision, and one does have to wonder what he might have brought to the part. He did play other roles over his career (including Sherlock Holmes) and here’s a small gallery so that you do not have Fagin as your only image.
Ron Moody died in a London hospital on 11 June 2015, aged 91.
A Dickensian recipe is warranted for Fagin, and I originally thought that Mrs Beeton would be useless when it came to the cooking of Jewish Londoners of the time. Actually, I was right – largely because English Jews are not noted for a cuisine of their own. So-called “Jewish cooking” is a misnomer anyway, latched on to by Jews in the USA who mistake German and Eastern European cuisines for specifically Jewish cuisine. On the other hand, Mrs Beeton does have this to say about calves and the Jews in her section on veal:
THE CALF A SYMBOL OF DIVINE POWER.—A singular symbolical ceremony existed among the Hebrews, in which the calf performed a most important part. The calf being a type or symbol of Divine power, or what was called the Elohim,—the Almighty intelligence that brought them out of Egypt,—was looked upon much in the same light by the Jews, as the cross subsequently was by the Christians, a mystical emblem of the Divine passion and goodness. Consequently, an oath taken on either the calf or the cross was considered equally solemn and sacred by Jew or Nazarene, and the breaking of it a soul-staining perjury on themselves, and an insult and profanation directly offered to the Almighty. To render the oath more impressive and solemn, it was customary to slaughter a dedicated calf in the temple, when, the priests having divided the carcase into a certain number of parts, and with intervening spaces, arranged the severed limbs on the marble pavement, the one, or all the party, if there were many individuals, to be bound by the oath, repeating the words of the compact, threaded their way in and out through the different spaces, till they had taken the circuit of each portion of the divided calf, when the ceremony was concluded. To avert the anger of the Lord, when Jerusalem was threatened by Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian host, the Jews had made a solemn to God, ratified by the ceremony of the calf, if He released them from their dreaded foe, to cancel the servitude of their Hebrew brethren. After investing the city for some time, and reducing the inhabitants to dreadful suffering and privation, the Babylonians, hearing that Pharaoh, whom the Jews had solicited for aid, was rapidly approaching with a powerful army, hastily raised the siege, and, removing to a distance, took up a position where they could intercept the Egyptians, and still cover the city. No sooner did the Jews behold the retreat of the enemy, than they believed all danger was past, and, with their usual turpitude, they repudiated their oath, and refused to liberate their oppressed countrymen. For this violation of their covenant with the Lord, they were given over to all the horrors of the sword, pestilence, and famine—Jeremiah, xxxiv. 15-17.
She follows this dubious diatribe with this equally dubious recipe:
MINCED VEAL AND MACARONI.
- INGREDIENTS.—3/4 lb. of minced cold roast veal, 3 oz. of ham, 1 tablespoonful of gravy, pepper and salt to taste, 3 teaspoonful of grated nutmeg, 1/4 lb. of bread crumbs, 1/4 lb. of macaroni, 1 or 2 eggs to bind, a small piece of butter.
Mode.—Cut some nice slices from a cold fillet of veal, trim off the brown outside, and mince the meat finely with the above proportion of ham: should the meat be very dry, add a spoonful of good gravy. Season highly with pepper and salt, add the grated nutmeg and bread crumbs, and mix these ingredients with 1 or 2 eggs well beaten, which should bind the mixture and make it like forcemeat. In the mean time, boil the macaroni in salt and water, and drain it; butter a mould, put some of the macaroni at the bottom and sides of it, in whatever form is liked; mix the remainder with the forcemeat, fill the mould up to the top, put a plate or small dish on it, and steam for 1/2 hour. Turn it out carefully, and serve with good gravy poured round, but not over, the meat.
Time.—1/2 hour. Average cost, exclusive of the cold meat, 10d.
Seasonable from March to October.
Note.—To make a variety, boil some carrots and turnips separately in a little salt and water; when done, cut them into pieces about 1/8 inch in thickness; butter an oval mould, and place these in it, in white and red stripes alternately, at the bottom and sides. Proceed as in the foregoing recipe, and be very careful in turning it out of the mould.
I’m not inclined to try this. Not only would Italians cringe at it; I do too. But something can be salvaged from it. Instead of making a mould and overcooking the pasta, you can make a veal sauce for the macaroni. Italians do not generally eat meat and pasta together but they occasionally make meat sauces for pasta in northern Italy. This one would work by cooking the macaroni (al dente) separately, and then tossing it with a sauce made with chopped veal in a thickened beef broth, seasoned with nutmeg. I’ve had a similar dish in Mantua although the meat was donkey.