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Oliver! was a smash hit musical which won six Academy Awards in 1969, including Best Picture. But the film almost didn’t happen.
After the success of the stage play in London, the rights were purchased by brothers, James and John Woolf. However, just before a trip to Los Angeles for a cast search, James suddenly died from a heart attack. His brother almost canceled the film, but decided to honor his brother and continue.
And honor he did. The extravagant movie used 40 different sets, a 130 piece orchestra, and a budget of $10 million.
Mark Lester, who played Oliver, said, “It’s weathered the test of time and I’m really proud to be part of it.”
1. 2,000 auditioned for the part of Oliver.
Among all of them though, an 8-year old Mark Lester was cast. Reflecting on it years later, he said, “I mean, I couldn't sing, I couldn't dance... I guess I must have just looked the part.” In fact, since Lester couldn’t sing, he was dubbed. Musical director John Green’s daughter, Kathe Green, age 20, lent her angelic voice for the higher notes and the final result was a mix of both. For the job, she got paid 400 pounds (about $1000).
2. Elizabeth Taylor wanted the role of Nancy.
According to Elliot Davis, who transcribed playwright Lionel Bart scores, Taylor locked herself in Bart’s bathroom, saying she wouldn’t come out until she was cast. Shani Wallis got the part thanks to her performance on Ed Sullivan. A Columbia Pictures executive saw her performance and sent a telegram to her to come audition. “This part is the coupe of the year. It’s full of guts and full of strength,” Shani Wallis said in 1968, after getting cast.
3. Big named were rumored to be cast.
These included Jean Simmons, Richard Burton, Peter Sellers, Dick Van Dyke, Shirley Bassey, and Julie Andrews. According to some, Peter O’toole, Peter Sellers, and Danny Kaye were all considered for the role of Faggin.
4. Ron Moody played the part on stage.
Seven years after doing it on stage, Moody got a chance to reprise the role for the film, though at first he wasn’t sure if he’d get to. He said, “There was this feeling that I was going to get the chop any minute. You can’t always be sure that you’re cast.” But his nerves were calmed when the director took him to lunch and even asked him how best to go about filming his first musical. Once he felt secure in the role, Moody felt the freedom to tweak the character and make him more clown-like, more of a Pied-Piper to the orphaned boys.
5. The director had a trick for directing the kids.
Despite being the first time he directed a musical and the first time he directed so many young actors, Reed found the work gratifying and enjoyable. Reed said, “The trick is to try to start off every scene with the child. That way the little boy gets his lines over first, and the adult actors in the scene relax knowing that the boy isn't going to spoil the scene for them.” Sometimes he’d also leave the camera running and encourage the child to do it just one more time. He said, “It's not easy directing children but when it works out it's a film director's most gratifying moment.”