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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 two brothers, James and John Woolf. However, just before a trip to Los Angeles for a cast search, James suddenly died of a heart attack. His brother almost canceled the film. Instead, he decided to honor his brother by continuing the project.
And honor him 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.
Chosen among all of them was an 8-year-old Mark Lester. 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.” Since Lester couldn’t sing, he was dubbed. Musical director John Green’s 20-year-old daughter, Kathe Green, lent her angelic voice for the higher notes, and the final result was a mix of both Green and Lester. 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's scores, Taylor locked herself in Bart’s bathroom and told him that 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 for the musical. “This part is the coupe of the year. It’s full of guts and full of strength,” Shani Wallis said in 1968, after being cast.
3. Big names 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 Fagin.
4. Ron Moody played the part on stage.
Seven years after playing Fagin 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 asked for his advice on how to best film the musical. Now feeling secure about having the role, Moody had 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.
The film had two big firsts for Reed. It was the first time he directed a musical and the first time he directed so many young actors. Nevertheless, Reed found the work gratifying and enjoyable. He 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... It's not easy directing children, but when it works out, it's a film director's most gratifying moment.”