Lights, cameras, distractions: The curse of Oliver!

The 1968 film kickstarted the careers of many actors - young and old. But some found the fame too much, most notably Jack Wild, who died yesterday. Terry Kirby looks at the musical's legacy
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The Independent Online

Jack Wild: Artful Dodger

The story of the former child star Jack Wild was always the one cited as evidence of the dangers of an early brush with fame. Nominated for an Oscar at just 16 for his role as the Artful Dodger in Oliver, he was a millionaire by the time he was 18 but an alcoholic at 21.

His first marriage and his career as actor and pop idol both collapsed because of his drinking, which, together with being a heavy smoker, led to the oral cancer which eventually killed him.

His lifestyle, he would say, had made him a 'walking time bomb' for cancer. For the last two years he had been unable to speak after surgery to remove his tongue and voice box.

But Wild, who died on Wednesday night, aged 53, never gave up. He mimed in his last pantomime role, a Christmas production of Cinderella, which was written specially for him and was hopeful of getting further work with the aid of his second wife, actress Claire Harding, who would lip read and speak for him. The couple, who had been together ten years, married last year and lived in Bedfordshire.

His agent Alex Jay, said: "We had lots of work lined up for him this year, it's very sad. There was always a next day. He wasn't one to sit back.

"Even in his drinking days, he was always very careful about being photographed with a drink or cigarette in his hand because he didn't want to encourage young people." Wild also wrote an open letter to Daniel Radcliffe when he landed the role of Harry Potter, warning of the dangers of becoming a child star.

Wild was discovered by June Collins, talent agent and mother of rock star Phil Collins, while playing football in west London.

After attending stage school, his breakthrough came when he landed the role of Oliver in the London stage production of the show. He then joined hundreds of other members of the cast at the audition for the film and landed the role of the Artful Dodger. His success in Oliver was followed by a number of films and he also found fame as a pop singer, releasing three albums.

After winning his fight with alcoholism, he re-built his career with parts in pantomime and films like Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, with Kevin Costner, and in 1998 he was cast in Basil, with Christian Slater.

Yesterday, cast members paid tribute to Wild. Ron Moody, now aged 82, who played Fagin in the film, said: "We've lost a great artist and I've lost a great friend. Jack really was cheated out of a great career. He had a talent that should have developed into even more talent as he grew older."

He said Wild was hit by "pressure at a very difficult age" adding. "Pressure makes people react in different ways. Some people plunge in and others take the way out. Jack also had bad luck, with the fact that he got so ill. The talent was still there but it didn't work out for him.

Oliver Reed: Bill Sykes

For Oliver Reed, playing the villainous Bill Sykes, was like Ron Moody's Fagin, simply a case of the perfect casting of an actor, into a role they fitted like a glove. And in both cases, they were able to take the role and make it uniquely their own, defining it for future generations.

Reed was from a family intricately linked to screen and stage - his grandfather was Herbert Beerbohm Tree, founder of Rada and his uncle Carol Reed, director of Oliver!. By 1968, Reed was an established actor in British films, who had started out playing romantic leads, but was already developing a reputation as a hellraiser, drinker and womaniser, most often in the company of the similarly inclined Keith Moon, drummer of The Who. Oliver! cemented his reputation and he went on to star in Ken Russell's Women in Love, Take a Girl Like You, Tommy, and The Devils. However his career was compromised by his drinking and refusal to live in Los Angeles, which led to him loosing parts in The Sting and Jaws, two of the biggest films of the Seventies. He was also reported to have been passed over to replace Sean Connery as James Bond because of his lifestyle.

His career declined during the 1980s as his drinking and fighting spiralled out of control and his choices of roles was determined by his need for financial security rather than artistic credibility; he was married three times.

Many critics feel that Reed never achieved his true potential after the early years, although his part in Castaway in 1989 was praised. He died from a heart attack in Malta in 1999, while filming Ridley Scott's Gladiator, and after a marathon drinking bout, involving three bottles of rum and numerous other drinks, during which he beat five younger Royal Navy sailors at arm wrestling. His remaining scenes were completed using a body double and digital technology. But it was clear that he never forgot his part as Sykes - "Consider Yourself", a song from Oliver! was played at his funeral.

Sheila White: Bet

Like at the youthful members of the Oliver cast, Sheila White came from a London stage school and gained the part of Bet at the age of 15, whose big solo number in the musical was "I'll Do Anything". She used her role as a springboard for a career on the West End stage in a number of musicals, including Little Me and The Sound of Music. On television, she appeared in Poldark, Minder and then most memorably as the licentious and subsequently beheaded Messalina in the critically acclaimed I Claudius on BBC.

Her career began to take a back seat after her first son, Matthew, now 20, was born with autism and she devoted herself to his care and to the rest of her family. He now lives in a care home, but returns to his family every month. She has continued to work occasionally, with bit parts in EastEnders and Casualty - and has remained in touch with some of her co-stars such as Moody and Wild and other friends from the "East End" school, such as Barbara Windsor.

She said: "It was a wonderful time and was spent with wonderful people and I was very lucky to be part of it. In recent years I've put the family first because that's what I wanted to do."

Mark Lester: Oliver Twist

Mark Lester, like many of the younger cast members of Oliver, came from a stage school background and like Wild, his was a story of early success going to his head followed by a descent into drink and drug abuse.

The son of two actors, he made his professional debut at two, playing in a commercial with his father and by the time he was cast in the part of Oliver at just eight, he had already had a number of stage and screen parts. He spent his ninth birthday filming at Shepperton Studios. In the film, he was the wide eyed, blond haired Oliver alongside Wild's streetwise Dodger.

The success of the film led to more screen and stage roles and by the time he was 14 he was earning £100,000 a year. At 18, he was handed a cheque for £70,000 and blew it on a Ferrari, fast living and cocaine. By the time he was 20, the roles had dried up and the money had gone.

Like Wild, he went into rehab, gave up the drink and drugs and pulled himself back from the brink. But whereas Wild continued to try to make a living in the business, Lester, now 48, forged himself a successful career as an osteopath and acupuncturist. He lives and works in Cheltenham with his four children, aged six to 14, from his first marriage and his second wife, a community health nurse. He said: "I've no regrets, you live and learn from your mistakes and I've had opportunities to travel and meet people that I might not otherwise have had. Obviously it was more glamorous then, but I certainly prefer what I do now."

Ron Moody: Fagin

The actor's crooked, leering smirk defined the character of Fagin. Moody was an East End Jewish boy from a working-class background who trained as an economist before taking up acting at 29. He was a relative unknown before landing the role of Fagin in Lionel Bart's musical reworking of the Dickens book on the London stage, which received 23 curtain calls on its first night on 30 June 1960. Moody was the natural choice for the role in the film version, for which he was nominated for an Oscar as best actor. It was, he says, the best time of his career. But Moody admitted yesterday that it was after the success of the film that things began to go wrong. "If I had stayed in America afterwards, then things would probably have been much better and I would have had lots of film work, which I wanted. But the day after the Oscars I flew back to London to film a television play for Anglia. It was a big mistake because you never really get acknowledged for wanting to work in England, as I did. I just think now that you are a bloody fool if you do that. You should take the money when you can." Moody has since had many stage and screen roles and portrayed Uriah Heep to great acclaim in a television version of David Copperfield. At 82, he is still working regularly. He lives in north London and has six children.

Leonard Rossiter: Mr Sowerbury

Commonly referred to one of Britain's best loved comic actors, Rossiter's supporting role as the undertaker Mr Sowerberry came when he had already established himself as a leading film and stage actor. The part helped to further his career considerably and he went onto, improbably, gain parts in Stanley Kubrick's 2001- A Space, Oddessy and Barry Lyndon. He also estblished himself as a stage actor with his portrayal of Adolf Hitler in The Resistable Rise of Artuo Ui in the West End the following year after Oliver!.

But he became best known and is still fondly remembered for his roles as the lecherous landlord Rigsby in the sitcom Rising Damp and in the starring role in the Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin. Both parts earned him huge critical acclaim, as did his subsequent performances in the series of Cinzano commercials alongside Joan Collins. The latter still cited as among the funniest television advertisements of all time.

But off screen, Rossister was known as a competitive perfectionist who often drove his co-stars's crazy with his determination to get things right.

Although a fit man who played sports regularly, he died from an entirely unexpected heart attack in 1984. At only 57 and arguably at the peak of his powers, he was waiting to go onstage at the Lyric Theatre in London, where he was performing in Joe Orton's black comedy Loot.


Kenneth Cranham: Noah Claypole

Although he only had a small role in Oliver, as a member of Fagin's gang,the Scottish-born actor who was 24 at the time, used the film as a springboard to become one of Britain's most in-demand character actors, with well over 100 film and television roles to his credit.

Arguably, while others have seen their post-Oliver careers fluctuate or decline, Cranham, now 62, is at his peak, winning critical plaudits this week for his portrayal of Harold Wilson in the BBC4 drama The Lavender List, based on the 1972 resignation honours list scandal.

Cranham also starred in the historical epic series Rome, shown last year on BBC. His long list of credits includes parts in the films Layer Cake and Gangster No 1, while he portrayed Michael Mansfield QC in the television reconstruction of the Stephen Lawrence case. Among many television appearances, he has acted in Kavanagh QC, Minder, Dalziel and Pascoe, Boon, Inspector Morse and Lovejoy.

Nigel Kingsley: One of Fagin's boys

Out of all the names on this page, Nigel Kingsley's is the least well known, a fact with which he is quite content. A stage school contemporary of Mark Lester, he was 10 when he was cast as one of Fagin's 14 boys in the film, one of 31 film appearances. But at 13, he gave it all up. He left school at 16 to become a filing clerk, trained to be a tax consultant and is now the managing director of his own firm, based in north London. He has two adult daughters and commutes from Hertfordshire.

Now 48, he said: "I wouldn't say I was particularly the sensible one and I have phenomenal memories of the period but I have led a slightly different life to the others. And I'm very happy."