You have to admit it was an odd piece of casting. Having come to terms with Mr Bean (aka Rowan Atkinson) playing Fagin in the West End production of Oliver!, we have had to adjust to a British-Iranian comedian in the role.
Omid Djalili stepping out as Fagin the Jew is up there with David Bowie playing Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ. Only Jackie Mason being cast as Osama bin Laden could be as controversial.
“When my agent told me they wanted to see me for the part, even I was convinced it was a joke,” says Djalili, settling back on the sofa in his huge dressing room at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. “I thought the whole thing of me playing this part was a wind-up from day one, which is why I didn’t look at the script or the song-sheets they sent me. So when I met Cameron Mackintosh, I wasn’t exactly prepared. In fact, I read really badly, but they must have seen something in me because they called me back three weeks later and this time I’d done some homework.”
The success, or otherwise, of Oliver!, Lionel Bart’s 1960s musical, depends heavily on the performance of Fagin and after three months Djalili is getting the kind of cheers that suggest he has the measure of the character. “I don’t think I’ve made him overtly Jewish — have I?” he asks with a smile.
Certainly the extensive use of Yiddish — sample line: “Dodger, don’t be such a lobus” — a substantial number of “Oy’s” and a few bursts of Hava Na Gila while shaking a purse leaves one in no doubt about the ethnicity of his character.
An edgy comedian can eventually become so edgy he disappears up his own tuches
But Jewish members of the audience — who might raise an eyebrow at the thought of an Iranian playing what some in the past have seen as an antisemitic caricature — seem to have been won over. In fact, on the night I was there, Rabbi Thomas Salamon of Westminster Synagogue made a point of personally congratulating the comedian after the show.
“I didn’t really think about how I would play the part, I just did it as it came to me,” says Djalili. “I just wanted to make him as lovable as possible.”
Certainly not everyone loved the idea of him taking the role, and he has a letter to prove it. “Here I’ll read it to you,” he says, rifling through a mountain of break-a-leg cards piled on the table and producing the note.
“Dear Mr Djalili, as an admirer of much of your work I am very sorry that I have to write to you with a complaint. I don’t have to inform you of the dangers of racism. You come from an ethnic minority yourself and I remember a sketch from your show about pride and racial prejudice.
“Nor do I have to remind you that we are living in a world after the Holocaust of the 20th century which led to the death of millions of innocent people.
“I was therefore very surprised and disappointed that you have agreed to play Fagin. That character is everything the Jew is supposed to be according to antisemitic legend — grasping, dishonest, criminal and periphery to the community. By taking part you are contributing to racism of the worst kind… and you should know better.”
Djalili has clearly been affected by the letter and says he plans to invite the sender to see the show. The politically-savvy stand-up hardened to hecklers, who announced his arrival in Oliver! with the statement: “An Iranian playing Fagin has nothing to do with the Iranian plot to wipe Israel off the face of the planet”, is also sensitive enough to know of the potential for causing offence. “You know me,” he mumbles. “I’m a good guy. People just misread what I do.”
So instead of just shrugging his shoulders he did some research and is now delighted to tell anyone who asks that Charles Dickens made revisions to the character of Fagin around 1860 — “after buying a house from a Jewish family whom he liked very much”.
Djalili says he did not need to purchase property to develop an affection for Jews. He just had to stand anxiously beside them in the wings of smoky comedy clubs. “The first Jews I ever came across were in the comedy industry and they immediately became really good friends,” recalls the recipient of Edinburgh’s Spirit of the Fringe Award in 1994. “Ivor Dembina, Ian Stone, Mark Maier (see People, opposite) these were my first pals on the circuit, so I always felt very close to Jews and gravitated towards them because we share that feeling of being outsiders.”
It was alongside Dembina that Djalili claims to have found his feet with his show The Arab and The Jew in 1997. “As the Arab it was meant to be my show, but Ivor occupied half of it,” he laughs. “It was one-liner after one-liner and Ivor became my mentor and took me under his wing.”
Having impressed audiences at Up The Creek, the benchmark comedy venue, cinema beckoned and Djalili became the ethnic everyman beloved by casting directors on both sides of the Atlantic, playing biblical camel sellers, Turkish bakery owners, Algerian traders…
For some time, his CV resembled a Middle Eastern job centre. But having paid his Hollywood dues, he graduated to playing Picasso opposite Andy Garcia’s Modigliani and confidant to Heath Ledger’s Casanova. And he was given a one-man television show for HBO. Americans definitely get Djalili. West End audiences, it would seem, are getting him too, even though he was sure they wouldn’t.
“I was convinced when we started rehearsing that I would get the sack after the first week and I didn’t really care,” he says. “It was my wife, Annabelle, an actress who’s been in a lot of musicals, who told me to stop messing it up. She also reminded me that it’s good to go mainstream. An edgy comedian can eventually become so edgy he disappears up his own tuches.”
Though he admits to behaving like an “unbridled horse” on stage, improvising on a whim and toying with Tevye’s diddle diddle dum, he is grateful to be tolerated by the rest of the cast.
He is also hoping for tolerance when his new film The Infidel, written by David Baddiel, opens next year, in which he plays an East End Muslim taxi-driver who discovers that he is adopted — and Jewish.
“I know, I know,” he says, aware that once again there will be some who feel he has crossed into forbidden territory. “It’s not like I haven’t had death threats before. I got them when I did a spoof of EastEnders in my show on BBC2. In Middle EastEnders I used the Muslim call to prayer as the last-orders bell in the pub. I got a lot of hate emails after that — ‘you’re going to hell and we are going to kill you’, was the gist… I realised afterwards that I had made a grave error of judgment, but it was too late.”
Raised as a Bahai, which is an offshoot of Islam, Djalili is observant and makes regular pilgrimages to Haifa which is home for the Bahai World Centre. “Of course people assume I am a Muslim,” he says. “Not that I have a problem with that because when you are an ethnic minority doing well, everyone tries to claim you. But as a Bahai I don’t reject Mohammed. Nor any other faith, because by rejecting one, you reject them all.”