John Howard Davies, who as a child actor with a soft face and quivering lips played the title role in the 1948 David Lean film “Oliver Twist” and who went on to become a producer and director of some of British television’s most popular comedies, including “Fawlty Towers”, died Monday at his home in Blewbury, southern England. He was 72 years old.
The cause was cancer, her son William told The Associated Press.
John Davies was 8 when Lean picked him to play Oliver, the abused orphan who asks for a second serving of porridge at the work house (“Please, sir, I want more”), is thrown into the street and then taken to the lair of Fagin (Alec Guinness), the pointy-nosed old man who educates the boys in the pockets.
When the film, based on the Dickensian classic, opened in New York City, Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times: “In a young man named John Howard Davies they have a frail, sensitive and fiery little fellow who is Oliver. Twist to a T. All the poignant, courage and humor of the famous orphan is projected by him.
This performance led to roles in three other films, including “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” (1951), based on the novel by Thomas Hughes, in which he played a youngster in a 19th century English boys’ school who is tormented by school bully but finally stands up to him. Mr. Davies appeared on the “William Tell” television series as a teenager and then served in the Royal Navy.
Mr. Davies stopped acting when he was still a teenager. The pressure of being a child star didn’t suit him, and in a 2008 interview with BBC Radio he said he felt at the time that he was neither talented enough to be a character actor nor beautiful enough for a leading role. .
After his military service he worked briefly in a finance company and as a carpet salesman, before landing a job as a production assistant at the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1966.
He would go on to become head of the BBC’s comedy division, a post he held from 1977 to 1982, from which he gave the green light to hit shows like “Yes Minister”, “Not the Nine O ‘ Clock News “and” Only Madmen and Horses.
As a producer, executive producer or director, Mr Davies’ footprints are on some of the most influential British comedies of the past four decades.
In the late 1960s, he appeared in the first episodes of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” the sketch-based series that made the careers of his stars (Eric Idle, John Cleese and Terry Gilliam among them), spawned movies and a Broadway show and spread a now-familiar humor that emphasizes the quirky, the incongruous and the risky.
In the 1970s, Mr. Davies again worked with Mr. Cleese on “Fawlty Towers,” a beloved comedy about a wacky hotel and its rude owner, and also appeared in series like “The Goodies,” ” Good Neighbors ”and“ Steptoe and Son ”(the model of the American hit“ Sanford and Son ”). His subsequent production and directing credits included “Mr. Bean, ”another much admired series, starring Rowan Atkinson. Later in the 1990s, he produced and directed episodes of “Hope It Rains”, “Law and Disorder” and numerous other shows.
Born in London on March 9, 1939, Mr. Davies was the son of Jack and Dorothy Davies, both writers. Besides his son, William, he is survived by his wife, Linda; and a daughter, Georgina.
Comedy might have been Mr. Davies’ fare as an adult, but as a kid he mastered dark drama.
In the 1949 film “The Rocking Horse Winner”, based on a short story by DH Lawrence, he portrayed the terror of a 10-year-old obsessed with his parents’ need for money. He discovers that he can choose winning racehorses by riding his workhorse in a furious frenzy.
“John Howard Davies, who plays the tormented Paul Grahame,” wrote Thomas M. Pryor in The Times, “gives one of the finest representations of the stress of youth that you are likely to witness.”