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Born in London, Fagin is described as "disgusting" to look at. He is the leader of a group of children, the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates among them, whom he teaches to make their livings by pickpocketing and other criminal activities in exchange for a roof over their heads. A distinguishing trait is his constant—and thoroughly insincere—use of the phrase "my dear" when addressing others. At the time of the novel, he is said by another character, Monks, to have already made criminals out of "scores" of children who grow up to live—or die—committing the same crimes as adults. Bill Sikes, one of the major villains of the novel, is hinted to be one of Fagin's old pupils, and Nancy, Sikes's girlfriend and sex worker clearly was.
Whilst portrayed as relatively humorous, he is nonetheless a self-confessed miser who, despite the amount he has acquired over the years from the work of others, does very little to improve the squalid lives of the children he takes in, allowing them to smoke pipes and drink gin "with the air of middle-aged men." In the second chapter of his appearance, it is shown, albeit when talking to himself, that he cares less about those children who are eventually hanged for their crimes and more about the fact that they do not "peach" on him and the other children. Still darker sides to the character's nature are shown when he beats the Artful Dodger for not bringing Oliver back, making Charley cry for mercy, in his attempted beating of Oliver for trying to escape after the thieves have kidnapped him, and in his own involvement with various plots and schemes throughout the story. He also indirectly and intently causes the death of Nancy by falsely informing the ill-tempered Sikes that she had betrayed him and Fagin, when in reality she had shielded him, loving him despite his violent personality. This results in Sikes beating her to death. Near the end of the book, Fagin is hanged following capture, in a chapter that portrays him as being pitiful in his anguish, waiting for the moment he will be led to the scaffold which is being prepared outside and becoming so mad not one guard wants to wait with him, meaning there are two there.
Dickens took Fagin's name from a friend he had known in his youth while working in a boot-blacking factory.
Fagin's character was based on the criminal Ikey Solomon, who was a fence at the center of a highly-publicized arrest, escape, recapture, and trial. Some accounts of Solomon also describe him as a London underworld "kidsman." (A kidsman was an adult who recruited children and trained them as pickpockets, exchanging food and shelter for goods the children stole.) The popularity of Dickens' novel caused "kidsman" to be renamed "fagin" in some crime circles, or an adult who teaches minors to steal and keeps a major portion of the loot.
Fagin is noted for being one of the few characters of 19th century English literature, let alone any of Dickens's pieces, who is described as Jewish. Fagin has been the subject of much debate over antisemitism both during Dickens's lifetime and up to modern times. In an introduction to a 1981 Bantam Books reissue of Oliver Twist, for example, Irving Howe wrote that Fagin was considered an "archetypical Jewish villain". The first 38 chapters of the book refer to Fagin by his racial and religious origin 257 times, calling him "the Jew", with just 42 uses of "Fagin" or "the old man". In 2005, novelist Norman Lebrecht wrote that "A more vicious stigmatization of an ethnic community could hardly be imagined and it was not by any means unintended.". Dickens (who had extensive knowledge of London street life and child exploitation) explained that he had made Fagin Jewish because "it unfortunately was true, of the time to which the story refers, that that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew". He also claimed that by calling Fagin a Jew he had meant no imputation against the Jewish faith, saying in a letter, "I have no feeling towards the Jews but a friendly one. I always speak well of them, whether in public or private, and bear my testimony (as I ought to do) to their perfect good faith in such transactions as I have ever had with them..."
In later editions of the book printed during his lifetime, Dickens excised many of the references to Fagin's Jewishness, removing over 180 instances of 'Jew' from the first edition text.
This occurred after Dickens sold his London home to a Jewish banker, James Davis in 1860, and became acquainted with him and his wife Eliza, who objected to the emphasis on Fagin's Jewishness in the novel. When he sold the house to them, Dickens allegedly told a friend, "The purchaser of Tavistock House will be a Jew Money-Lender" before later saying, "I must say that in all things the purchaser has behaved thoroughly well, and that I cannot call to mind any occasion when I have had moneydealings with anyone that has been so satisfactory, considerate and trusting."
Dickens became friendly with Eliza, who told him in a letter in 1863 that Jews regarded his portrayal of Fagin a "great wrong" to their people. Dickens then started to revise Oliver Twist, removing all mention of "the Jew" from the last 15 chapters. Dickens later wrote in reply, "There is nothing but good will left between me and a People for whom I have a real regard and to whom I would not willfully have given an offense." In one of his final public readings in 1869, a year before his death, Dickens cleansed Fagin of all stereotypical caricature. A contemporary report observed, "There is no nasal intonation; a bent back but no shoulder-shrug: the conventional attributes are omitted."
In 1865, in Our Mutual Friend, Dickens created a number of Jewish characters, the most important being Mr Riah, an elderly Jew who finds jobs for downcast young women in Jewish-owned factories. One of the two heroines, Lizzie Hexam, defends her Jewish employers saying, "The gentleman certainly is a Jew, and the lady, his wife, is a Jewess, and I was brought to their notice by a Jew. But I think there cannot be kinder people in the world."
The comic book creator Will Eisner, disturbed by the antisemitism in the typical depiction of the character, created a graphic novel in 2003 titled Fagin the Jew. In this book, the back story of the character and events of Oliver Twist are depicted from his point of view.
Numerous prominent actors have portrayed Fagin.
In the 1922 film, Lon Chaney, Sr. played Fagin. Alec Guinness performed the role in the 1948 film version directed by David Lean. Guiness' performance was so controversial that the film was banned in the U.S. for three years, on charges of being anti-Semitic.Ron Moody's portrayal in the original London production of Oliver! and in the 1968 film is recognizably influenced by Guinness' portrayal (although the supposedly "anti-semitic" quality of Guinness's portrayal was considerably toned down in the musical), as was Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley's portrayal of Fagin in Roman Polanski's 2005 screen adaptation.
When Oliver! was brought to Broadway in 1964 Fagin was portrayed by Clive Revill, but in a 1984 revival, Moody reprised his performance opposite Tony Award winner Patti LuPone who played Nancy.
Fagin is made somewhat lovable and nowhere near as bad in the musical, and is also completely innocent of Nancy's murder. He presumably evades the police at the end.
In the 1980 ATV series The Further Adventures of Oliver Twist, Fagin was played by David Swift. In this 13-episode series, Fagin has escaped his hanging by pretending to have had a stroke leaving him paralyzed (and therefore unfit to be executed) and is in hiding at The Three Cripples tended to by Barney.
In the 1982 made-for-tv movie version, Fagin is portrayed by George C. Scott. Though the character is generally portrayed as elderly, diminutive and homely, Scott's version of the character was markedly younger, stronger, and better looking.
In the 1985 miniseries, Fagin is portrayed by Eric Porter.
In Disney's animated adaptation, Oliver & Company (1988), Fagin is a poor but kind-hearted man who lives on a houseboat with his dogs, and is voiced by Dom DeLuise.
In 1994, Oliver was revived in London. Fagin was played by many noted British actors and comedians including Jonathan Pryce, George Layton, Jim Dale, Russ Abbot, Barry Humphries (from Wales) - who had played Mr. Sowerberry in the original 1960 London production of Oliver! - and Robert Lindsay, who won an Olivier Award for his performance. Costumes are changed in the stage productions, for each different actor. Some suit different looks. This is seen clearly in the various coats that are used. Pryce used a patched red and brown coat, while Lindsay used the traditional dark green overcoat seen in the 1968 film version.
In Disney's 1997 live action television production, Fagin is played by Richard Dreyfuss.
In the 2003 film Twist (a film loosely based on Dickens' Oliver Twist) Fagin is played by actor Gary Farmer.
In the 2007 BBC television adaptation Fagin is played by Timothy Spall. Contrary to his appearance in the novel, he is beardless and overweight in this version. He is also a sweet and kindly character.
In December 2008, Oliver! was revived at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London with Rowan Atkinson playing the character. This role was taken over by Omid Djalili in July 2009. Griff Rhys Jones took over the role from Omid Djalili in December 2009. He was succeeded by Russ Abbot in June 2010.