We all have those warm, fuzzy, nostalgic childhood memories of sitting down with family and watching our favourite films engrained into our minds. You look back in awe at the innocence and happiness you felt while watching those carefully crafted masterpieces, and for that reason, those films are kept timeless and perfect in our minds, as are the actors and actresses who stared in them.
One film imparticular, which encompasses my childhood is “Oliver!”. I would watch it every night before I went to bed, and there was one character which I loved- ‘Nancy’. She is a firm fan favourite within the Musical Motion Picture genre and had all the qualities which define a lovable leading lady: loyalty, strength, determination and beauty. The actress who played her; Shani Wallis, was one of the most popular Film and Stage stars of the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. I met her in 2013 when she was at a Fan Convention in Birmingham and write to her often, to which she ALWAYS reply’s, without fail. She is the sweetest, most loveable, humble lady I’ve ever met. Her persona radiated classic Hollywood star, but her personality seemed just as normal and sweet as a lady who you might bump into in the shops. I was still quite naive and young when I met her. I was 18, but I was a young 18 year old, and I stood and watched Shani sign autographs for fans for around 20 minutes, too nervous to go and speak (my social anxiety was still quite bad back then). I remember thinking: ‘I am actually going to meet the lady that I watched every night as a kid in my favourite film’. After a while, I went to the table, picked up some photos to get signed and got to the front of the line. I looked at her and she beamed a smile and asked my name and I just blurted out: “I think I’m probably your biggest fan” and then went bright red at my not-so-cool attitude. She laughed and said she’s always wanted to meet her biggest fan and from then on, we had a great talk. We talked about her life, the movies she was in (etc.) and she signed a ton of photos for me and inscribed the sweetest messages. She was simply lovely.
But here is where it got amazing for me- when I got really ill with Bulimia (which I’ve already written a blog about), I looked up ‘self-help tips’ and one was to write to someone you admired. So, I did, I wrote to her and asked for advice, not holding out much hope for a reply (Celebrity’s get an obscene amount of fan mail you know?). Around 2 weeks later, I got a package from the US with a 3-page letter in and a ton of advice and kind words, along with 8 signed photos of her, in costume as ‘Nancy’ and a rare CD of her music. I don’t want to share what the letter said because that’s personal to me, but she has always replied to every letter I’ve sent since, offered advice, and sends me letters every few months asking how I am. Amazing right- put simply, a lovely, very generous lady. Shani, who is now 84, was born in 1933, and raised in Tottenham, London. She began tap dancing at age four and was later accepted into RADA, where she trained in the Dramatic Arts. She worked exclusively in TV and theatre until she was cast in “A King in New York” by Charlie Chaplin in 1957. It would be 10 years later when she would win the role of her career in “Oliver!” as well as a £25,000 pay-check (equivalent to around £454,000 in today’s value). This role cemented her into Hollywood History, as she was chosen over the likes of Julie Andrews and Elizabeth Taylor, and the reviews of her performance, were glowing.Shani toured with Liberance and Frank Sinatra after the film’s release and has become well engrained into the popular conscious of Musical Cinema. Shani moved to California shortly after the release of “Oliver!” in 1968 with her husband (and at the time: Manager) Bernie Rich, and has been there ever since.
And recently, she agreed to do an interview with me about her life, the role of ‘Nancy’ and what she’s up to now…
How did you get the role of ‘Nancy’ in “Oliver!”?
“Well, I was starring in a show on Broadway called: ‘A Time for Singing’, which was based on ‘How Green Was My Valley’- beautiful music! The CD is out there. I played the role of Angharad and Ed Sullivan requested that I go on his show and perform the love song (Let me love you). Mike Frankovich, who was the head of Columbia Pictures at the time saw me and sent me a telegram. It said; ‘Come out to Hollywood. I think I have a role that would be perfect for you.’ The rest is History!”
What was your favourite scene to film in “Oliver!”?
“It would have to be the last dramatic scene in Brownlow’s home- that was moving for me. Oh but wait, no- it would definitely have to be the first scene I filmed on the “Oliver!” set (It’s a Fine Life number). That was wonderful.”
Much has been written about your tumultuous relationship with Oliver Reed, how he hurt you during ‘Nancy’s death scene’ and how he would isolate you. I heard you say in an interview that he was “a good actor, but as a guy- not so easy”.
“Oliver Reed never actually hurt me but he was very frightening. The truth is, I had little to nothing to do with Oliver Reed off-set, his life, I believe was complicated. And I had my beloved Burnie (Shani’s husband) by my side at all times. He said goodbye to me for the last time on September 10th 2016. After 52 years together, it was devastating to loose him.”
What do your Fans mean to you?
“It has never stopped! That love affair with fans! They have continued to light and brighten up my life through the years and still do! I can’t imagine what life would be like without them.”
What is your day-to-day life like now?
“The sadness of loosing a loved one is like no other experience. For me and Bernie, it was a love affair that remained constant. But I feel so lucky to share my journey with friends and family- this amazing journey we all share. Life is wonderful!”
Do you have any plans to go back to show business?
“I am almost 84, I mean, I would like to- but it is a question mark. My main environment is my rediscovery of the Piano which I loved so much in my early years.”
Throughout 2014-2015, you made several appearances at fan conventions and events. Do you plan to do anymore?
“If I were asked, yes I would be interested! I find people from all walks of life fascinating!”
What are you most proud of in your life?
“My body of work! Going back to all the shows, theatre and otherwise starting from 1952!”
Why do you think the character of Nancy has become so engrained and loved within Musical Motion Picture?
“Nancy has so many faces. She loved, she was assaulted, she was abused and she emotionally struggled but she survived! She was strong. Just like so many of us, we struggle but it’s how we come through it that matters! Our vulnerability helps us conquer and overcome our weakest moments.”
Do you think anyone else’s portrayal of Nancy has come close to yours?
“I honestly don’t know. It is not my decision to make- it is for others to decide that.”
And now, I’m going to throw a strange one into the mix- what is your favourite food?
“Oh, my goodness! Sunday Roast Dinner!! That is how I remember the family sitting down together!”
There are plans to remake “Oliver!” with a release date set for 2018, what are your views on this?
“Well, if it does happen- it certainly won’t be Sir Carol Reed’s version!!! The 1968 version was timeless.”
What is the strangest fan interaction you have ever had?
“I can’t really say I can answer that.”
Nancy’s death scene was so sad to watch, and graphic for the time- how was it filming that?
“It was all done completely in the moment!! There was very little preconceived Direction. Oliver Reed said ‘Do what you want to me, I will be able to defend myself and I will do the rest’ and he was a great motivator. When he grabbed me, I didn’t expect it and that scene just happened!”
You’ve led such a rich life, you have worked with some of the most iconic stars of all time- Charlie Chaplin, Liberance etc. Do you have any plans to write an autobiography?
“I really would like too but I haven’t found the right person yet to help with an autobiography.”
Did you get to keep any props from the set? Nancy’s Iconic Dress Perhaps?
“I so wish I did! I don’t know what ever happened to it but I would love to know! Perhaps it had too many tears in it and it was thrown away or maybe it is in the movie archives! I did get to keep some sketches of myself from the set though. (One is included on the front of the “Best of Shani” vinyl).”
Lastly, is there anything you would like your fans to know?
“Yes, I want to thank them for their generosity and goodwill and constant devotion, even after all these years. Thank you!”
If you are still interested in Shani’s work, she has several Vinyl records, made in the 1960’s, which are available on sites like eBay, and “Oliver!” has just been released on Blu-ray, which you can get on sites like Amazon.
Hope you enjoyed and a huge thank you to Shani for agreeing to do the interview!