Ron Moody takes clowning around very seriously.

Even when the British actor is playing the villain, as he quite often does -- his most famous role is Fagin in the 1968 movie musical "Oliver!," he's been Captain Hook four times, he's been Iago and Richard III now and then, and he's starring now as the insufferably stuffy Sir Joseph Porter in "H.M.S. Pinafore" at the Kennedy Center -- he always adds the redeeming, humanizing touch of the buffoon.

Though Moody has spent nearly 40 of his 64 years years on the stage, "Pinafore" is his first crack at Gilbert and Sullivan, in part, he says, because the G&S repertoire was always "a closed shop" in England, restricted to members of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. He was thinking of retiring, "or semiretiring," when he was approached to do "Pinafore." He wasn't terribly keen on the idea of a North American tour. Then he met Brian Macdonald, the Canadian director and choreographer responsible for last year's successful "Mikado," and Moody allowed himself to be talked into the plummy part of Sir Joseph, whose handle he has polished into a virtuosic gold mine of comedic finesse.

Almost invariably referred to as a "veteran character actor," though he claims to be "more worried about the veteran part," Moody is sitting in a dressing room festooned with miniature Canadian, British and American flags, a miniature of the whimsical balloon in which he makes his "Pinafore" entrance, and the word "FIGHT!" written in bright red lipstick on the makeup mirror. "I always write "Fight" on the mirrors -- that goes way back to the times when you had to fight apathy," he says.

In conversation, as on stage, he alternates between mugging and ferocious intensity, waggling his triangular eyebrows while zigging and zagging between comments on his career and tangents about "the international Marxist conspiracy" and "Britain's loony Left." Moody lives in London with his wife and young daughter, but he's skittish about discussing them, perhaps because he's been ridiculed in the British tabloid press for choosing fatherhood at an age when others choose rocking chairs.

"I was a stage-struck child from about 5 years onward," Moody says. "I loved going to the vaudeville music halls in London. They're gone now, turned into blocks of flats, which I think is one of the most disgraceful things that have ever happened.

"My father and my uncle used to be amateur monologuists, because their generation grew up with Henry Irving and the like, and they had that style of delivery, of declamation: 'The Belllllls!' What we call 'ham' now, larger than life. I grew up watching these in the parlor reciting 'The Bells,' 'The Face on the Barroom Floor' and other things, that was entertainment in those days. No television."

His acting style was formed in those parlor days, watching his father "hamming it up like maaaad. When I went on the stage and he saw I was serious about it -- because after five years of university to suddenly go on stage seemed a bit barmy -- he wrote all the monologues out for me. I used 'The Face on the Barroom Floor' in cabaret, and it tore 'em up. It's an old monologue by H. Antoine D'Arcy about this drunk that comes into a pub and talks about his life and then draws the face of the woman that wronged him on the floor."

Suddenly the stentorian stage whisper:

It was a balmy summer's evening

And a goodly crowd was there

Which well nigh filled the barroom

And songs and witty stories came through the open door

A VAGABOND crept slowly in

And POSED upon the floor.

"And I've been overdoing it ever since," Moody says.

"When I started off, I would never go on stage without spectacles, whiskers, hats. You'd never see Moody. You'd see this weird concoction, this strange bizarre character I'd created, always over the top. Dickensian."

At the London School of Economics, Moody was "dragged into doing a 'smoking concert,' reluctantly, because I was so afraid. It was like a cabaret, a dinner theater, sitting around in a little room. And I wrote the first Marx Brothers sketch and did my first impression of Groucho Marx, and suddenly I felt the most exhilarating joy.

"And that first night, the audience started out by throwing toilet rolls, which was the typical student reaction. And suddenly they went quiet, and then they roared! We had 'em for 2 1/2 hours. I've never forgotten that night. I went home and went to bed and I was floating, I really was floating -- I'd felt this contact, this power over an audience. That's if it works. If it doesn't you get a toilet roll. And I've had a few of those.

"But if you have continuous success it can change you as a person -- you get unpleasant because of it. I've seen it on television series in America and England. With success, suddenly the old madness goes and they're cold-eyed and they want things done. But then it doesn't always happen that way. I've worked with the old dames and knights -- Edith Evans, Ralph Richardson -- they're the most incredibly humble, kindly people, because they are so big that they don't need to be unpleasant.

"I went 'round backstage once when Olivier had been doing 'Semi-Detached,' and he knew he wasn't right. He was doing this Birmingham accent which he couldn't do. And he said, 'You can do a better Brumigen accent, can't you?' I said, 'No, I can't.' 'Cause I couldn't say to the great Olivier that I could do a better accent than him! I've never forgotten that moment because the great Olivier, who to me is the Garrick of our generation, had failed! Marvelous! Wonderful! That's what it's all about." Moody acknowledges he's had a few healthy flops himself. "Big ones, yes. It's like a yo-yo; you go up and down, and you know that you'll go up again."

Moody began making a name in West End revues like "Intimacy at Eight" (his first) and "Intimacy at 8:30." Later he would write, direct and star in his own musicals, "Joey, Joey," "Saturnalia," "The Showman" and his one-man cabaret act "Move Along Sideways." The real break came when he was drafted to play Fagin in the original 1962 West End production of "Oliver!"

"I was doing a revue called 'For Adults Only.' Robert Lewis, the American Method director, cast me in 'Candide' as the Governor, because he was looking for a comedian that could sing a B-flat. I went straight from 'Candide' into 'Oliver!' {Producer} Peter Coe wanted me to do it; nobody else wanted me in it. It ran seven years, but I left after a year. I didn't go to Broadway, I didn't want to go. I was very patriotic. I wanted to stay in England and do the next great English musical; I wanted to write it and be in it. I wanted the tradition of English musicals to be equal to that of Broadway, which at that time was streets ahead of us, light-years ahead on England. I don't think it's reversed in quality, though it's certainly reversed in success.

"But it goes like that, doesn't it? It's very good that it should swing around like that. Because I remember when I was at university, the Americans dominated the whole scene and they were a bit patronizing about the English -- you know" -- Moody assumes a Sam Spiegel cigar-voiced growl -- "the American Producer would come over and take over, and if we were cast in any of the things we were puppets, told to do the way it was on Broadway.

"But I stayed in England, and I was the only one that didn't go to Broadway with 'Oliver!' And seven years later, I was the only one who was in the film."

Fagin is still the landmark role, of course, the part people still approach him about. "Whatever I've done they come up and say, 'You know, I thought you were marvelous in that Fagin.' Or they say 'I saw your film the other day,' because it's always on TV. Fortunately, they also talk about 'The Twelve Chairs.' And the one-man show.

"But my career has never really taken off as it should," he says. "I suppose I could have been much more successful if I'd stuck to what was expected of me -- Faginesque work, I mean. When 'Oliver!' was a big hit, I kept getting offered tons of characters, the same type of thing, and I wanted to diversify, do different things. It irritated me. People do tend to typecast, and you find that most of the successful people in films now are virtually giving the same performance with different clothes."

Moody says his indelible Fagin was in part a reaction against Alec Guinness' earlier film characterization, which Moody viewed as unnecessarily anti-Semitic. "The Cruikshank drawings show this huge nose, and so Guinness had built up a six-foot nose on his face, and even gone in for this 'Yes, my dears,' hissing, lisping, whisper. He went for all the stereotype qualities that were implied in the book. But the voice was not implied; that was his decision. It's not a criticism of Guinness, because it was a brilliant performance, and it was what people would think Dickens meant. But I just dismissed it. There was no question I would ever, as a Jew, play an anti-Semitic part that way. In fact, I'm proud that I have changed the image of Dickens' Fagin for a considerable number of years, so that instead of this monstrous period character, he becomes a man that's got some human qualities, and you can see him in the context of his times -- he had no other choice but to be either criminal or on the fringes of society. And those children were happy with him, because they weren't either up chimneys or down coal mines."

Perhaps the most feared critic on opening night of "H.M.S. Pinafore" in 1878 was Her Majesty Queen Victoria herself. And her critical pronouncement -- "We are not amused" -- was one of the most curt -- and long-lived -- pans in theatrical history.

But it just goes to show that bad reviews don't mean everything. Gilbert and Sullivan's frisky burlesque of the revered British Navy and class system went on to play 700 performances, and became a certified smash in America, with pirated versions proliferating all over the Colonies. Moody's role, the pompous Sir Joseph, was a satirical poke at W.H. Smith, a Conservative publishing magnate appointed by Disraeli to first lord of the admiralty, even though he didn't know bow from stern -- more saltine than old salt.

I always voted at my party's call

And I never thought of thinking for myself at all

I thought so little they rewarded me

By making me the ruler of the Queen's Na-vee.

" 'Pinafore' was shocking for its time," Moody says. "The parody, the whole lyric of 'When I was a lad,' it was very rude! I mean, W.H. Smith was the first lord of the admiralty, he had no idea of the sea, he was a self-made man who had created this empire, from office boy to publisher.

"It was written as a satirical sendup on the first lord of the admiralty, which is no longer relevant, is it? I mean, the satire's gone. Unless you put a footnote in the program, but even then, people aren't going to keep looking and saying, 'Oh, that's W.H. Smith.' It's gone, it's finished. So as far as satire goes, Gilbert and Sullivan are dead. So what do you do with it? You've got to add something new to it, which is why I think they put topical verses in the encores."

So Moody tosses in a few Gary Hart jokes, a Ronald Reagan impression, even drops Marion Barry's name, which gets a laugh. "When we were in Canada, they gave me verses that sent up Mulroney and the Senate. Encouraged by the sets, which to me are pure harlequinade, I've played Sir Joseph as a clown, and that's why I've introduced lots of comic business, shtick, you know.

"I'm a traditionalist in many ways," Moody says, "about religion, about society, about values. It's almost as if I'm a right-winger, but I'm not, I'm a socialist. But when it comes to the theater, I do believe you should move with the times. We had this come up with "H.M.S. Pinafore," whether the traditionalists are right, that it should be kept as it was, or whether we should take Gilbert and Sullivan, who are now out of copyright, and shift them into the 20th century a bit more. We do it with Shakespeare all the time.

"What I brought into it was this much brooooooaader playing, playing Sir Joseph as a clown. Which is what I did with Fagin. In every case, I've added an element of the clown to the villain, just under the surface -- so does Olivier, by the way. It makes it acceptable, takes the curse, the heaviness, off the character. And ideally, like in the case of Fagin, you can make people laugh or cry," Moody says. "It all goes back to the days in the parlor, watching those ham actors at work."