“The British press introduce me as a 5-foot-2 sex thimble,” said Dudley Moore, slipping into a distinct English accent. “Cuddly Dudley. You know, it’s been going on for a number of years. I expect they’ll come up with something else at some point, something slightly more flattering. But it’s all right. It’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, as they say.”
Moore, 55, was musing over the massive press coverage he received in Britain for his new 10-part TV series “Orchestra!” with conductor Sir Georg Solti. The freestyle series, with classical performances staged like music videos, unshrouds the orchestra section by section through the young multinational members of the Schleswig-Holstein Orchestra.
“It’s sort of the MTV of classical music,” Moore said of the series, which recently finished airing in Britain and begins on Showtime Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. “They’ve got subterranean lights that flash up and down during Beethoven’s Ninth.”
“Orchestra!” was something of a homecoming for Moore, whose American career began after he turned 40 and has mostly kept him from his homeland. During those early days in Britain, he played breezy jazz with the Dudley Moore Trio. He became famous for musical parody in the 1960s with his London stage revue “Beyond the Fringe,” which later became a hit on Broadway, and for comedy skits in his British TV series “Not Only But Also . . .,” both with Peter Cook.
“There’s a slight paradox,” said Jonathan Hewes, who produced “Orchestra!” for Britain’s Channel 4. “Dudley is obviously very, very popular in Britain, but we haven’t seen him for a long time because he’s been based in the States since the ‘70s.”
That’s when Moore first showed up as a lecherous orchestra leader with bizarre sexual habits in 1978’s “Foul Play.” His compulsive infatuation with Bo Derek in “10" secured his status here and his lovable drunk “Arthur” pushed him over the top in 1981.
“It’s wonderful having that sort of attention, and I don’t think you ever quite capture it again,” Moore said during a poolside interview at the Toluca Lake home he is fixing up with his third wife, Brogan Lane. With a film career that has cooled off considerably since “Arthur,” Moore said his greatest ambition now is to “produce a beautiful tone on the piano.”
Growing up in a poor council neighborhood in Dagenham, Moore first climbed onto a piano bench at 6. “I was going to be an organist and choirmaster,” said Moore, who attended Oxford on an organ scholarship. “I joined the local choir when I was about 9 until I was 18. Yes, I was a choirboy.”
But Moore said he never excelled as a youngster because he didn’t want to show up his mother, a mediocre pianist. And his childhood was plagued by hospital visits to correct the club foot he was born with.
“I was very serious, I think, as a kid,” Moore said. “Part of that gravity was due to fear of the world, having spent a lot of time in hospitals. When I was about 13 I was tired of being bullied. The usual sort of comedian’s complaint. So I decided I just couldn’t stand it any longer. I became a clown.”
At the start of his career Moore parodied his prodigious talent. In one of his most famous musical takeoffs, he played Beethoven’s Pathetique as a piano player losing his memory. Now Moore is intent on becoming a world-class pianist, playing three hours a day compared to a half-hour a day 10 years ago.
He has performed for audiences at Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl.
“Who knows whether people enjoy my music because I do other things,” Moore said. “I don’t know. It’s hard to know whether they want to see Arthur fall over on his back off a stool, or Dudley sitting on a stool playing the piano.”
“Orchestra!” gave Moore one of his greatest musical challenges. He was paired with Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Solti, 78, a maverick maestro once dubbed the Screaming Skull by the Royal Opera orchestra because of his demand for perfection.
Moore said, “I started playing at one point and (Solti) asked me, ‘Do you want to do a Dudley Moore piano concerto by Schuman, or a Schuman piano concerto played by Dudley Moore?’ I said, ‘Let’s make it a Schuman piano concerto.’ ”
In return, Moore helped demystify the tough exterior of Hungarian-born Solti. “His main admonition to me was not to let him become too serious or too pompous,” Moore said. “And I tried to deflate that as much as possible.”
“People think probably about me that I’m such a different person, sitting on Olympus, not with normal mortals,” Solti said in a phone interview from Sweden. “But I have a great sense of humor and love to laugh.
“At first I did not know how to address Dudley, or what to do with him as a musician. After a half hour it was easy. He’s a film star and I’m a conductor. But for a film star he is quite excellent playing the piano, and for a conductor I look quite good on film.”
This month Moore is shooting the Hollywood Pictures comedy “Blame It On the Bell Boy” in Venice, Italy, where he practices piano on an electronic keyboard in his dressing room.
“I never really took music that seriously before,” Moore said. “I was almost ashamed to take it seriously. It’s been a very difficult aspect of my life, because I felt that I could not be good. I should not be good.”
“Orchestra!” premieres Tuesday at 7:30-8 p.m. on Showtime with new episodes every two weeks.