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‘When he’s sober, he’s boring as hell’: 25 years without Oliver Reed, the star who televised his long decline

He was one of the great British performers and one of the world’s most iconic vagabonds. After a fascinating career that was affected by his turbulent character and struggles with alcohol, he decided to become what the world wanted to see: the most televised drunk in the world

El actor Oliver Reed en el rodaje de 'La celada'
Oliver Reed on the set of 'Sitting Target,' in London circa 1972.TV Times (TV Times via Getty Images)

On May 2, 1999, the cast and crew had the day off from filming Gladiator. Everyone went out to enjoy their Sunday. This included British actor Oliver Reed (1938-1999), who had sworn to director Ridley Scott that he wouldn’t touch alcohol until the project was wrapped. However, after having rigorously kept his word for months, and with only a couple of scenes left to shoot, he broke his promise and went to a pub in Valletta, the capital city of Malta. Eight pints later, he decided to return to his hotel. Of course, just as he was walking out the door, he heard a phrase that amounted to a declaration of war: “Shall we have a drink, Ollie?”

Some British naval officers had recognized him. It was an ideal occasion to switch over to a long binge. Reed downed a dozen glasses of rum (doubles) while chatting with his countrymen. And, to avoid drying out during the arm wrestling matches to which he was challenged, he also had a bottle of whiskey. Not bad for a 61-year-old.

He won some matches, lost others, signed autographs, then said goodbye with hugs when it was time for the sailors to return to the ship. And that was when he felt like he was short of breath. His body collapsed. The next day, the newspapers talked about the absurdity of how his life ended. But Reed wouldn’t have agreed: for him, dying while drinking in a pub always seemed like the best possible option.

Reed may have been a fading star by then, but what did that matter to fans who remembered him from when he was a legend? Since childhood, in the eyes of his classmates, Reed had been widely admired for his resistance to physical punishment… the only method that the 14 British schools he attended used to try to control an uncontrollable student, who was afflicted with dyslexia, hyperactivity and extreme shyness.

Oliver Reed, circa 1973,
Oliver Reed, circa 1973,Chris Ware (Getty Images)
Oliver Reed, circa 1985.
Oliver Reed, circa 1985. Dave Hogan (Getty Images)

Reed never doubted that he was destined to become a star. His uncle Carol — director of The Third Man (1949) — opened doors for him in the film studios. And there began a rapid climb: he started off as an extra on TV shows, made a stop in Hammer Film Productions to appear in horror movies, before finally attaining the role of the villain in Oliver! (1968). It was this last part which, in addition to traumatizing a generation of children, would earn him global recognition.

It cannot be said that Reed was a traditional actor on the British scene. He had no theatrical training, nor the slightest interest in Shakespeare. His favorite book, as he freely confessed, was Winnie-the-Pooh (1926). Still, he had a kind of intuition that allowed him to take the roles he played to the limit, as few actors know how to do. He also had a physique of exultant virility, marked by an aggressiveness that wasn’t far off from his real-life persona.

His great friend Michel Winner — in comments he made years before directing Charles Bronson in Death Wish (1974) — felt that “Ollie was the kindest, calmest and most polite man in the world… except when he was having a drink.” And Reed was never short of drinks. “Entering a pub was a continuous [shootout],” he explained, because after a binge, fights usually broke out. His favorite way of dealing with them was in a gentlemanly manner, as required by his noble origin: he would accept the challenge, go home, put on his best Savile Row suit and attend the appointment on time. But other methods were more common. One of these brawls almost cost him his career, when he got into an argument with a dozen parishioners who said that all actors were “faggots.”

Reed didn’t regret the night he spent spitting up glass, nor did he regret the scars that would remain with him for the rest of his life. Rather, he was upset that he had to spend several months drinking whiskey through a straw until he regained movement in his jaw.

Pubs weren’t the only problem. David Hemmings, the protagonist of Blow-Up (1966), tried to avoid them when he took Reed to the bar of his hotel. He ended up passing out after his umpteenth drink… and when he woke up, he found himself hanging from a sixth floor window. When he looked up, he saw Reed holding his ankles, roaring with laughter.

Oliver Reed, circa 1971.
Oliver Reed, circa 1971. Evening Standard (Getty Images)
Oliver Reed, circa 1972.
Oliver Reed, circa 1972. Mirrorpix (Getty Images)

On a set, Reed crossed paths with director Ken Russell, the enfant terrible of British cinema, who was determined to carve out a career in filmography through excess upon excess. Reed fit into the mechanics perfectly. It was around then that his fame skyrocketed, thanks to his role in Women in Love (1969), which included the first male frontal nude in British cinema. It wasn’t easy for him to do it, but once it was accomplished, he abandoned any shyness.

One drunken night, he decided to go to a clandestine spot to get an eagle wing tattooed on the most beloved part of his body. He used to explain how he shaped his anatomy, so that the tattoo artist would have a smooth surface to work on. From then on, lowering his pants at the slightest opportunity became a habitual performance that he had no qualms about performing, be it at a high society party, or in a bar in front of Ozzy Osbourne.

Russell was also responsible for the biggest clash of titans ever known in the world of cinema, which came about when he offered Reed a role in Tommy (1975), the rock opera that he was going to film with the British rock band The Who. The band included drummer Keith Moon… a man who, one fine afternoon, decided to escape boredom by trying out the effect of horse tranquilizers. When he awoke and found out about Reed’s successful casting, he was impatient to meet his new filming partner. So, he headed to the actor’s Victorian mansion by helicopter.

Faced with the roar, Reed, who was taking a bath at the time, suspected a Soviet military invasion. Without enough time to get dressed, he grabbed a shotgun and ran outside to defend himself. The friendship was immediate and, during the two days that the visit lasted, they found many common amusements: fighting with Reed’s collection of antique swords, trying to run each other over with the car, or watching home movies that Moon had made with his girlfriend.

In view of what was coming, production decided to house them in a hotel that was separate from the one occupied by the rest of the team. But attracted by the continuous crowd of revelers and naked women, all members of the cast and crew ended up moving there. Reed said that it was difficult for him to keep up with Moon, but it certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying. From massive orgies to rooms destroyed for the mere pleasure of doing so, the excesses of fame were lived to the fullest extent. However, none of this affected Reed’s work. Whatever happened the night before, by morning, he was the first to arrive on set and carry out his scenes with strict professionalism.

Oliver Reed, circa 1972.
Oliver Reed, circa 1972. Mirrorpix (Getty Images)
Oliver Reed, circa 1970.
Oliver Reed, circa 1970. Evening Standard (Getty Images)

He never reached the first division of stardom. He was close to doing so when Sean Connery decided to abandon the character of James Bond: Reed was designated as his successor. However, the Scotsman ultimately reconsidered. A similar thing happened when Steve McQueen traveled to London to propose a joint film: Ollie met him at his trusted pub and, soon afterwards, vomited all over his guest. And, when he was offered parts in The Sting (1973) and Jaws (1975), he ended up rejecting them, because he wasn’t interested in those movies. Rather, Reed preferred the challenge of working with performers that shared his style.

Not everyone was receptive to him. At the conclusion of the supernatural horror film Burnt Offerings (1976), actress Bette Davis called him “one of the most disgusting human beings I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter.” Piers Haggard, director of Venom (1981), found Reed trying to overturn German actor Klaus Kinski’s trailer, shouting: “Come out of there if you have the balls, you Nazi son of a bitch!” Robert Mitchum wasn’t particularly happy about having to see the eagle wing tattoo on the first day of filming the miniseries Private Eye (1978). But when Reed found a friend, he was a friend for life. The presence of actor Lee Marvin — one of Hollywood’s most legendary drunks — was the only reason that led him to embark on a comedy western, The Great Scout & Cathouse Thursday (1976). The camaraderie was forged on their first night together while on set in Durango, Mexico, when in a strip club, Marvin passed out from drinking in the middle of a shootout. Reed managed to drag him out of there.

Reed began to sense the end of his glory years upon crossing the barrier of 40, when all his excesses suddenly became visible. One critic would say that his face had mutated into the worst-preserved part of Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain. But despite this — to show that he felt the same vitality as always — he announced his third marriage, to a girl 25 years his junior. And she was very understanding, judging by her statements: “I prefer him drunk — he’s much more fun. When he’s sober, he’s boring as hell.”

Oliver Reed in a pub, circa 1984.
Oliver Reed in a pub, circa 1984. P. Shirley (Getty Images)
Oliver Reed, circa 1973
Oliver Reed, circa 1973Chris Ware (Getty Images)

After the wedding — which lasted three days and three nights, with Reed wearing only a kilt — they announced that they were leaving his house and moving to the island of Guernsey, in the English Channel. He was aware that the Bull’s Head, the last pub in the area that continued to allow him entry, had just banned him for life, after he climbed up its chimney shouting “I’m Santa Claus!” He did all of this while showing everyone the eagle wing. This problem wouldn’t be repeated, because in his new house, Reed had a pub installed.

Thus came the last opportunity to revive a lost career… and Reed clung to it for dear life. Nicolas Roeg, one of the UK’s most prestigious directors, offered him the lead role in his next film, Castaway (1986). But, at the end of filming, the doctors told him enough was enough: if he continued drinking, he wouldn’t live much longer.

For a moment, Reed hesitated. Although, in the end, the idea of facing a boring old age waiting for death horrified him much more than the idea of wasting away quickly. He soon resolved the uncertainty.

Castaway was a success. However, given his background, no producer dared offer him any other relevant role. Around that time, the highly respected British Film Institute offered his uncle Carol a tribute. Reed decided that he couldn’t miss it. Unable to say two coherent words into the microphone, he ended up falling face down on the stage. But, when he returned to his seat in a state of embarrassment, a colleague congratulated him, telling him that he had given the audience exactly what they expected — something that few actors were capable of. And, in that moment, Reed glimpsed a shining light: he remembered that it wasn’t his films, but rather two media appearances that his followers on both sides of the ocean, most often reminded him of.

Oliver Reed, accompanied by actress Carol White, circa 1967.
Oliver Reed, accompanied by actress Carol White, circa 1967. Larry Ellis (Getty Images)

The first incident took place on a BBC program. When asked what he would take with him to a desert island in order to survive, he answered — without any hint of irony — that it would have to be an inflatable doll. Then, on Johnny Carson’s show, he expressed his crude opinion on women’s liberation so casually that Oscar-winning actress Shelley Winters came on the set and dumped a whiskey over his head. Reed thought: if that was what the public wanted from him, who was he to deny it to them?

Following his appearance at the British Film Institute, Reed didn’t hesitate to offer the cameras the high-octane spectacle that wasn’t possible via cinema. He became the meat of late-night shows: falling down, promoting movies without being able to remember the plot, provoking Sylvester Stallone on The Late Show with David Letterman. Once, when a TV presenter asked him what his future plans were, he responded that he planned on having sex with the man’s wife.

Oliver Reed, circa 1971.
Oliver Reed, circa 1971. Evening Standard (Getty Images)

This was all just an appetizer of what would happen when he began to sense the concept of “political correctness” on the horizon. He began to use it as a sounding board… and, of course, he didn’t always know his limits. On one show, the radical feminist Kate Millett tolerated him when he referred to her “big tits,” but the tension rose when she pushed him away as he forcibly grabbed her and kissed her on the cheek.

Upon being expelled from the set, Reed, who was supposedly drunk, gave a respectful goodbye: “Good evening, ladies and gentleman.” This raised doubts about what was either real inebriation or pure simulation. For some, this episode represented the grotesque degradation of a person who had hit rock bottom; for others, the actor had an amazing ability to turn his own life into a show, taking uncomfortable humor to extreme limits.

Reed never saw anything offensive about his famous jokes. He had been playing tricks on people ever since the end of shooting The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), when he decided to keep his makeup on and see the reactions of people in the street.

On another TV program, a host asked him if he saw his life as a continuous party. Reed didn’t hesitate: “It should be. Everyone would like their life to be that way. But only a few of us have the opportunity.” And, if there’s no doubt about one thing, it’s that Reed took full advantage of the life he had.

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