Robert Oliver Reed was born February 13th 1938 in in Wimbledon, London, to a sports journalist Peter Reed and his wife Marcia. He had two brothers; David who later became his business manager and a half-brother Simon who would become his press agent.
Perhaps Oliver was destined to become an actor, not only was he the nephew of the film director Sir Carol Reed but he was also the grandson of actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who founded the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in 1904. But Oliver did not start his career in acting right away, first he dropped out of high school then bounced from career to career for a while including some time spent in the British Army's, Royal Army Medical Corps.
In the late 1950's with no actor's training or theatrical experience he began his film career as an extra, appearing in a number of films before he got his big break in Hammer's The Curse of the Werewolf. Reed played Leon Corledo AKA the werewolf. The plot was typical for a werewolf story, but it would receive some notice for solid performances by the cast and a strong performance by Reed who it's been said really held the movie together. The film did not perform well at the box office, perhaps because it promised more than it delivered and this would be Hammer's only exploration of the Werewolf mythos.
After Curse Reed would get to take on larger roles in more Hammer films but not another lead until Paranoiac. Directed by the great Freddie Francis, Paranoiac is about a man who is trying to drive his sister insane so he can inherit her fortune, but a mysterious man shows up claiming to be their long lost brother and things go crazy from there. Reed once again received praise for his performance but the movie received criticism for being uneven. He would appear in Hammer films after this but it seemed as though mentally he had moved on and in 1964 would appear in the first six films directed by Michael Winner.
1965 saw his first collaboration between director Ken Russell and Reed in a biopic of Classical music composer Claude Debussy. It was the beginning of a partnership that would grant Reed the opportunity to really test his acting skills and would eventually produce the movie in which Reed felt he gave his best performance, The Devils.
But before there was The Devils there was Oliver!, the Oscar winning musical film adaptation of the Charles Dickens book Oliver Twist. Reed played the role of the villainous Bill Sikes, and it seemed like the role he was born to play, but there were accusations of nepotism here as the movie was directed by his uncle Sir Carol Reed.
1969 saw Reed appearing in the Michael Winner comedy Hannibal Brooks, alongside an elephant named Lucy. Hannibal Brooks is the story of a man, accompanied by an Asian elephant, trying to get to Switzerland from Germany in World War II. Hannibal Brookes is widely considered to be one of the best performances by an elephant on the big screen...
In the mean time Reed was developing quite the reputation as a heavy drinker and womanizer. There are numerous anecdotes such as the one where Reed and 36 friends drank in one evening; 60 gallons of beer, 32 bottles of Scotch, 17 bottles of gin, four crates of wine and one bottle of Babycham. He subsequently revised the story, claiming he drank 106 pints of beer on a 2-day binge. Or in 1986 when he lost weight to appear in Castaway on a diet of vodka.
There is also a pretty colorful anecdote about the time he met Steve McQueen. In 1973 Steve McQueen flew to England to meet Reed and discuss a possible film collaboration. "Reed showed me his country mansion and we got on well," recalled McQueen. "He then suggested he take me to his favorite London nightclub." The drinking, which started at Reed's home, Broome Hall, continued into the night until Reed could hardly stand. Suddenly, and with no apparent warning, he vomited over McQueen's shirt and trousers. "The staff rushed around and found me some new clothes, but they couldn't get me any shoes," said McQueen. "I had to spend the rest of the night smelling of Oliver Reed's sick."
Reed was also fond of performing a party trick which consisted of him exposing his "Mighty Mallet" (as he liked to call it) in order to proudly display the bird-claw tattoo that adorned them.
It was also about this time, Bond franchise producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were looking for a replacement for Sean Connery, and Reed was mentioned as a possible choice for the role. Broccoli wrote in his memoirs, "With Reed we would have had a far greater problem to destroy his image and re-mold him as James Bond. We just didn't have the time or money to do that." According to Cliff Goodwin, author of the book "Evil Spirits", "Oliver was probably within a sliver of being cast as Bond." He adds, "But by 1968 his affairs were public and he was already drinking and fighting - as far away from the refined Bond image as you could get.". Whatever the reason, Reed was never to play Bond. After Reed's death, the Guardian Unlimited called the casting decision, "One of the great missed opportunities of post-war British movie history". I have to agree.
But back to Ken Russell... In 1969 Reed could also be seen in Russell's Women in Love alongside Alan Bates. Based on the book by D.H. Lawrence, it explored relationships between men and women during the early part of the 20th century. Perhaps however the movie is best known for for an extended scene in which Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestle in the nude. Both actors were initially apprehensive about filming the scene due to the insecurity they had about being naked in front of each other. Russell had to assure them that the set would be off-limits and that there would be no rehearsal. It was the first movie with full frontal male nudity and would be rated X for it. (Oddly enough Reed also starred in the first film to include the word “fuck” I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘Is Name, as well as the first British film to be rated X due to its violent content Sitting Target)
Of course the controversy surrounding Women in Love was nothing compared to the one that would surround the 1971 Russell film The Devils, loosely based on an actual historic event The Devils tells the story of a power hungry Cardinal Richelieu and his power-hungry entourage seeking to take control of seventeenth-century France. Standing in their way is Father Grandier (played by Reed) - a charming priest who runs a fortified town that prevents them from exerting total control. Seeking to destroy his reputation they accuse him of being a warlock in control of a devil-possessed nunnery. Added to Richelieu's greed is the unbridled lust of the nunnery's mother superior (Vanessa Redgrave with a hunch back) who is sexually obsessed by him. A mad witch-hunter is brought in to gather evidence against the priest and all hell breaks loose in orgiastic grandness!
In the United Kingdom The Devils was banned by 17 local authorities, and saw alot more than 17 scathing reviews; Judith Crist called it a "grand fiesta for sadists and perverts", while Derek Malcolm called it "a very bad film indeed." Of course the film had it's fans too, it won the award for Best Director-Foreign Film in the Venice Film Festival, despite being banned in that country and the US National Board of Review awarded Ken Russell best director for The Devils. Not to mention Oliver Reed considered his work in this film the best acting of his career. This film just saw a much anticipated DVD release with all the bells and whistles in the UK but the US (despite a write in campaign and online petitions) still waits for it's own DVD release.
In 1973 Reed had his chance to swash buckle across the screen appearing as Athos in the very fun adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' Three Musketeers, appearing along with co-stars Michael York, Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunnaway and Raquel Welch. Originally contracted to complete one film, director Richard Lester filmed more material than was needed and decided to split the footage into two films. Feeling as though they had been tricked into making two movies while only being paid for one the actors sued Lester and the production. They won their case in court, but did not receive as much money as they would have if they were paid separately for both films.
By the mid-1970s he was considered by many to be Britain's biggest movie star. He declined roles in The Sting and in Jaws because he didn't want to relocate to Los Angeles (both of these roles would end up being taken by fellow British hellraiser Robert Shaw). One Hollywood executive would claim, "Reed didn't turn us down. We turned him down. We like our stars to have respect - Oliver Reed didn't respect anyone and he showed it."
In 1975 Reed appeared in Ken Russell's film version of The Who's rock opera Tommy. According to Pete Townshend, Oliver Reed had incredible problems recording his part of the soundtrack owing to his inability to sing, and he was able to complete it only because his singing parts were recorded in small bits. I wouldn't call this film great cinema but it is a must see for any fan of Reed.
From the 80s onwards Reed's films had less success, but he did appear in some unforgettable classics like 1988's The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen where he played the gruff god Vulcan and his appearance in 1990's Treasure Island as Billy Bones. His final role was the elderly slave dealer Proximo in Gladiator, in which he acted alongside Richard Harris, according to some Harris was an actor Reed greatly admired both on and off the set but Reed has also been quoted as saying “…Even though people say Richard Harris and I have been having a great feud, it’s not true. After all, how could be feuding for years? I’d never heard of him until two weeks ago."
On May 2, 1999 half way through the Gladiator shoot, Reed's rampant alcoholism caught up with him and he died of a sudden heart attack. He was 61 years old and was reported to be heavily intoxicated at the time of his death. Racking up an $866 alcohol bill, Reed had reportedly drunk three bottles of Captain Morgan's rum, eight bottles of beer and numerous doubles of Famous Grouse whisky. He also beat five much younger Royal Navy sailors at arm wrestling at a bar called "The Pub." (The owners have since added "Ollie's Last Pub" to the sign.) Several of his scenes in Gladiator had to be completed using CGI techniques.
The film was released after his death in 2000 with some footage filmed after his death with an acting double digitally mixed with outtake footage. He was posthumously nominated for a British Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and also for the Screen Actors Guild Award.
Reed’s views on the subject of death were relatively well documented and before he died he arranged to have £10,000 out of his estate spent at his local pub, but only for “those who are crying”. Discussing potential body-disposal methods, Reed refuted the deep-freeze method adopted by those such as “rich Americans like Walt Disney”. Also slated was the idea of him being laid out for days in his Sunday best in order to “have people gawping at me to see what a dead hellraiser looks like”, as was cremation, as was burial due to his disgust at “maggots having a ball crawling up my nose and out of my mouth”, and burial at sea: “Who wants to be gobbled up by a big fish and become excrement that is swallowed up by a prawn… ending up as mayonnaise, being nibbled at by a pretty girl… I don’t want to be permanent shit.’”
Reed’s ideal form of post-life disposal? “I would much rather end up a fertiliser under a sunflower which is eventually made into sunflower seed oil so that instead of nibbling me in her prawn cocktail, the pretty girl will rub me on her bristols as she suns herself on a beach in the Caribbean”. God bless you, Oliver Reed.