I recently read What Fresh Lunacy is This?, a biography of the late and legendarily hellraising British movie star Oliver – ‘Ollie’ – Reed. Written in 2013 by the film journalist Robert Sellers, it’s a brisk and engaging book. Sellers knows and delivers what his core readership wants, which is a detailed account of Ollie’s outrageous booze-fuelled antics during four decades of stardom. But he’s also aware of Ollie’s films and gives these due attention and respect.
Sellers’ book fully conveys the paradox of Oliver Reed. On one hand he was often kind-hearted, funny, loyal, boundlessly generous and impeccably good-mannered. On the other hand his character also contained a Pandora’s Box of vices: petulance, childishness, boorishness, cruelty and obnoxiousness. And usually what unlocked that box was the alcohol consumed during his interminable drinking sprees.
What Fresh Lunacy is This? cites several possible reasons why Ollie poured so much liquor down his neck. He was at heart a shy man and booze bolstered his confidence. He was conscious of being both well-to-do and an actor, two things he didn’t much care for; and booze was his way of bonding with the common folk whom he felt much more comfortable with – builders, soldiers, sailors, gardeners, road-workers. Later, he realised he was frittering his talents away on sub-standard movies and booze provided an outlet for his frustration. And, ever the showman, he felt obliged to give the Great British public what they wanted, which was the spectacle of him raising hell on an apocalyptic scale. The book never identifies which of these was the prime motivation for his behaviour. I suspect it was a combination of them all.
What often gets overlooked in accounts of Ollie’s life is the fact that he was a very fine actor, one of the most memorably intense and brooding ones that the British film industry produced. His CV contained some treasurable performances: as King in Joseph Losey’s The Damned (1963); Gerald Crich in Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969); Father Urbain Grandier in Russell’s The Devils (1971); Athos in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973) and Four Musketeers (1974); Dr Raglan in David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979); Vulcan in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen (1988); and Proximo in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000). Thankfully, Sellers’ book gives his acting the credit it deserves.
Anyway, here are a few new facts I learned about Ollie whilst reading What Fresh Lunacy is This?
Ollie’s grandfather was Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was, in the words of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “one of the great figures of the English theatre” and “the most successful actor-manager of his time”. Beerbohm Tree’s half-brother and Ollie’s great uncle, meanwhile, was the essayist, humourist and caricaturist Max Beerbohm whose one-and-only novel, Zuleika Dobson (1911), is ranked by the Modern Library publishing company at number 59 in the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Ollie bought the film rights to Great Uncle Max’s book but never managed to get it to the screen.
(c) The Rank Film Organisation
I’d known that, early in his career, Ollie had appeared briefly in The Bulldog Breed (1960), a gormless and irritating comedy featuring the gormless and irritating Norman Wisdom. He plays the leader of a gang of hoodlums who waylay Norman at a cinema and give him a (well-deserved in my opinion) kicking. What I hadn’t known that one of the sailors who rescue Norman from the hoodlums was played by an equally young and un-famous Michael Caine.
In 1962 Ollie appeared in the swashbuckler Captain Clegg, one of several movies he made for the British studio Hammer Films, alongside the much-loved and gentlemanly horror-movie star Peter Cushing. Noticing how Reed rather overacted in a scene where his character gets shot in the arm, Cushing later wrote him a letter of advice. “I think you’re going to go a very long way, Oliver,” the letter said. “But always remember, if you are hurt, you don’t have to act hurt. If somebody grabs you, just blink. The screen is so big that even the slightest movement makes the point.” Ollie took Cushing’s suggestion on board. His best performances are distinguished by their stillness and understatement. He conveys a great deal with only a modicum of expression and movement.
The 1967 comedy I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘Isname was among a half-dozen films Ollie made for the famously gobby director Michael Winner. Generally, Winner and him got along like a house on fire. But one day, Ollie’s patience snapped when he had to film a scene where he was propelling a punt along the River Cam in Cambridge with, at one end of it, a cameraman and Michael Winner barking directions through a megaphone. Ollie got so fed up with Winner “f**king rabbiting on in that grating voice of his” that eventually he jumped off the punt, taking the pole with him, and swam ashore – leaving Winner (“shouting and screaming and gesticulating so ferociously that he almost capsized the boat”) and his cameraman helplessly adrift on the river.
(c) The Guardian
Ken Russell’s The Devils saw Ollie appear alongside the actress and fervent left-wing political activist Vanessa Redgrave who, during filming, wanted to show solidarity with a one-day strike organised by the Trade Union movement against the early-1970s Conservative government. She tried to get the performers and crew on the set to stop work and walk off it. Ollie was having none of this, believing that a day’s strike-action was the last thing Britain’s beleaguered film industry needed. The pair of them had a furious ten-minute confrontation about it in his dressing room, which culminated in Redgrave bursting into tears. “So I put my arms around her,” recollected the gallant Ollie, “and gave her a cuddle. Then I slapped her on the bottom and sent her back to her own dressing room.”
In the early 1970s, Ken Russell and Ollie were working on an ultimately-unrealised project about the quartet of knights who killed Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral in the 12th century. Discussing the film in the great hall of Ollie’s country mansion one night, the pair of them somehow ended up in a swordfight that climaxed with Russell slashing open Ollie’s shirt, and his chest underneath, with a rusty six-foot broadsword. “Excellent!” enthused the wounded hell-raiser. “Now we’re blood brothers.”
Ollie’s 1981 movie Venom is the story of a house where a hostage situation is taking place and where, somehow, an ultra-poisonous black mamba snake is also slithering around loose, endangering both hostages and hostage-takers. It’s infamous for the rivalry that existed on set between Ollie and his co-star, the great but deranged Polish-German actor Klaus Kinski. Venom’s director, Piers Haggard, noted that Kinski “had no sense of humour”; whereas Ollie “had a fabulous sense of humour, very wicked… and he definitely liked a laugh at Klaus Kinski’s expense.” One day Haggard was informed that the film’s financiers, the aristocratic Anglo-Irish Guinness family, would be visiting the set, but soon forgot all about it. When Lord Guinness, his wife and children were ushered in, they were treated to an unscripted scene where Ollie, laughing like a maniac, came charging down a staircase pursued by an enraged Kinski who was screaming, “You f**king English c**t!”, presumably because he’d just been on the receiving end of an Ollie-prank. Small wonder that Haggard claimed the black mamba had been the easiest cast-member to work with.
(c) Morrison Film Group / Handmade Films / Paramount
By the early 1980s, his career on the slide, Ollie made movies in some unlikely places with some unlikely backers. The historical epic Lion of the Desert (1981) was filmed in Libya and funded by Colonel Gaddafi. Meanwhile, A Clash of Loyalties (1983) was a personal project of Saddam Hussein and was made in Iraq even though the Iran / Iraq War was in full swing at the time. Holed up in a large, boring hotel when they weren’t filming, Ollie’s antics kept the crew entertained. On one occasion he created such a rumpus that several Arab guests pulled out guns, believing that the hotel was being attacked.
The early 1980s was also when Ollie had his penis – ‘the mighty mallet’ as he called it – tattooed and he liked nothing better than to whip it out in public and show people the results of the tattooist’s art. Whilst making Castaway for the renowned British director Nicholas Roeg in the Seychelles in the mid-1980s, a dislike developed between Ollie and the producer’s assistant. One day he spied her eating a meal in a restaurant, crept up behind her, loosened the tattooed mallet and dropped it onto her shoulder. She promptly stabbed it with her fork. Ollie did not attempt this stunt again.
Ollie cemented his reputation as a booze-monster with a string of drunken appearances on British TV chat shows during the late 1980s and early 1990s: Aspel and Company, Des O’Connor Tonight, After Dark and The Word. In doing so, he effectively doomed what was left of his movie career since producers became too frightened of his reputation to hire him – as Sellers puts it, he was “the sniper at his own assassination”. At least on Des O’Connor Tonight he befriended a fellow guest, the Liverpudlian comedian Stan Boardman. When Boardman performed on the island of Guernsey, where by now Reed was living for tax purposes, he invited him to the gig. There, Ollie didn’t take kindly to an audience-member who was heckling Boardman. The comedian recalled how Ollie grabbed the heckler, “gave him a big bear hug, lifted him up on to his feet, dragged him out onto the dance floor and they collapsed together in front of about three hundred people.” The next day, Stan and Ollie headed for a restaurant where by coincidence the exact same heckler was sitting having a meal. Renewing hostilities, Ollie flung himself on top of him and they ended up rolling about the floor, knocking crockery everywhere. The man eventually fled the restaurant. Presumably he never heckled Stan Boardman again.
In 1999 Ollie died in Malta, where he’d been making Gladiator for Ridley Scott. I knew he’d expired in an establishment in Valetta called the Pub, from a heart attack seemingly caused by over-exertion – he’d just been knocking back rums and arm-wrestling with a bunch of young ratings from a Royal Navy warship. (In fact, I knew that very well because I’d drunk in the Pub in Valetta myself on a few occasions.) However, I hadn’t known that his death happened by accident. His original intention that day had been to have a quiet meal with his wife at a nearby Chinese restaurant, but the restaurant had been closed and instead they’d wandered into the Pub and encountered the sailors.
I like to think there’s a parallel universe where the Chinese restaurant had been open that fateful day, so that Ollie avoided the Pub, the ratings and the heart attack and survived to make a few more films – buoyed by the success of Gladiator and the acclaim that his performance in it received. (As Proximo, he’s one of the best things in the movie.) Who knows? He might have worked with the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Danny Boyle, Michael Winterbottom and the Coen Brothers; and made a couple more pictures with old acquaintances such as Terry Gilliam, David Cronenberg and Ridley Scott.
(c) Scott Free Productions