Movie Stars: Reed, Oliver–Background, Career, Awards

Robert Oliver Reed (February 13, 1938–May 2, 1999) was an English actor known for his upper-middle class, macho image and “hellraiser” lifestyle.

Notable films include The Trap (1966), playing Bill Sikes in the Best Picture Oscar winner Oliver! (1968), Women in Love (1969), Hannibal Brooks (1969), The Devils (1971), Athos in The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), Teddy Boy in Tommy (1975), The Brood (1979), Lion of the Desert (1981), Castaway (1986), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), Funny Bones (1995) and Gladiator (2000).

For playing Antonius Proximo, the old, gruff gladiator trainer in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in what was his final film, Reed was posthumously nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in 2000.

At the peak of his career, in 1971, British exhibitors voted Reed 5th most popular star at the box office.

Reed was born on February 13, 1938 at 9 Durrington Park Road, Wimbledon, southwest London, to Peter Reed, a sports journalist, and Marcia (née Napier-Andrews).

He was the nephew of film director Carol Reed, and grandson of the actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and his mistress, Beatrice May Pinney (who later assumed the name ‘Reed’), she being “the only person who understood, listened to, encouraged and kissed Oliver.”

Reed claimed to have been a descendant (through an illegitimate step) of Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia.

Reed attended 14 schools, including Ewell Castle School in Surrey. Oliver’s brother Simon Reed, a sports journalist, works for British Eurosport. “My father thought I was just lazy,” Reed later said. “He thought I was a dunce.”

Reed worked as a boxer, a bouncer, a taxi driver and a hospital porter.

He did his compulsory army service in the Royal Army Medical Corps. “The army helped,” he said. “I recognized that most other people were actors as well. I was in the peacetime army and they were all telling us youngsters about the war.”

When he got out of the army, Reed began his acting career as a film extra. He appeared uncredited in Norman Wisdom’s film The Square Peg (1958).

Uncredited TV appearances included episodes of The Invisible Man (1958), The Four Just Men (1959) and The Third Man. He appeared in the documentary Hello London (1958).

Reed’s first break was playing Richard of Gloucester in six-part BBC TV series The Golden Spur (1959). It did not help his career immediately: He was not credited in the films The Captain’s Table (1959), Upstairs and Downstairs (1959), directed by Ralph Thomas, Life Is a Circus (1960), The Angry Silence (1960), The League of Gentlemen (1960) and Beat Girl (1960). He played a bouncer in The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960) for Hammer Films; the director was Terence Fisher. Reed was then in The Bulldog Breed (1960), another Wisdom film, playing the leader of a gang of Teddy Boys roughing up Wisdom in a cinema.

Reed got his first significant role in Hammer Films’ Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960), again directed by Fisher.

He went back to small roles for His and Hers (1961), a Terry-Thomas comedy; No Love for Johnnie (1961) for Ralph Thomas; and The Rebel (1961) with Tony Hancock.

Reed’s first starring role came when Hammer cast him as the central character in Terence Fisher’s The Curse of the Werewolf (1961).

Hammer liked Reed and gave him good supporting roles in the swashbuckler The Pirates of Blood River (1962), directed by John Gilling; Captain Clegg (1962), a smugglers tale with Peter Cushing; The Damned (1963), a science fiction film directed by Joseph Losey; Paranoiac (1963), a psycho thriller for director Freddie Francis; and The Scarlet Blade (1963); a swashbuckler set during the English Civil War, directed by Gilling, with Reed as a Roundhead.

During this time he appeared in ITV Playhouse productions, “Murder in Shorthand” (1962) and “The Second Chef” (1962), and guest-starred in episodes of The Saint. He also had the lead in a non-Hammer horror, The Party’s Over (made 1963, released 1965), directed by Guy Hamilton.

In 1964 he starred in the first of six films directed by Michael Winner, The System (known as The Girl-Getters in the US). The film was seen by Ken Russell who then cast Reed in the title role of The Debussy Film (1965), a TV biopic of Claude Debussy.

Reed said this was crucial to his career because “That was the first time I met Ken Russell and it was the first part I had after I’d had my face cut in a fight and no one would employ me. Everybody thought I was a cripple.”[10] It was also the first time he broke away from villainous roles. “Until that time they thought I was a neolithic dustbin,” said Reed.[13] Reed later said “Hammer films had given me my start and Michael Winner my bread then Ken Russell came on the screen and gave me my art.”

He narrated Russell’s TV movie Always on Sunday (1965). Reed returned to Hammer for The Brigand of Kandahar (1965), playing a villainous Indian in an imperial action film for Gilling. He later called it the worst film he ever made for Hammer.[15] He guest-starred in episodes of It’s Cold Outside and Court Martial, the latter directed by Seth Holt. He had a regular role in the TV series R3 (1965).

Reed was the lead in Canadian-British co-production, The Trap (1966), co-starring with Rita Tushingham.

Reed’s career stepped up another level when he starred in the popular comedy film The Jokers (1966), his second film with Winner, alongside Michael Crawford. After playing a villain in a horror movie, The Shuttered Room (1967), he did a third with Winner, I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname (1967), co-starring with Orson Welles. Reed was reunited with Russell for another TV movie, Dante’s Inferno (1967), playing Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

“Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed and Peter O’Toole were among the four greatest actors of their generation. Onstage, they brought new vigour to Shakespeare and Shaw. Onscreen, they made British cinema sexy in classic films including Lawrence of Arabia, Oliver!, Becket and This Sporting Life.”—Four Hellraisers, Living It Up In The Public Eye. NPR, 27 March 2010.

Reed’s star rose as a result of playing Bill Sikes in Oliver! (1968), alongside Ron Moody, Shani Wallis, Mark Lester, Jack Wild and Harry Secombe, in his uncle Reed’s screen version of the successful stage musical. It was a huge hit, winning the Best Picture Oscar[ Reed received praise for his villainous turn.

He was in the black comedy The Assassination Bureau (1969) with Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas, directed by Basil Dearden; and a war film for Winner, Hannibal Brooks (1969).

Wrestling Naked

More successful was his fourth film with Russell, a film version of Women in Love (1969), in which he wrestled naked with Alan Bates in front of a log fire.  In 1969 Interstate Theatres awarded him their International Star of the Year Award.

Take a Girl Like You (1970) was a sex comedy with Hayley Mills based on a novel by Kingsley Amis;

The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun (1970) was a thriller directed by Anatole Litvak.

The following year, Reed appeared in the controversial film The Devils (1971), directed by Russell with Vanessa Redgrave.

Almost James Bond

In 1969, Bond franchise producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were looking for a replacement for Sean Connery and Reed (who had recently played a killer in The Assassination Bureau) was mentioned as possible choice, with Timothy Dalton and Roger Moore as the other choices. 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.”

He made a series of action-orientated projects: The Hunting Party (1971), a Western shot in Spain with Gene Hackman; Sitting Target (1972), a tough gangster film; and Z.P.G. (1972), a science fiction film with Geraldine Chaplin. In March 1971 he said he would make a film, The Offering, which he would co-write and produce, but it was not made.

He did The Triple Echo (1972) directed by Michael Apted, and featured Reed alongside Glenda Jackson.

Reed also appeared in Italian films: Dirty Weekend (1973), with Marcello Mastroianni; One Russian Summer (1973) with Claudia Cardinale; and Revolver (1973).

He had great success playing Athos in The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) for director Richard Lester from a script by George MacDonald Fraser.

Reed had an uncredited bit-part in Russell’s Mahler (1974), was the lead in Blue Blood (1973) and And Then There Were None (1974), produced by Harry Alan Towers. His next project with Ken Russell was Tommy where he plays Tommy’s cruel stepfather, a 1950s Teddy Boy, based on The Who’s 1969 concept album Tommy and starring its lead singer Roger Daltrey. Royal Flash (1975) reunited him with Richard Lester and George MacDonald Fraser, playing Otto von Bismarck. He had a cameo in Russell’s Lisztomania (1975).

Reed appeared in The New Spartans (1975) then acted alongside Karen Black, Bette Davis, and Burgess Meredith in the Dan Curtis horror film Burnt Offerings (1976).

He was in The Sell Out (1976) and The Great Scout & Cathouse Thursday (1976) with Lee Marvin. After Assault in Paradise (1977) he returned to swashbuckling in Crossed Swords (UK title The Prince and the Pauper) (1977), as Miles Hendon alongside Raquel Welch and a grown up Mark Lester, who had worked with Reed in Oliver!, from a script co-written by Fraser.

Reed did Tomorrow Never Comes (1978) for Peter Colinson and The Big Sleep (1978) with Winner. He and Jackson were reunited in The Class of Miss MacMichael (1978), then he made a film in Canada, The Mad Trapper, that was unfinished. Reed returned to the horror genre as Dr. Hal Raglan in David Cronenberg’s 1979 film The Brood and ended the decade with A Touch of the Sun (1979), a comedy with Peter Cushing.

From the 1980s onwards Reed’s films had less success. He did a comedy for Charles B. Griffith, Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype (1980) and played Gen. Rodolfo Graziani in Lion of the Desert (1981), which co-starred Anthony Quinn and chronicled the resistance to Italian occupation of Libya. On 20 January 2016 ISIS used a clip of Lion of the Desert as part of a propaganda video threatening Italy with terrorist attacks.[28]

Reed was a villain in Disney’s Condorman (1981) and did the horror film Venom (1981).

He was a villain in The Sting II (1983) and appeared in Sex, Lies and Renaissance (1983). He also starred as Lt-Col Gerard Leachman in the Iraqi historical film Al-Mas’ Ala Al-Kubra (a.k.a. Clash of Loyalties) (1983), which dealt with Leachman’s exploits during the 1920 revolution in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). Reed was in Spasms (1983), Two of a Kind (1983), Masquerade (1984), Christopher Columbus (1985), Black Arrow (1985) and Captive (1986). He says he was contemplating quitting acting when Nicolas Roeg cast him in Castaway (1986) as the middle aged Gerald Kingsland, who advertises for a “wife” (played by Amanda Donohoe) to live on a desert island with him for a year.

He was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1986 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews.

Reed was in The Misfit Brigade (1987), Gor (1987), Master of Dragonard Hill (1987), Dragonard (1987), Skeleton Coast (1988), Blind Justice (1988), Captive Rage (1988), and Rage to Kill (1988). Most of these were exploitation films produced by the impresario Harry Alan Towers filmed in South Africa and released straight to video in the United States and United Kingdom.

He was in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) (as the god Vulcan); The Lady and the Highwayman (1989) with Hugh Grant; The House of Usher (1989); The Return of the Musketeers (1990) with Lester and Fraser; Treasure Island (1990) with Charlton Heston; A Ghost in Monte Carlo (1990); Hired to Kill (1990); Panama Sugar (1990); The Revenger (1990); The Pit and the Pendulum (1991); Prisoner of Honor (1991) for Russell; and Severed Ties (1993).

Reed was in Return to Lonesome Dove (1993); Funny Bones (1995); Russian Roulette – Moscow 95 (1995); Luise knackt den Jackpot (1995); Die Tunnelgangster von Berlin (1996); The Bruce (1996); Jeremiah (1998); The Incredible Adventures of Marco Polo on His Journeys to the Ends of the Earth (1998); and Parting Shots (1998).

His final role was the elderly slave dealer Proximo in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), in which he played alongside Richard Harris, an actor whom Reed admired greatly both on and off the screen. The film was released after his death with some footage filmed with a double, digitally mixed with outtake footage. The film was dedicated to him. In addition to his posthumous BAFTA recognition, he shared the film’s nomination for the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture with the rest of the principal players.

In addition to acting, Reed released several singles in the popular music vein, though with limited success. These included “Wild One”/”Lonely for a Girl” (1961), “Sometimes”/”Ecstasy” (1962), “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (duet with Joyce Blair) and “Wild Thing” (1992) (duet with snooker ace Alex Higgins). Oliver also later narrated a track called “Walpurgis Nacht” by Italian heavy metal band Death SS.

In 1959, Reed married Kate Byrne, and they had one son, Mark, before their divorce in 1969.

While filming his part of Bill Sikes in Oliver! (1968), he met Jacquie Daryl, a dancer who was also in the film. They became lovers and subsequently had a daughter, Sarah.

In 1985, he married Josephine Burge, to whom he remained married until his death. When they met in 1980, she was 16 years old and he was 42. In his final years, Reed and Burge lived in Churchtown, County Cork, Ireland.

In 1964, Reed was in the Crazy Elephant nightclub in Leicester Square and got into dispute at the bar with men that ended with Reed walking away with a dismissive remark. They waited until he went to the toilet, followed him in and attacked him with broken bottles. He received 63 stitches in one side of his face, was left with permanent scarring, and initially thought his film career was over. According to his brother, subsequent to the attack, when arguing, the burly Reed would bring his hands up in a gesture that was defensive but many men found very intimidating. In 1993 Reed was unsuccessfully sued by his former stuntman, stand-in and friend Reg Prince, for an alleged spinal injury incurred by the latter while on location for the filming of Castaway.

He turned down major roles in two Hollywood movies, including The Sting (though he appeared in the 1983 sequel The Sting II).

When the 1970s UK government raised taxes on personal income, Reed initially declined to join the exodus of major British film stars to Hollywood and other more tax-friendly locales. In the late 1970s Reed relocated to Guernsey as tax exile. He had sold his large house, Broome Hall, between the villages of Coldharbour and Ockley, and initially lodged at the Duke of Normandie Hotel in Saint Peter Port.

Reed often described himself as a British patriot and preferred to live in the UK over relocating to Hollywood. He was also a supporter of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and British military efforts during the Falklands War. According to Robert Sellers Reed tried reenlisting, at age 44, in the British army following the outbreak of the conflict but was turned down.

In 2013, the writer Robert Sellers published What Fresh Lunacy Is This? – The Authorized Biography of Oliver Reed.

Reed was known for his alcoholism and binge drinking. Many  anecdotes exist, such as Reed and 36 friends drinking, in one evening: 60 gallons of beer, 32 bottles of scotch, 17 bottles of gin, four crates of wine, and a bottle of Babycham. Reed then revised the story, claiming he drank 106 pints of beer on a two-day binge before marrying Josephine Burge: ‘The event that was reported actually took place during an arm-wrestling competition in Guernsey, about 15 years ago; it was highly exaggerated.’

In the late 1970s, Steve McQueen told the story that in 1973, he flew to the UK to discuss a film project with Reed who suggested that the two of them visit a London nightclub. They ended up on a marathon pub crawl throughout the night, during which Reed got so drunk that he vomited on McQueen.

Reed became a close friend and drinking partner of The Who’s drummer Keith Moon in 1974, while working on the film version of Tommy. With their reckless lifestyles, Reed and Moon had much in common, and both cited the hard-drinking actor Robert Newton as a role model.

Sir Christopher Lee, a friend and colleague of Reed, commented on his alcoholism in 2014: ‘when he started, after drink number eight, he became a complete monster. It was awful to see.’

Reed was often irritated that his appearances on television chat shows concentrated on his drinking feats, rather than his acting career and films. On September 26, 1975, while Reed was interviewed by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, Shelley Winters, angered by derogatory comments Reed had made about women’s liberation, poured a cup of whiskey over his head on-camera.

Years later, on 5 August 1987, David Letterman cut to  commercial when Reed became belligerent after being asked questions about his drinking, after pointing out that Letterman’s researcher had already been told that Reed did not want to talk about drinking.

Reed was held partly responsible for the demise of BBC1’s Sin on Saturday after some forthright comments on the subject of lust, the sin featured on the first program. The series had other issues, and a fellow-guest revealed that Reed recognized this when he arrived, and virtually had to be dragged in front of the cameras. Near the end of his life, he was brought onto some television series specifically for his drinking; for example The Word put bottles of vodka in his dressing room so he could be secretly filmed getting drunk. According to Reed the whole thing was a stunt (“I knew all about the “secret” camera, and the vodka was water”), and that he was paid to “act drunk”.

Reed left the set of the Channel 4 TV discussion program After Dark after arriving drunk and attempting to kiss feminist writer Kate Millett, uttering the phrase, ‘Give us a kiss, big tits.’

However, Evil Spirits, a biography of Reed written by Cliff Goodwin, offered that Reed was not always as drunk on chat shows, but rather was acting the part of an uncontrollably sodden former star to liven things up, at the producers’ behests.

In October 1981, Reed was arrested in Vermont, where he was tried and acquitted of disturbing peace while drunk. However, he pleaded no contest to two assault charges and was fined $1,200.

In December 1987, Reed, who was overweight and suffered from gout, became seriously ill with kidney problems as a result of his alcoholism, and had to abstain from drinking for over a year.

In his final years, when he lived in Ireland, Reed was a regular in the one-roomed O’Brien’s Bar in Churchtown, County Cork, close to the 13th-century cemetery in the heart of the village where he would be buried.

Reed died from heart attack during a break from filming Gladiator in Valletta, Malta, on the afternoon of May 2, 1999.  He drank eight pints of German lager, a dozen shots of rum, half a bottle of whiskey and a few shots of Hennessy cognac, in  drinking match against a group of sailors on shore leave from HMS Cumberland at a local pub. His bar bill totaled a little over 270 Maltese lira (almost 450 GBP; about 590 USD). After beating five much younger Royal Navy sailors at arm-wrestling, Reed suddenly collapsed, dying en route to hospital in  ambulance. He was 61 years old.

The actor Omid Djalili, who was also in Malta at the time of Reed’s death, said in interview in 2016: “He hadn’t had a drink for months before filming started…Everyone said he went the way he wanted, but that’s not true. It was very tragic. He was in an Irish bar and was pressured into a drinking competition. He should have just left, but he didn’t.” Having made a number of promises to Ridley Scott prior to filming, including that he would not drink during production, Reed worked around this by only drinking on weekends.

Co-star David Hemmings was a long time friend of Reed’s, and in 2020 Scott stated, “David Hemmings (Cassius) promised to look after him and said to me upon his death, I’m really sorry, old boy”.

A funeral for Reed was held in Churchtown, County Cork, in Ireland where he had resided during the last years of his life. His body was interred in Churchtown’s Bruhenny Graveyard. The epitaph on his gravestone reads: “He made the air move.”

Reed’s remaining scenes in Gladiator had to be completed using a body double and computer-generated imagery (CGI) techniques. Despite this, he was posthumously nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Russell Crowe said in 2010: “I never got on with Ollie. He has visited me in dreams and asked me to talk kindly of him. So I should… but we never had a pleasant conversation.”