When Oliver Reed was on Late Night with David Letterman in 1987, he was introduced as “the man who drank Lee Marvin under the table.”
Then, the British actor proceeded to prove that he was probably still drinking Marvin under the table.
First, upon his “hello,” Reed pushed Letterman, leaving the acerbic host visibly shaken. Then things got even uglier, with Reed affecting a bizarre accent to impersonate Sylvester Stallone as Rambo. Almost every question directed to Reed was met with obvious contempt. Whenever Letterman made a joke about Reed’s boozing, the thespian, dressed in a three-piece suit with loosened tie, grew more intense, his body language becoming more threatening. After Reed mentioned living in a small fishing village, getting in a quick plug for the film Castaway and Letterman looking to bandleader Paul Shaffer for help, the segment came to an abrupt end with the feeling that if went any further, the burly Reed would have decked the uncomfortable host.
Just another day in the life of Oliver Reed, notorious British hellraiser, as chronicled by Robert Sellers in What Fresh Lunacy is This?: The Authorised Biography of Oliver Reed. The author already delved into the actor’s life in his earlier book Hellraisers: The Lives and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed. But now he gets the opportunity to go “long”—write about the actor’s personal life, and attempt to find the reasons for his notorious boozing and brawling behavior.
The results are entertaining and sad in equal doses. After all, here is a study of a fine actor whose talents were squandered by his addictions to alcohol, getting into trouble, and gaining attention. It’s no surprise that these dependencies were masking insecurities and, possibly, undiagnosed mental illness. The Jekyll and Hyde nature of Reed is pointed out by the author and others throughout the book, but did he really have a bi-polar disorder that was never properly treated? Sure seems that way.
So, What Fresh Lunacy is This? presents a story about a guy who loved animals, did many charitable things throughout his life, and was considered a good (but inattentive) father by his children on one hand, and on the other, a fall-down, disruptive drunk capable of hurting people—both physically and emotionally—during his habitual intoxicated state.
Along with all the baggage, the tales of the punch-outs, the rivalries, the drinking buddies and binges (he reportedly drank over 100 pints of beer over a two-day period before marrying his third wife, the teenage Josephine Burge, in 1985) and the other women, Sellers offers some terrific behind-the-scenes tales of the actor’s movies. There is insight into his long-standing relationship with the equally larger-than-life director Ken Russell, including stories about the making of Women in Love with its notorious nude wrestling scene (with Alan Bates), The Devils with its notorious “Rape of Christ” sequence and reported orgies among cast members, and the notorious off-screen exploits of Reed and pal Keith Moon—uh-oh, before, during and after the filming of Tommy.
Readers will also learn about Reed’s early stint at Hammer Films, particularly his attention-getting lead as a young man cursed with lycanthropy in 1961’s The Curse of the Werewolf; his reckless swordfighting technique in The Three Musketeers (a Quentin Tarantino fave); his respect for David Cronenberg while shooting The Brood in Canada; and his longstanding relationship with Michael Winner, who directed Reed in such films as The Jokers and the 1978 remake of The Big Sleep with Robert Mitchum—another uh-oh! Of course, the filming of the Oscar-winning Oliver! is recounted. Reed, cast as the creepy criminal Bill Sikes, scared his young co-stars on and off-camera, but was (mostly) on his best behavior for his uncle, director Sir Carol Reed.
While Sellers finds as much pathos as raucous delight in Reed’s exploits, the finale of the book, like Reed’s life, is particularly saddening. Even though his womanizing ways appeared to have come to an end after settling down with Burge, 26 years his junior, Reed became a cartoon version of his own image, embarrassing others as well as himself in public, pulling outrageous, often disturbing stunts in pubs and hotels, and finding it difficult to get any high-profile work in movies.
He had a shot at a comeback with a small but showy role in Renny Harlin’s pirate saga Cutthroat Island. But when a soused Reed showed off the tattoo on his penis during a pre-production party, star—and Harlin’s then-wife—Geena Davis wasn’t thrilled. He was canned the next morning.
But Reed’s career luck seemed like it was about to change. He was offered a lead role in the British series My Uncle Silas (which Albert Finney was eventually awarded).
Then, Ridley Scott has wanted him for a key supporting part in Gladiator, a large budget epic he was making in Malta with Russell Crowe in the lead. Reed’s reputation preceded him, though, and Scott wanted the actor to audition in order to win the role. Reed objected to the idea, but ultimately succumbed to the new realities of his career (with help from his wife and Michael Winner).
Reed got the part of Proximo, the charismatic slave trader and groomer of gladiators. From what is onscreen, it was solid enough work to suggest a career comeback was a possibility. Unfortunately, Reed passed away from a heart attack during the shoot, a short time after he downed three bottles of rum chased by whiskey, cognac and beer, then took on a group of British sailors in arm-wrestling matches at a Maltese pub.
It was a final act all too appropriate, a perfect capper to a fascinating career, a life out of control, and a biography that details that life, love it or leave it.
(For more information on What Fresh Lunacy is This?: The Authorized Biography of Oliver Reed, visit www.constablerobinson.com)