As a child in the 1970s, I remember that those cheap hardback editions “for children”, of classics like The Three Musketeers, The Prince and the Pauper, or Oliver Twist, were in circulation, so that this was how I first came across those wonderful stories.
At the same time, remakes of these stories were being made for British cinema and, perhaps because, as he later said of himself, he was born too late and would have been happier in an earlier time, it was Oliver Reed that UK directors turned to when they wanted to cast a powerful character in these films: Athos in The Three Musketeers, Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist, Miles Hendon in The Prince and the Pauper…

As a child watching these films on a black-and-white portable TV, I noticed Reed right away. His energy seemed different from other “actors”. This is probably because he was doing less “acting”.
And yet, there can be sensed within him a fierce, but sensitive, commitment to whichever part he is playing at any given time.

Here, we see Oliver wearing what he later referred to as “the hairy trousers”, portraying cinema’s first barrel-chested werewolf, in The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

“Play” seems to have been something very important to Reed.
Sometimes better described as “madness”, such as the antics he got up to with his good friend, Keith Moon, who once had a life-size fibre-glass rhinoceros delivered by van to Reed’s home, Broome Hall, in the middle of the night.
But “play”, as Samuel Beckett and Alexander Trocchi tried to point out at various times, can be a very serious thing indeed, both in intent and consequence.

In later life, Reed would run the gauntlet of drunken TV chat show appearances.
“Like watching a train wreck” they were described at the time.
It seemed that the most successful British film actor of the 1970s (at least the most successful one who stayed in Britain to pay the then-new high-rate tax for several years) had ended up as a self-parody.
But did he?
Watching the most outrageous interview scenes again on Youtube (and many of the commenters below these film clips address and respond to this) there can often be seen an enormous sensitivity and dignity, vulnerability and character, at the centre of these set-up media circus performances.
As the TV interviewers became more inane, the society around him more and more corporate, sanitised, PC-driven, Reed can be seen perhaps, especially in retrospect, to have held on to the best part of himself, the centre.

He passed away before the age of the truly organised televisual indignities arrived: Celebrity Big Brother, I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of This Jungle…I’m a Celebrity, Let Me Retrain as a Chef Live Onscreen and be Shouted and Sworn at By a Celebrity Cook…Strictly Come Celebrity Prancing…etc etc etc…

And the proof that Oliver had successfully held on to the centre of himself, even while apparently playing the clown for the TV gods, was that last role in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.
Oliver Reed’s son has said that Oliver had always loved Ridley Scott’s early film, The Duellists (Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine carry on an extended existential feud during Napoleonic times amid a lusciously-shot period backdrop), and that he recorded it on video for Oliver who then watched this film again and again.

So, Oliver knew a good director when he encountered one, and often the feeling was mutual.
When asked to explain the secret of Oliver Reed’s success, the late great Orson Welles had once said, “He’s one of those rare fellows who have the ability to make the air move around them.”

 Best to shut up now, and let Mr Reed move the air for himself, in these clips:

Oliver Reed - Nudity Lesson, 1973

Oliver Reed – Equestrian and Swimming Lesson, 1979

Oliver Reed - Acting Lesson, 1985:

Oliver Reed - Accent Lesson, 1990

Oliver Reed – Last Lessons on Freedom, 1999


madwippitt said…
Enjoyed the post! Will go check the clips later when I have a bit more time!
JO said…
My mother was in Am Dram and Oliver Reed cut his acting teeth with them - she said he was obviously in a different league than the rest of them, but knew it. She described him as arrogant (and often drunk!)
Anonymous said…
Not only arrogant and drunk but narcissistic, rude, boorish and thoroughly unpleasant as a person. He may have been a fine actor but he was not a fine human being - certainly in my experience and that of others who have endured his acquaintance.
You provocative gentleman, John. I love these qualities you've identified here, of stillness, dignity and potency. I also remember being mesmerised by him from an early age.
There's a wonderful chapter about him in Ken Russell's autobiography, about the time they were making Women In Love. Reed calls on Russell one night to argue with him about the naked wrestling scene. Hilariously written, and it captures the danger in the man. But it comes, as you say here, from dedication to the truth of the role. It's a shame he didn't always get roles that mined this quality.
Unknown said…
A seriously scary man. But, now and then, it's good to know that there's room for monsters among us. That said, I'm still pleased as punch that George Lazenby knocked him off a bar stool. Go, George!
Margaret Tanner said…
Hi John,
As always an interesting article. I have always though Oliver Reed was a great dramatic actor, there always seemed a dark edge to him though.


chill said…
Lazenby sucker punched Ollie.

Oliver was wild...but that's what made him unique.

He made mistakes. He was human. But he was when not affected ny drink..kind,shy and a gentleman.

Áine said…
I enjoyed immensely watching the clips and reading about the man and his work.
Hunter said…
Very true, John Logan: "play...can be a very serious thing indeed, both in intent and consequence." I believe in play as a tool to inspire me and keep my ideas fresh and flowing. It's always great to hear what inspires you, my friend. I hope the Highlands are treating you well these days. Another great post! --Hunter
Anonymous said…
Oliver Reed was a Shy Man by nature and he drank to overcome this. He liked the way Alcohol made him feel but he could handle the drink and was known for out drinking many a person including the late actor Lee Marvin who himself was renowned for out drinking others too. Oliver simply said that he found himself to be a boring person when he had decided to become Sober for two years and he didn't like himself then. He said why would anybody want to be Sober in this World when they can be merrily intoxicated. He also said he drank to make others more interesting. However the drink never interfered with his acting performances, he would always remain professional in his work. He would often drink through the night and have to be on set at 5am. Without sleep, he would place his head in a basin of cold water, comb his hair and he was ready for a days filming. He did however have some bad traits such as always wanting to prove his manhood, often challenging others to arm wrestling and other feats of strength. When he become bored he would create a happening as he called it. He would drop his trousers and pull out his plonka or Mighty Mallet (his words) or simply pour his plate of pudding over his head when in a restaurant. Quite often when he appeared on these talk shows such as Parkinson and Aspell, he was simply acting out the Role as a drunk because he knew he would get publicity in the Papers the next day. Thinking to himself that all publicity is good publicity even when they were discrediting him for being drunk on TV. However and all said and done, he was a brilliant Actor and a true Englishman and a credit to our Country. He was and still is an original all time great and he is sadly missed.

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