Oliver Reed

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Oliver Reed Pencil Portrait
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Last update: 10/8/15

In an era where rather vacuous celebrities do the obligatory round of chat shows in order to promote some new product, it’s good to be reminded of stars who could be both interesting and engaging.

Oliver Reed’s appearance on “The Parkinson Show” in the early 70’s is just one example, and if some of his latter day drunken rampages were embarrassing, I was always able to laugh with him. He brought uncertainty to the cosy televisual world of solid family entertainment, and once admitted that his greatest regret was having insufficient time to drink every pub in the world dry, and to screw every female that walked.

He was surely jesting to some degree but then again, for a man who once famously downed 106 pints of beer over a the course of a two day marathon binge, everything and everyone must have looked attractive!

One can only speculate on the immense contribution to 70’s brewery industry profits that Ollie and his mate Keith (‘the Loon’) Moon, made during their innumerable nights on the tiles. Just thinking about the pair makes me laugh.

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Reed’s breakthrough – and the first time I saw him on the big screen – came in 1968, when, directed by his uncle, he made a convincingly savage Bill Sikes in the film version of the musical Oliver!.” In terms of soft-spoken menace, Reed’s performance nearly equalled that of Robert Newton in the earlier version by David Lean. The film won six Oscars and made him an international star. By the late Sixties, he was Britain’s highest-paid actor.

When the noted film critic Rogert Ebert met with Reed shortly after the film had gone on national release, the actor informed him that the producers had originally wanted Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor for the roles of Bill Sykes and his girlfriend Nancy. “Well,” the bellicose star went on to add, “if Burton wants to punch it out with me to see who makes the best Bill Sikes, he’s welcome to.” Reed laughed and brought his empty pint down on the bar with a crash. The director nodded solemnly and faded into the crowd. Reed ordered another pint of bitter.

“Let’s face it,” he said. “There has to be somebody like me around. The press can’t write about fruits in paisley shirts. They like somebody like Richard Harris or myself, somebody who’s a boozer and gets in fights and is colorful as hell.”

It must be said, and in his eternal favour, that the more money Reed acquired, the more generous a person he became. After Oliver,’ and for the first time in his life, he would insist on picking up everyone else’s tab; for drinks, meals, days out, holidays or simply for anyone he knew or wanted to know.

Recommended listening

Desert Island Discs (2/12/74)

Ollie’s infamous appearanace on the long running radio series, a guest spot that prompted the show’s creator Roy Plomley to mutter “The only island that man should be cast away on is Devil’s Island.”

Only a fragment of the show survives in the BBC archives, and sadly not the moment where Reed chooses an inflatable rubber female doll as his luxury item!!!

His musical selections were, nonetheless eclectic, including – Sinatra’s extended “soliloquy” from the musical “Carousel,” “In the heat of the night” by Ray Charles, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21 in C Major and Debussey’s ‘Jardins sous la pluie’ (from Estampes) amongst his eight choices. The Devil perhaps, but a man with innate musical taste.

Hannibal Brooksn- Original Motion Picture Soundtrack


Recommended viewing

The Damned (1963)

See commentarty page for Shirley Anne Field:


The Party's Over (1965)

Breaking from the stereotypical image of the uneducated lout, Reed is Moise, a vaguely unfathomable beatnick, who acts out the role of instigator with a mercurial sense of detachment.

Difficult to gauge – a gang leader who dislikes gang mentality, a man with a public school accent challenging authority by default, a womaniser who despises the women who fall for him, a well-spoken chess player living a ‘Beat’ lifestyle, he’s a man ‘out of time,’ his chosen lifestyle somewhat at odds with a London suburbia not yet swinging.

Filmed throughout the Autumn of ’62, savagely mauled by the censor in March’63, released theatrically ten months later with an X certificate, reissued in a much truncated form in ’65, the film would soon disappear into the ether, only to be exhumed in a restored format in 2010.

Director Guy Hamilton, fresh from helming war epics – The Intruders,” “The Colditz Story – paints a singularly bleak portrait of a social movement that gained momentum in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Singularly focused on artistic self-expression and the rejection of the mores of conventional society, Reed’s group of disparate hangers on are too inebriated to notice that Melina (Louise Sorel) – a young American who has thrown her lot in with this dissolute bunch of Chelsea beatniks – has actually fallen to her death during a party. Details of her subsequent necrophiliac rape slowly emerge as her fiancée Carson (Clifford David) runs around London trying to find her. The suicide of one of the gang members – consumed with guilt over his treatment of Melina after her tragic fall – is deftly handled; his dramatic end compelling the group to re-evaluate their lifestyle.

Carson’s first encounter with Moise is a classic. Asked by Carson what his role in life is, Moise leaves pretentiousness far behind him, deadpanning back “Me? I’m just a dead fly in the soup at the tycoon’s banquet.” Full marks to Reed for keeping a straight face. Elsewhere, he provides amunition galore for the still-to-emerge women’s liberation movement, treating Libby with near-contempt, which only means that she follows him even more slavishly. Clearly troubled over his interest in Melina, and away from the rest of the group, she pours out her feelings to him. He clearly however, retains the emotional upper hand, merely clicking his fingers before she runs smiling, into his arms. It’s uncomfortable viewing for modern viewers.

As Carson’s search for his missing fiancee becomes ever more frustrating, he ends up sleeping with Nina (Catherine Woodville), another member of the group. The relationship was not further explored in the original screenplay; in fact its principal shortcoming is the sheer abundance of underdeveloped characterisations. Only Reed consistently grabs the viewer’s attention.

Ultimately, Moise is keen to purge his soul, but comes of age when confronting the dead girl’s father and casket at the train station, mustering only the briefest of commiserations, after threatening to spill the beans about her demise.

It’s a film that doesn’t hold up to repeated viewings. Watching the antics of pompous would-be artists and poets getting drunk and stoned before jumping in and out of bed with each other is tedious to say the least. Uniquely focused on making their lives as wretched as they can, they’re content enough to reject the materialism of their parents and to rail against the establishment system. Quite how they finance their miserable and self-destructive lifestyle is never adequately explained. Nina, for one, has started to tire of her infantile lifestyle, being ready to leave the kindergarten and join the grown-up world.

Oh – and Mike Pratt’s American accent is hilarously bad.

Worth a solitary look for Reed’s suppressed malevolence, and brooding looks.


Oliver (1968)

Oliver! is not the greatest film ever made — but it’s up there. And it also happens to be my personal favorite film of all time. Nominated for eleven Academy Awards, it won five, including Best Picture and Best Director (Carol Reed), and deserved every one.

Oliver! is a filmed version of the Broadway play of the same name, which is a musical version of Charles Dickens’ literary classic, Oliver Twist. The spectacular cast includes the heartrending Mark Lester as Oliver Twist, Harry Secombe as the stuffy Mr. Bumble, Shani Wallis as Nancy, and Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger. Oliver Reed makes one of the most chilling screen villains of all time out of his performance as Bill Sikes. And Ron Moody, the piece de resistance, is an unbridled delight as Fagin, a character that can be shifty, hilarious, menacing, or meek, and supremely convincing at all. His exaggerated eye rolls and snake-like hands are greatly entertaining mannerisms of his delicious scene-stealing performance.

In spite of the songs, the story is told faithfully, not just in what happens but in the way it happens. The recreation of old England is spectacular and expansive and, when the scene shifts to the poorer districts, not always pleasant. (Fagin’s hideout is as slipshod and grimy as he is.) The harshness and poignancy of Oliver’s troubles, and the sweetness and relief of the end of his quest for love are starkly vivid.

All the songs are good, and a great many are spectacular. Oliver’s sweet rendition of Where Is Love? is downright heartbreaking. The grand scale Consider Yourself and the rejoiceful Who Will Buy? are so full and thriving with elaborate sets, costumes, props, and movement that there’s as many fascinating things to see as there are to hear. Yet, consistent with the rest of the film, Fagin’s songs are the most delightful and memorable. His nimble prancing is the highlight of Be Back Soon; clever tongue twisters that of Reviewing the Situation; and his humorous antics and anecdotes that of You’ve Got To Pick a Pocket Or Two.

This movie not only makes an effective use of music, though, but it also knows how to utilize sound during the non-musical portions, too. This is most evident in the scenes with Bill Sikes, where the film turns deathly silent. His cold introduction is a fine example: Fagin meets him in secret to receive stolen goods. Sikes is quiet. Fagin fidgets nervously underfoot in his presence — his subdued praises and excuses and distant merrymaking are the only sounds we hear. The scene is powerful, both emotionally and with regard to characterization. After it, there is no question about the complex relationship between the two. Later on, Sikes makes Oliver help him with a burglary; there again, an ingenious use of silence and noise builds the tension up to the hilt.

And what of Oliver? All he wants to find is a little love, a place where he’s accepted and life is good. He’s young, naive to the ways of the world — he looks in the wrong places, not knowing any better. We know what he’s after and more importantly what he’s going to find. Bouncing around in an unforgiving city, this character, with whom we are immediately and strongly sympathetic, arouses our utmost concern when he lands in with the wrong crowd, and it induces our utmost relief when he pulls through.

With such fascinating characters, great performances, the strength of Dickens’ original story, fine musical numbers, skilled direction and editing, effective sets and costumes, and high production values, Oliver! is a truly wonderful film in every sense. It’s a classic. See it right now.

Hannibal Brooks (1969)

One of director Michael Winner’s best films, there’s a disarming believability to the central relationship between man and elephant that underscores this movie.

The heroine of Hannibal Brooks is a huge, gray, sweet-tempered elephant named Lucy, and in order to escape the Allied bombings in the closing days of World War II, this imposing resident at the Munich zoo is sent overland to Innsbruck in the company of a sensitive British P.O.W. (Oliver Reed). After several hair raising adventures, the elephant and Reed outwit the Nazis and find asylum in Switzerland.

I’ve loved the film since I was a child; after all, what child doesn’t love elephants? Perhaps it’s something in their innate personality that reminds me of myself – even tempered and rather docile, unless roused from their slumber. Reed himself, became genuinely fond of the animal and this affection translates well to the screen.


The Four Musketeers (1974)

Castaway (1986)

Reed’s last great starring performance as Gerald Kingsley, the self-proclaimed “Sex Pest of the South Seas.”

Based on Lucy Irving’s book, he plays a tax inspector who places an add in the classified ads section seeking a companion to live on a deserted island with him. As a result of his actions, he spends a turbulent year roughing it, walking around naked, and fighting a lot with Irving – played by Amanda Donohoe in her first starring role – in a funny and touching movie.

Based on the true story of a female adventurer, the film has a quasi cinema verite quality to it as Gerald and Lucy romp around ‘au natural,’ trying not to get in each other’s way. Ultimately, their differing outlooks drive them apart, as Lucy returns to the modern world whilst Gerald remains committed to his island life.


Despite Ollie’s ‘hell raiser’ reputation, the actress retains warm memories of working with him.

“He was an alcoholic and his behaviour was erratic, but he was always a courteous and good actor,” she says. “His personal life wasn’t working but he never crossed any lines professionally.”

Well, that’s as may be, but Ollie, according to his biographer Robert Sellers, wasn’t averse to crossing other lines whilst holed up in the Seycheles shooting the film. The actor’s hotel was apparently situated next to the airport and one morning, heavily intoxicated, he ran onto the runway and attacked a plane coming into land. The flight crew had to make an emergency manoeuvre!


I hadn’t seen the film in years but it has resurfaced on Youtube, and Reed’s performance as the rumbustious and craggy Kingsley holds up well.

Gladiator (2000)

Recommended reading

What fresh lunacy is this? The authorised biography of Oliver Reed (Robert Sellers) 2013

Let’s not mince words here – Ollie was a piss artist who seriously pissed people off.

The problem for certain biographers, is a natural tendancy to allow their interest in ‘colourful characters’ to overshadow literate objectivity. As an essentially teetotal person – I drink wine and beer from time to time, but the interim periods can be many months/years – I would have antagonised Reed. If his antics had amused me, I remain convinced that he would have taken issue with me.

Midway through this startling book, Robert Sellers asks himself a question with such apparent seriousness that I roared with laughter: ‘Was Oliver Reed an alcoholic?’ A more pertinent enquiry would be: ‘Was the man ever capable of drawing a sober breath?’ Essentially, “What Fresh Lunacy is This?” is the monotonous chronicle of a nasty drunk whose ‘explosions of pissed aggression’ filled every waking hour, culminating in a deranged session, while filming Castaway in 1986, when he attacked an aeroplane.

Reed would gulp 20 pints of lager as a way of limbering up. He’d then switch to spirits and the cycle of fighting and carousing would begin. It’s a miracle he survived to be 61, dropping dead in a Maltese bar after ‘drinking copious amounts of rum and arm-wrestling with 18-year-old sailors.’

For myself, I might have found some vague amusement in reading about his antics, but Sellers seems genuinely impressed and tickled pink by Reed’s nasty pranks: sticking a lit candle up his nose for a bet, chewing light bulbs or putting cigarettes out on his tongue. He loved to climb up a pub chimney and leap into the grate as a demonic Santa Claus. He liked to beat up waiters, hoteliers and chauffeurs. ‘He was always trying to test a person to see how scared they were of him.’ He would dangle people over balconies, or insist on swordfights. Observing an Austrian restaurant’s decor festooned with national flags from numerous countries yet with one notable omission, he told the manager in no uncertain terms, ‘I’m coming back tomorrow night. If you haven’t got a Union Jack by then, I’m going to trash this place.’ They hadn’t. So he hurled chairs through the window.

There was real violence in him. On location, there’d always be ‘knife wounds, hospital visits and stitches.’ Reed urinated on foreign flags, on Mercedes limousines and on anyone standing below him on the stairs. He vomited over Steve McQueen, and Bette Davis said that he was ‘possibly one of the most loathsome human beings I have ever had the misfortune of meeting’ — a wide field in her case. Of the directors he worked with, Reed put laxatives in Michael Winner’s coffee, head-butted Terry Gilliam and on numerous occasions threw Ken Russell across the room in judo tackles.

The Neanderthal behaviour — or riotous horseplay, as Sellers would have it — was present in childhood. Reed was born in Wimbledon. His grandfather was Herbert Beerbohm Tree. More significantly, his uncle was the director Carol Reed, and whilst the young Reed would avoid accusations of sheer nepotism at all cost, he was not averse to seeking advice and guidance on acting from him.

The young Ollie thrived on violence, giving as good as he got. He was always being expelled from school for his angry outbursts, and he flourished as a bully. He threw a pet dog over the banister, broke his own brother’s nose, and hit a neighbour with a garden hoe. During his early days as a struggling actor, he worked as a bouncer and a debt collector. Verbal persuasion was not the only piece of armoury he would deploy with individuals falling behind with their loan repayments.

Nice – and just the sort of guy we all love to meet.

Though Sellers tries to argue that Reed was dyslexic and insecure, ‘with a low boredom threshold,’ it is surely simpler to say the man had a fascist mentality and was a crackpot. He clung to his instinctive belief that ‘the strongest succeeded, while the weak got abused and ignored.’ He particularly enjoyed National Service because of ‘the atmosphere of bullying. He was in his element.’ Promoted to corporal, ‘his men came to despise him utterly.’ He never stopped being ‘the macho army lout’, and tried to volunteer for active duty during the Falklands. Friends recall a man obsessed with the conflict, collecting every newspaper cutting, avidly watching every news item and ensuring every friend in earshot was ‘au courant’ with the conflict.


Oliver Reed


An affectionate look at Ollie the film star and hellraiser.

This website contains reminiscenses from fans of the time they met the man himself. Many are, understandably, highly amusing.