Awesome Men Throughout History: Oliver Reed

If you read my Awesome Men article about Richard Harris, which you damn well should have, you may have noticed that he was something of a drinker. This was not uncommon among British actors in the 1960s and 70s who were not immune to the rugby/football social attitudes of the era, which included an almost psychotic zeal for getting hammered all to shit and starting trouble. And while that’s not always something to be celebrated, it is fun to talk about, which brings us to this week’s topic: Oliver Reed.

If you’re a movie buff, you’ll remember Reed from films like Gladiator (he was Proximo the slave dealer), Tommy (the film based on that godawful Who album), and Treasure Island (he was Billy Bones). He was also, appropriately enough, in Oliver!. I’m sure no one pointed that coincidence out to him on set.

Oliver Reed

But Reed’s career began much earlier than that ? after serving his time in the Royal Army Medical Corps, he started doing extra work in films in the late-1950s. Extra work, for those who don’t know, involves standing around a film shoot for hours on end and eating catering until someone puts you in the background of a scene, behind the real actors. It manages to be simultaneously grueling, boring, and degrading, and is more than enough to drive a man to drink.

Whether that specifically sent Reed over the edge, I can’t say, but something sure did. His face had been permanently scarred by a bar fight in 1963, which delayed the true start of his career. He claimed to have put down 106 pints of beer over the two days prior to his second marriage, and reportedly threw up on Steve McQueen during a lengthy pub crawl in 1973. Other anecdotes concerning Reed’s booze intake involve multiple gallons of beer and bottles of scotch and gin. The mind reels. So does the liver.

Cliff Goodwin, who wasn’t above calling his Reed biography Evil Spirits, suggests that Reed played up the role of a degenerate alcoholic on talk shows, similar to what Hunter S. Thompson did in the autumn of his career. If that’s true, there weren’t very many other people in on the joke. Reed got so belligerent with David Letterman that the host feared for his safety and cut their interview short, and Shelley Winters dumped a glass of whiskey on Reed’s head on The Tonight Show, in response to what she felt was a sexist tirade on his part. Reed was also kicked off the set of British chat show After Dark when he drunkenly invited feminist writer Kate Millett to ?give us a kiss, big tits.? Classy.

It’s also worth noting that Reed was pretty sensitive about his raucous personal life, and it bothered him when his drinking got more press than his films. Like Hunter S. Thompson, who could never escape the Raoul Duke character he’d created to report on the late-60s/early-70s drug culture, Reed’s macho drinker persona held him back from the respect he thought he’d earned.

That said, he did have the greatest death of any actor before or since. Reed died of a sudden heart attack in Malta during the filming of Gladiator, after drinking three bottles of rum and arm-wrestling five sailors. I’m not even kidding. He was 61 at the time, and it’s sad that he didn’t hang on a little bit longer, but nothing in Gladiator could top that. Hell, nothing in Lord of the Rings could top that.

So yeah, Oliver Reed. He didn’t have the peace of mind that Richard Harris did, but he’s a good example of what happens when you act like a cartoon; eventually, people start laughing at you. Too bad he didn’t punch David Letterman when he had the chance, though. That might have redeemed him somewhat.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at

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