Oliver Reed at 74
This month, the 13th of February 2011 to be exact, would have seen the 74th birthday party of Robert Oliver Reed, better known as Oliver Reed…or Proximo (Gladiator) by some, Gerald Kingsland (Castaway) or Gerald Crich (Women in Love) but most as Ollie.
What we were treated to when Ollie graced the screen was the same quality that accompanied a film starring Richard Harris or Burton that work class ethos of a hard days graft, star quality and charisma all wrapped up in a highly combustible package but where the world felt they lost something special with the passing of Burton and Harris it seems that only those who were familiar with Reed “on form” understand just how worse off cinema is without the English hell-raiser.
It was a career that almost never happened. While working as a bouncer at a nightclub the young Ollie Reed sustained a facial injury with a broken bottle. Convinced that the resulting scar damaged his looks and therefore his chances of getting into television and film acting. He skipped a couple of auditions and only actually tried out for a small role in an English TV series in 1959 when the booking agent put him forward for the role and the rest is a series of small historical/drunken moments that created the oeuvre of Oliver Reed’s working life. After the success and acclaim of his role in Oliver! came the working relationship with Ken Russell and in particular The Devils which threw Reed into the press fuelled hysteria of the conservative backlash to the liberated 1960’s Britain.
Inevitably for someone with such natural talent, on screen presence and as the ladies would say sex appeal, Hollywood came calling for him…ultimately it wasn’t to be (not yet anyway) but unlike many British actors who get ideas above their station pack up the family station wagon and ship across the pond like the Beverly Hill Billies it was Ollie who called it off. He was already the biggest fish in British, arguably European cinematic pond, so “why would I want to go over there to stay all over again?” A lesser known and less talented Scottish actor profited from Reed’s disinterest something which he would never really want to admit, Sean Connery has his pride after all and a lot of Reed’s ‘would have been’ films in his filmography.
Eventually the good work dried up leaving him to take jobs in whatever film he could to pay for the renovations to his country estate that had been in the process of restoration for years for a couple of reasons.
1. Country estates are considerably larger than the standard British home and
2. Reed would take the builders to the pub at lunchtime meaning they were drank under the table before 3PM and unable to return to work as it’s difficult to re-plaster a ceiling when you can stand up or open your left eye.
For a lot of actors this quality of employment would have led to sorrow but Reed was one who took only pleasure and sorrow from his home life and could be found at the bottom of the garden with his children hunting for garden fairies insisting that nobody would be leaving them grassy premises till they saw one. The adage that if you wait are long enough everything comes back into fashion is true of everything…including people and in 1986 after years of subpar films, Condorman and the Michael Winner tragically flawed remake of The Big Sleep, Reed teamed up with Nicolas Roeg (a man also looking for a win in the cinematic sweepstakes) to tell the real life story of a somewhat eccentric man, a stranger companion and the year in paradise that almost killed them both. The film was Castaway and acclaimed by press and public both as a film and as a performance by Reed. The years of alcohol abuse and eccentric behaviour was nothing if not preparation for the role he was (here comes a cringe-worthy cliché;) born to play…sorry. The triumphant return was short lived as many producers were more than weary of Ollie thanks to his party fuelled existence and he was doomed to return to the lows from which he had rose above with B-Movies like Skeleton Coast, The Revenger and The Return of the Musketeers.
“The Man” was to keep him there until Ridley Scott against all advice from the producers cast Reed in Gladiator, the biggest role of his career and the fresh start in Hollywood he had turned down some 30 plus years earlier. Tragically he passed away before the film was completed having spent the day in a bar in Malta (which has since been renamed Ollie’s Place). The performance brought Reed a Best Supporting Actor nomination, though he should have picked up a little gold statue for his work with Roeg 14 years prior, and introduced the king of hell-raisers to a new adoring generation to the man that once fired several rounds from a shotgun at a helicopter pilot by drunken friend Keith Moon because he was spooking Reed’s horse by flying too low to the ground.
My first memory of Ollie Reed was as Athos in The Three Musketeers, even though his screen time was limited due to the bumbling Michael York, as a child I was hypnotised by him partly because of that screen presence and partly because he had more than a passing resemblance to my dad (who was absent from my childhood). Over the years I spent many any afternoon familiarising myself with the man…so much so that I was convinced that he was my dad, something my mum stopped trying to correct. When he passed on May 2nd 1999 the world lost one of the finest actors to live, one who was never fully given the chance to rise to the heights he deserved but I lost a father…the next drink is for you dad. Now let’s all get drunk and wrestle naked in front of an open fire.