The Authorised Biography of Oliver Reed by Robert Sellers: Sadly and crushingly, most important was that he was an alcoholic

The "Bill Sikes" actor turned down Spielberg, Polanski and even James Bond - why?

Oliver Reed.
Water, water everywhere - the actor Oliver Reed. Photograph: Emilio Gentilini/Camera Press.

What Fresh Lunacy Is This? The Authorised Biography of Oliver Reed
Robert Sellers
Constable & Robinson, 512pp, £20

Born in 1938 into an upper-middle-class family in Wimbledon, Oliver Reed would as a child set his pet jackdaw on the handlebar of his bike and watch his dark-sleek mother gossiping with her RAF hero lovers. Parties and pubs, smoke and chat: things Reed would always connect with being initiated into the freedom of adulthood.

Later, at public school, Oliver did very badly – his dyslexia was profound – but he ran fast and boxed theatrically. As a teenager in Soho, he would go about wearing an open shirt tied in a knot above his waist and a chain with a big skull on it, concocting a whole CV of touring in rep around made-up places such as Wagamoomoo in Australia. Acting, he reckoned, seemed as good a way to get by as any.

Early agents mistrusted his “Continental looks” and despaired that his films were mostly for the Hammer studios or had “condemned” ratings slapped on them for using the word “fuck”. Then, in 1969, when Reed was 31, Ken Russell offered him the part of Gerald Crich in Women in Love – a lifeline. And what do we see in that movie? His gorgeously outsized head and neck. The drowsy eyes that make him look like he’s always smelling something dirty. That combination of ham and perfectly natural and a stunning physical strength and carelessness. A few years down the line, on the set of The Three Musketeers, stunt men literally puked in the gutter for fear of Reed’s Athos let loose with a sword.

By 1976, Reed’s face was booze-bloated, his career uninteresting, his finances perpetually sapped by a battalion of hangers-on and unquenchable, pub-bound acolytes. In his life, Reed never set foot onstage to perform, never petitioned for parts, never went to view rushes, never fostered professional connections (his uncle Carol Reed cast him as an unbeatable Bill Sikes but Oliver had certainly not gone looking for it).

In some ways, you admire him for this apparent nonchalance. In the clutch of photographs gathered here by Robert Sellers, not once is the actor snapped sucking up to minor royalty or at the Baftas or buying jewels for some superannuated wife at Sotheby’s. Instead, he’s up to his waist in a village pond after a party or ten pints down at the Curry Garden in Dorking.

Three things Sellers mentions jump out – three parts that Reed either turned down or was for some reason denied that would have changed everything. First, Quint in Jaws. Clearly Steven Spielberg – always brilliant at casting –was looking for a genuine loose cannon. Second, as Roman Polanski’s Macbeth. Instead, history must settle for Jon Finch(and Keith Chegwin as Fleance).

And last, Bond. Think about this. While Sean Connery plays 007 as a chancer secretly impressed by his business account and caviar, the young Reed had the class and cruelty of Ian Fleming’s Bond and even the facial scars mentioned in the novels (Reed had been glassed in a pub, the shards shredding right through to his tongue). If Bond is a dream of social mobility, Reed had it all – but it was not to be. Too ruinous was his reputation for getting his cock out mid-shot, waving dildos at Keith Moon or eating light bulbs.

Sadly and boringly and crushingly, more important than anything else you can say about Reed is that he was an alcoholic. He drank more by the year: vodka, rum, Fairy liquid (when he couldn’t find crème de menthe), you name it. Some friends say he was a doll; others mutter about his loathsomeness. He whacked his lover, he kicked his dogs, he neglected his children. Sellers pretends to question the tag of “alcoholic” because Reed rarely drank alone but here is what the actor Fabio Testi had to say: “Oliver was a very lovely person until two or three in the afternoon. Let’s just say around the 25th or 26th bottle of wine, he could hold his liquor, no problem. Then after that it would get more difficult.”

Reed, Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, Anthony Hopkins, Robert Shaw – it’s a long, drunken list. All of them were encouraged by a history of British acting and British drinking to believe that films were silly, beneath them, a means to a financial end. When Spielberg came calling, Reed refused to go to Hollywood because it would be a “blow to his credibility”. It’s a uniquely British superiority complex with violent insecurity at its core: you can’t be exposed to proper criticism if you never cared much in the first place.

In the end, does it come down to something as banal as this? Was Reed just a big, timorous baby? There is a resonant line in one of his early films, The System (directed by Michael Winner in 1964), in which, hilariously, Reed plays a photographer supposedly living in an unglamorous English seaside town (picture Brando hiding out in Whitstable), padding up and down the pier to the slow roll of the grey North Sea, stinking the place out with his charisma. Truly, Reed’s 26-year-old beauty in the film makes you laugh out loud: his voice, his chest in a Breton shirt, his battered straw Stetson. “Why do you stay here?” gasps his mumsy co-star as he dawdles devastatingly, fiddling with his camera. Reed gives one of his most sincere and shamefaced little shrugs and admits, “Perhaps I’m just a bit nervous of going anywhere bigger.”