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The MALESTROM Icons: Oliver Reed

The MALESTROM Icons: Oliver Reed

Oliver Reed in snappy attire!

American Founding Father and President Thomas Jefferson stated in The Declaration Of Independence that “All men are equal”. And while this statement holds true for most who grace this wonderful planet – man, woman and child, we here at The MALESTROM are fascinated by those that simply stand out from the pack, those that live life on their own terms, by their own set of rules, unperturbed by the structures of society, making mistakes and amends in equal measure.

People who look at life as a moment in time, to do with it as seems fit! We aim to salute those who dare to be different in our icons series. This first part looks at the late great English actor and Premier League hellraiser Oliver Reed, who very much got caught up in The MALESTROM, but allowed the bridges he burned to light the way.

Drinking 124 pints of beer in 24 hours is going to have serious repercussions on your Crossfit regime and if it doesn’t give you a serious case of the fear once you’ve laid your head to rest, then maybe you could hold your own with the big man. Folklore recounts Reed purportedly finished this one particular session by doing a horizontal handstand on the bar.

Furthermore rumour has it for a wager Ollie could down 20 pints of lager with a gin chaser and still run for a mile (probably in another man’s shoes). His wild antics are stuff of legend, but what led to such debauchery, considering his early years were spent in the unassuming leafy suburb of Wimbledon?

This is a man who allegedly got himself expelled from fourteen schools. What childhood experiences initiated this path? The role models that entered his life at a tender age certainly had a profound effect on the young Ollie, he found these in the WWII fighter pilots that would come to his mother’s parties.

Their carefree attitude to death and boozy behaviour was something he’d end up mirroring throughout his life. Those colourful early years continued when working as a bouncer in a strip club before being conscripted to National service, then on leaving the army at the age of twenty he earned a living as a fairground boxer, and he continued to make good use of those fists for the rest of his days.

His uncle – the film director Carol Reed encouraged Ollie to get into the movie business, but he showed little interest until he realised his drinking buddies made a good living as film extras. He started out with small roles before getting his break playing the lead in the Hammer Horror film The Curse Of The Werewolf (1962). Some half decent jobs came his way, before stardom struck in 1968 when he played Bill Sykes in the film version of Oliver! He became a global name, and began making headlines, often for the wrong reasons.

A young Oliver Reed sat on the curb of a street
Oliver Reed” by Kate Gabrielle is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Despite his acting prowess he had become best known for his boozy brawling antics. He counted the likes of wild Who drummer Keith Moon and hard-man actor Lee Marvin as his drinking buddies. In fact, his reputation set such a precedent that an opportunity to play James Bond in 1968 slipped through his fingers like a wet glass of ale. Rumour has it Cubby Broccoli nearly greenlit him to take over from Sean Connery, but his womanising, heavy drinking ways were deemed too extreme even to portray the misogynistic Bond on screen.

Maybe Cubby had a point – One of his most famous scenes was in Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1970) where he wrestled Alan Bates naked in front of a fireplace, but not before knocking back a whole bottle of vodka first. In 1974 Reed made a brooding appearance as Athos one of the swordsmen in film The Three Musketeers. While filming in Spain the police were called to his hotel to nick him for parading around in the nude and dancing in a huge goldfish tank. Reed screamed at them to “Leave me alone” telling them not to touch him as he was “One of The Four Musketeers”.

Even after a few scoops, his math was spot on. If anything it underlines his status as one of the ultimate rebels, a man like so many of a bygone age that would not – without exception, simply accept a set of social rules. Here was a man who lived his life his own way, not interested in ticking boxes or indeed making the right people happy, he just lived.

Sadly his film career dwindled in terms of numbers and quality into the late seventies and Eighties. In 1981 he was lured to Iraq by a large pay cheque to film Clash Of Loyalties a film financed by the well-known film producer Saddam Hussein. Ollie was his typical self during filming. He was said to have started his day with a large bowl of sangria for breakfast, moving on to daiquiris at mid-morning, then it would be champagne at noon which he would continue drinking into the night sometimes mixing a bottle of cognac with one of champagne in an ice bucket and slurping from that. Suffice to say things were messy.

The excellent documentary Saddam Goes To Hollywood goes into much greater detail on the whole sorry affair. Around this time he had become more famous for his antics on the chat show circuit. Offering great value, but all the same a perfunctory performance, Ollie often showed up plastered looking to entertain the crowd.

This bizarre but illuminating clip offers more than any words. The moment 38 seconds in where he punches a mirror the interviewer is holding up, shows Reed exactly as he so often was – a man who did not give a f**k. Drink was his enemy and friend, and like with all friends as you age, you either drift apart or remain steadfastly by each other’s side.

One of his greatest roles was his last, as Proximo in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. He was posthumously nominated for a BAFTA for his performance – which due to his death during filming was finished off using CGI and body doubles. He died, unsurprisingly after a heavy session of drinking during a break in filming.

He surely would have had it no other way. Ollie The MALESTROM wants to hold up a glass to you and say cheers. You may not have been perfect, but you lived life and no one could ever accuse you of being boring. In fact quite the opposite.

“I have made many serious statements – I just can’t remember any of them. I guess they mustn’t have been very important.” – Oliver Reed (1938 – 1999)

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