As a child in the 1970s, I remember that those cheap hardback editions “for children”, of classics like The Three Musketeers, The Prince and the Pauper, or Oliver Twist, were in circulation, so that this was how I first came across those wonderful stories.
At the same time, remakes of these stories were being made for British cinema and, perhaps because, as he later said of himself, he was born too late and would have been happier in an earlier time, it was Oliver Reed that UK directors turned to when they wanted to cast a powerful character in these films: Athos in The Three Musketeers, Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist, Miles Hendon in The Prince and the Pauper…
As a child watching these films on a black-and-white portable TV, I noticed Reed right away. His energy seemed different from other “actors”. This is probably because he was doing less “acting”.
And yet, there can be sensed within him a fierce, but sensitive, commitment to whichever part he is playing at any given time.
Here, we see Oliver wearing what he later referred to as “the hairy trousers”, portraying cinema’s first barrel-chested werewolf, in The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
“Play” seems to have been something very important to Reed.
Sometimes better described as “madness”, such as the antics he got up to with his good friend, Keith Moon, who once had a life-size fibre-glass rhinoceros delivered by van to Reed’s home, Broome Hall, in the middle of the night.
But “play”, as Samuel Beckett and Alexander Trocchi tried to point out at various times, can be a very serious thing indeed, both in intent and consequence.
In later life, Reed would run the gauntlet of drunken TV chat show appearances.
“Like watching a train wreck” they were described at the time.
It seemed that the most successful British film actor of the 1970s (at least the most successful one who stayed in Britain to pay the then-new high-rate tax for several years) had ended up as a self-parody.
But did he?
Watching the most outrageous interview scenes again on Youtube (and many of the commenters below these film clips address and respond to this) there can often be seen an enormous sensitivity and dignity, vulnerability and character, at the centre of these set-up media circus performances.
As the TV interviewers became more inane, the society around him more and more corporate, sanitised, PC-driven, Reed can be seen perhaps, especially in retrospect, to have held on to the best part of himself, the centre.
He passed away before the age of the truly organised televisual indignities arrived: Celebrity Big Brother, I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of This Jungle…I’m a Celebrity, Let Me Retrain as a Chef Live Onscreen and be Shouted and Sworn at By a Celebrity Cook…Strictly Come Celebrity Prancing…etc etc etc…
And the proof that Oliver had successfully held on to the centre of himself, even while apparently playing the clown for the TV gods, was that last role in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.
Oliver Reed’s son has said that Oliver had always loved Ridley Scott’s early film, The Duellists (Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine carry on an extended existential feud during Napoleonic times amid a lusciously-shot period backdrop), and that he recorded it on video for Oliver who then watched this film again and again.
So, Oliver knew a good director when he encountered one, and often the feeling was mutual.
When asked to explain the secret of Oliver Reed’s success, the late great Orson Welles had once said, “He’s one of those rare fellows who have the ability to make the air move around them.”
Best to shut up now, and let Mr Reed move the air for himself, in these clips:
Oliver Reed - Nudity Lesson, 1973
Oliver Reed – Equestrian and Swimming Lesson, 1979
Oliver Reed - Acting Lesson, 1985:
Oliver Reed - Accent Lesson, 1990
Oliver Reed – Last Lessons on Freedom, 1999