The actor Oliver Reed was a gentleman bruiser, a Rabelaisian belly under a field-marshal accent. Ted Hughes could have invented him: the ferocious clown-crow, or the ruptured peacock with the bomb-lit eyes, rainbowed, aboriginal, acrid, brassy, genital, ejected, pre-devastated. Of the vintage hellraisers he was the lead Englishman, and, beside the Celtic quartet of Burton, Harris, Hopkins and O’Toole, the least fulfilled. He became a victim of his own humour, soulful, free of false quantities, a Falstaffian surface cooled by inner ironies. At the very least, he was the best James Bond we never had.
Born in Wimbledon in 1938, Reed went to 13 different schools where his dyslexia was dismissed as poor concentration, so he focused on his physical development (one sports day he went home with 11 cups, having won every race he entered). Though his grandfather had founded RADA and his uncle Carol had directed The Third Man, Reed shunned formal training for the drama school of life, learning about human nature in pubs, where he hustled, played darts and got into fistfights. After a cartoonishly camp first speaking role, in The League of Gentlemen, his equivalent of rep was at Hammer Horror, who cast him as the ‘man behind the mask’ in seven films. He claims he landed his breakthrough role as Bill Sykes in 1968 because he “came out of the same cock” as Oliver! director Carol Reed.
This performance, a subtle strain of menace in a film full of histrionics, caught the eye of iconoclast Ken Russell, who gave Reed his two finest parts. Freudians may note that the key scenes of each film (the nude wrestle with Alan Bates in Women in Love; the stake-burning in The Devils) happen next to fires. By the early seventies, having played Athos in George Macdonald Fraser’s The Three Musketeers, he was one of the highest-paid actors in the world. But fame nourished a lust for high jinx. During the second world war he bartended at his mother’s lovers’ cocktail parties, the guest lists of which slowly diminished. “Death and drink for me, from an early age, were both a fantasy and a reality,” he said. In his heyday, Reed partied with Keith Moon, Steve McQueen and Christopher Lee. A penchant for punch-ups earned him 36 stitches the night he was attacked with a broken glass, and there’s the mythical two-day binge, surely apocryphal, in which he drank 106 pints.