Oliver Reed at 77: A Conversation

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Tune into TCM on Febuary 20th to catch Oliver Reed in OLIVER! directed by his uncle, Carol Reed.

Feb. 13th marks what would have been Oliver Reed’s 77th birthday if he was still with us. Reed died in 1999 but he has long been one of my favorite actors so to honor his memory I decided to contact filmmaker Kent Adamson who worked with Oliver Reed in the 1980s and is friendly with the actor’s son (Mark). What follows is a lengthy Q&A where Kent generously shares his own recollections and thoughts about the actor’s life and career. I hope you’ll enjoy reading our exchange as much as I enjoyed taking part in it.

Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and how you first came in contact with Oliver Reed?

I started making movies on Super-8 film when I was a little kid in the late 1960s. My brothers and I liked to blow things up with M80s and film it. Our grandmother used to take us to see movies in downtown Los Angeles at the old movie palaces on Broadway. She remembered how beautiful they were in the 1940s, and she still saw them through loving eyes. As kids, we thought the theaters were skanky. While grandma was entranced with big movies like OLIVER! my brothers and cousins and I were a little freaked out by the homeless street people who slept in the theaters during the daytime. The first time I ever saw Oliver Reed in a movie was when he played Bill Sykes in his uncle Carol’s production of OLIVER! He scared the pants off of us! He made us more nervous than we already were about the rough looking tough guys snoring behind us. To this day, I have never forgiven him for killing Shani Wallis in the movie. Horrifying.

Later, in the 1970s, I was tremendously impressed with Oliver Reed’s work with director Ken Russell. His roles in WOMEN IN LOVE, THE DEVILS and TOMMY were particularly memorable. While I was attending film school at USC, I began working as a PA (Production Assistant) on Roger Corman movies, as well as providing security on sets, and privately around town. I carried a .38 and also drove, which gave producers several reasons to hire me and also pay me. At that time there were many people in Hollywood willing to work for free as a PA to get started in the business. Carrying a gun responsibly put a quick conclusion to any discussion of pay.

In the late 1970s, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus came to Hollywood as Cannon Films. They had recently shot THE APPLE in Germany. I had worked on the second unit reshoots of a Corman drive-in movie that was written and directed by Charles B. (Chuck) Griffith, UP FROM THE DEPTHS . It was a “Jaws” ripoff. Chuck’s next movie was to be made for Cannon. He had first met Menahem in the early 1960s when they worked together for Corman on THE YOUNG RACERS. Also on that crew were a young Francis Coppola and Robert Towne. I went over to Cannon and helped them get up and running as they put four features into simultaneous production.

Chuck Griffith’s film (DR. HECKYL AND MR. HYPE) was his own spin on Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” At first, Chuck tried to hire Dick Van Dyke for the lead but ended up signing Oliver Reed for the role. I was hired to provide security and be a production assistant and driver. I was also given the option to be a stand-in or work in the production office if I didn’t want the other job. The prospect of meeting and working with Oliver Reed was thrilling, and I said so. The producer then dropped rank and told me that the star had a rep for drinking and being abusive. I thought this sounded like much fun and told the producer that Oliver Reed would quickly learn that I was on his side and that we would have no trouble, which we never did.

DR. HECKYL AND MR. HYPE was shot a year after Reed appeared in David Cronenberg’s THE BROOD and right before he appeared in Moustapha Akkad’s lavish pre-WW2 drama, THE LION OF THE DESERT. I think he was delivering some of the best performances of his career at the time. What are some of your first memories of meeting him? Was he in good spirits?

Oliver Reed was at his absolute top peak when I first met him. He was at maximum power creatively, physically and in terms of his earnings. He had finished THE LION OF THE DESERT before he started DR. HECKYL AND MR. HYPE. I knew Moustapha Akkad from film school. He was a really nice and fun guy who said that he wanted to be the Cecil B. DeMille of Islam. This got him in hot water with MOHAMMED MESSENGER OF GOD, his first film. Moustapha had somehow connected with Muammar Gaddafi who financed THE LION OF THE DESERT, which was a biography of Omar Mukhtar, a national hero in Libya and Gaddafi’s personal hero. The shoot went on forever, paid for by the Libyan government, which resulted in Oliver Reed being the highest paid actor in the world at that time. He was extremely proud of this fact and ordered the most expensive car in the world, the handmade Panther DeVille V12, to celebrate it.

My first memory of him is that he was fun from the word go. Lots of laughs. He dropped his baggage at the hotel, and went directly to the Polo Lounge, where he promptly ordered a round of double Vodka Martinis and had himself paged to the phone so everyone would know he was in town. By the time he got back to the hotel there were many messages from his pals who lived all over Los Angeles. He met several of them and began an all-night crawl at midnight at Fat Burger on La Cienega, with his favorite burger in the world, a fried egg, bacon and double cheese. The night ended with breakfast at the Bel Air Hotel and his instructions that I was to cover his back at all times. He said he could handle anyone who approached him from the front. He did not like my first name, saying it was a county in England, therefore was absurd, and renamed me “Back”, which he called me from then on. He instructed me to call him “Guv’nor” in public and “Ollie” privately.

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Top: Kent Adamson with Oliver Reed
Bottom: Reed and his luxurious Panther DeVille V12

He does sound like lots of fun! As an actor, Reed was able to easily transition between comedy and serious drama. He had an incredibly rich and diverse career which included playing werewolves and pirates in Hammer horror films to tackling complex characters from history such as Urbain Grandier in THE DEVILS and Dante Gabriel Rossetti in DANTE’S INFERNO. He also must have been well read because he was able to effortlessly embody many memorable characters from literature such as Gerald Crich in WOMEN IN LOVE and Athos in THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Was that your impression? Did he ever discuss Robert Louis Stevenson’s original book while making DR. HECKYL AND MR. HYPE? And how did Reed approach the role of Dr. Heckyl?

Understanding the depth and range of Oliver Reed’s talent can be summarized by simply saying that his grandfather was Queen Victoria’s favorite actor, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who founded the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Tree was knighted by King Albert, having royal status conferred upon him and his family. Reed’s lineage also included Peter the Great of Russia (who he resembles almost exactly) and his uncle was Sir Carol Reed, son of Tree by his mistress, who was rivaled only by Hitchcock as the preeminent director in 20th Century British cinema.

Oliver Reed had a huge library at his home in England and read very carefully and slowly. He loved to discuss world history, international politics and British and American Foreign Policy. He liked to challenge events and people on a personal level to provoke honest and truthful responses. He once asked me “Where the hell were you, when we were blowing the whistle on Hitler in 1939?!” I told him “I wasn’t born yet.” “Well, where the hell were your people?” I said “We had to let your little island get bombed lower into the Atlantic so all the stuck up Nazi loving Brits in the house would accept our help.” “Quite right, Back. Quite right.”

Reed was a physical actor. He approached characters by defining the way they moved and talked. He had no apparent interest in Robert Louis Stevenson’s book, but loved the language, dialogue and character descriptions of Chuck Griffith’s script. He was extremely proud of his work in Hammer Films, especially CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF and loved American B movies. As a teenager in the 1950s, he loved watching Elvis Presley movies and beatnik films like Chuck’s A BUCKET OF BLOOD. He rode in a motorcycle gang and had early success as a bad boy pop singer with the hit record “Wild One” and “Ecstacy” before he became an actor. He told me that Brando and James Dean did not interest him onscreen but that watching how Elvis moved in front of the camera and shot close-ups taught him the most about film acting. He prepped for DR. HECKYL AND MR. HYPE by first developing Dr. Heckyl’s loping walk and close up finger wave.

I’m glad you brought up Reed’s family. As you mentioned, he had relatives who were involved in the dramatic arts including his uncle Carol Reed who was one of Britain’s most prominent filmmakers and directed Reed in OLIVER! but he wasn’t particularly close with them if some books and interviews are to be believed. He didn’t seem to rely on his connections to booster his career or obtain roles. In general, Reed appeared to be somewhat of a lone wolf in that regard but he obviously loved people. Did he ever talk about his family with you? And do you think the family dynamics complicated his career or gave it more dimension?

I’m not sure how to approach this question. This is a very complicated issue. The Reeds had royal social status, but were not official and were in the shadows publicly, while the Trees were quite visibly successful. This is why Carol’s success as a director was so significant to the family in London. In addition to their insiders/outside status, Ollie was a disruptive kid and suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia into his late 20s.

He was close to his brothers and they handled his career very well once he became an actor. He was very loving with his children and even brought his son to Los Angeles to visit the shoot and see the town. They were great fun to spend time with and had many stories they shared about life in Wimbledon as well as having Keith Moon for a neighbor at Broome Hall. I think they also vacationed often at his home in Barbados. I’m still in touch with his son, we are pretty close in age, and he treasures his memories of his dad.

Ollie wasn’t really much of a lone wolf. A wolf, perhaps in some ways, but he pretty much moved in packs that met up with him all over the world. He spoke about his immediate family often, his brothers and children. He had lobbied successfully for the Reed line to be recognized as royal and felt this made him the head of the family. He held Carol in extremely high regard and was proud to have worked for him in OLIVER! He also never forgave Brando for giving Carol an unbelievably hard time while shooting MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY and felt that Brando was responsible for getting him fired off the film, which tarnished Carol Reed’s good name.

Creatively, I think his intensity and rage as well as his enormous drive as a fighter came from the confusion of his early years, being an extremely intelligent person, but hindered by his learning disability. But he had a great heart and was often an example of love and kindness to his family and longtime friends as well as to actors and others on the set. He was generous to a fault and tended to be an amiable “Guv’nor” (or father figure) giving kind advice to everyone who didn’t piss him off.

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Director Carol Reed with his nephew on the set of OLIVER! (1968)

Your own experiences demonstrate that Reed was a gregarious man who obviously enjoyed good company even if he may have been rather moody and even violent on occasion. His unpredictable and unruly nature undoubtedly helped foster his reputation as a “bad boy” or “hellraiser” as well as a difficult actor to work with. But it sounds like he was rather sedate on the set of DR. HECKYL AND MR. HYPE. How did he get along with the cast and crew? Did you ever see him lose his temper with anyone?

The question of crew on an early Cannon production is a very good one. They were unique “family” productions and the looseness and talent of the crew affected Ollie very much as he had been used to highly unionized A list sets made up largely of tired old men. DR. HECKYL AND MR. HYPE was a nonunion independent production that followed SAG rules and nothing else. The cast and crew revered Reed personally and his work as well and showed him much love. The quick answer is that he never blew up or created any negativity on set. He arm wrestled all comers, and always won, then settled into an ongoing series of bouts with the beefiest camera dolly grip who was nicknamed Moose. Though he tried mightily, Moose never beat Ollie.

It’s telling that you’re both a onetime colleague as well as a fan of Reed’s work. Your own work as a Production Assistant obviously put you in contact with many celebrities in Hollywood and you must have met a lot of interesting people but it seems that Reed managed to still make a huge impression. Can you tell me a little bit more about your relationship with him and explain what made him such a unique and fascinating personality?

It’s true, over many years, decades, I worked with many interesting talents. Later, as a writer/producer I worked for companies like Sony/Columbia Pictures and met everyone from Danny DeVito to Rob Lowe to Brad Pitt and Alex Trebek and many more. Without a doubt, Oliver Reed was one of the top two most memorable characters I have ever encountered in any environment or circumstance. The other was actress Ann Savage.

If you just looked at Oliver Reed sitting quietly in a chair, he had a menace to him. His face had huge knife scars, and even in repose, he was overpowering. But when you started talking with him he was hilariously funny, self-effacing and even quite shy. He had humility and great curiosity. He had sweetness to his nature that evinced a heart of gold. He was also a phenomenally hard working actor who pushed himself and his directors to make good movies and please his audience. He sought and earned respect and he was never afraid to set his ego aside and show respect for others. He loved people and spent much of his time and money to be with them and listen to them, regardless of who they were professionally or where they came from. There are not many other, if any, rich movie stars you can say this about.

The best story I can tell about him, took place when he was shooting with Corinne Calvet on the set of DR. HECKYL AND MR. HYPE. There was a break in shooting to work out a special effect, and when the crew was ready to resume Ollie and Corinne were nowhere to be found. So I went looking for them. They had wandered far off the set, and were furiously making out, hidden on the side of a building. It was very exciting! I hated to interrupt them. Later when I asked him about Corinne, and if he was going to pursue her, he said that he had been in love with her since he was a child and first seen her when she was the most beautiful woman in film. He was her fan! He loved to listen to her French accent. She was as beautiful to him in her 50s as she had been in her 20s. More beautiful. Now, he could hold her and kiss her and tell her how beautiful she was. That was Oliver Reed.

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Top: Oliver Reed & Keith Moon
Bottom: Reed goofing around with director Ken Russell

I’ve always thought of Reed as being somewhat of a rock star instead of just an actor. It probably has to do with his recording background, his well-documented friendship with Keith Moon as well as working on TOMMY with a number of music artists including Ann-Margret and Tina Turner. And of course his propensity towards heavy drinking and crazy antics that occasionally got him kicked out of hotels. He really was “bigger than the movies” and appealed to a wide cross-section of people. When he died in 1999 there was an outpouring of articles that bemoaned his career choices and seemed to relish in pointing out (what they assumed) were his failings but you, along with some others that met him and knew him personally, obviously saw another side of the man. One of those people was director Michael Winner who wrote a wonderful obituary for Reed in The Daily Mail where he said, “The public knew him as a boozing, fighting, cursing, womanising and hellraising problem; I knew and worked with a quiet and gentle person who in six movies never caused me so much as five minutes delay. He was generous; he was shy; he was very sensitive, and he was invariably considerate and kind.” That seems to be your experience as well. Why do you suppose there’s been so much focus on his wild antics and drinking problems instead of his incredible career? Is the media’s need for sensational headlines to blame or is there just a general misunderstanding of the man and the impressive body of work he left behind?

In short, yes I agree with Winner. His son Mark would too. Reed was the same on the set of THE STING II. He was a consummate pro. He had the respect of the camera crew, the sound guys, the assistant directors and the ADR recordists. He had his lines, and could hit his marks, never go out of focus take after take. If the crew doesn’t like you, they will kill you. They will drop lights near you from the catwalks and say “oops”. They will fuck up your car interior and steal stuff out of your trailer. Film sets can be brutal. They loved Ollie Reed.

He was a rock star. He was a popular, sexy pre-Beatles bad boy crooner in England with 45 rpm hit records in the early ’60s. Actors were bigger than their films in the ’60s. Like Elvis, Elizabeth Taylor, Warren Beatty, Sinatra. They were outlandish celebrities. It didn’t matter if their films were shit. He was a mod. He knew what the audience wanted and he had no qualms feeding it to them. It was the game that made the biggest splash in the press during the ’60s and ’70s, the endless postwar party. He rode it hard and is as equally responsible for his press rep as the writers like Jim Bacon, who fed it. Hollywood Is A Four Letter Word, Bacon’s book. It’s all about “cocksmen” conquests and drinking. He claimed he fucked Marilyn Monroe. He’d be blackballed today, not the dean of the Associated Press Entertainment department. Reed’s friendship with Keith Moon was sincere and also a massive quest for attention. They put on a stage show and sold tickets and sang their joint composition “I Want You To Sit On My Face.” But press antics had nothing to do with private time or professional standards for Reed. In some ways, his antics did bleed over into his life. Things could get ugly and out of hand. This is where he lost friends and lovers and wives. But I did not experience that. I have known people who did. But it was not my experience at all.

The press and media have greatly exaggerated Oliver Reed’s drinking. He did not drink every day, never on a set, and often fasted on slow weekends. He is notorious because when he drank, he could consume unbelievably large amounts of liquor and usually won any contest he entered. When he was not working, he would inhabit a pub for days at a time, joyfully putting everyone in sight under the table. He was not ill tempered by nature, but after hours of partying things could get wildly out of control, especially with personal friends like Keith Moon, Richard Harris, Harry Nilsson, and John Lennon. He was permanently banned from the Beverly Wilshire Hotel because of the total destruction of his hotel room. I was on good terms with Hernando Courtright, known as “El Padrino del Casa” who owned the Beverly Wilshire at the time, and Reed was welcomed back into the El Padrino Room to drink, but still banned from staying as a guest. He and Richard Harris had a fake feud for the press, but were good friends. Reed showed me where they had carved their initials into El Padrino’s leather wall coverings in the 1960s.

When you see him on talk shows, he is often not drunk when the host is claiming that he is. If he got bored, he would talk in funny voices and say insulting things. It looks drunk, it is not. His drunk was in his eyes, or his fist, not in what came out of his mouth.

His tremendous volume of stellar work has suffered primarily because of the decline of the British film industry, and the American distributor’s neglect of foreign film. His “drunky” antics don’t play any better today with modern, younger audiences than Dean Martin’s do. Also a sensitive and very quiet, thoughtful man.

In retrospect I think one of the big reasons there’s been a lack of focus on Reed’s career and more attention paid to his eccentric antics and drinking is that so many of his early films were incredibly difficult to get a hold of. Thanks to DVD and the digital age that’s all changed and in the last 10 or 15 years I’ve seen a slowly growing critical reassessment of British cinema in general. Beforehand, Michael Winner’s early films with Reed such as THE SYSTEM and I’LL NEVER FORGET WHAT’S ‘IS NAME or his exceptional early work with Ken Russell in THE DEBUSSY FILM and DANTE’S INFERNO as well as his performances in somewhat obscure British horror films including Hammer’s PARANOIAC, THE DAMNED and oddities like THE SHUTTERED ROOM were relatively unseen, particularly in America. This led to a lot of critics and film journalists spending more time analyzing his behavior instead of his body of work. With that in mind, what are some your favorite Reed performances? What films would you recommend to our readers?

Yes, in the last 15 years or so, society, the press, and the internet are all radically different from Reed’s glory years, and even the Reagan/Thatcher years. He also has such a wild range including things like GOR that people looking to pigeonhole, just can’t get their heads around. But a total critical reevaluation of Reed’s work is still overdue and there are many satisfactions that have been burnished and highly polished by time.

Above all, THE DEVILS is his finest work. Reed said so he and we discussed it many times. He never worked harder, took more physical abuse, read longer speeches or delivered a character as complex as Urbain Grandier. It is also director Ken Russell’s finest work, and based on one of Aldous Huxley’s most interesting books. The sets were designed by Derek Jarman, and Vanessa Redgrave is frame by frame, every inch a perfect match for Reed.

As a ’70s dramatic action star who could make Charles Bronson sweat bullets, there’s SITTING TARGET. For laughs, nobody ever caught his humor better than Terry Gilliam who cast him as a grimy Vulcan in love with Uma Thurman on the half shell in THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN. As a glamorous ’60s matinee idol and scary Hammer Horror star, Reed provides both in CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF.

Of course, don’t miss DR. HECKYL AND MR. HYPE. Not only a hoot for the wild dialogue and puns of Charles B. Griffith, but Ollie runs amok in the double role. He has great fun playing with his screen image as the too handsome, egomaniacal, lady killing narcissist Mr. Hype, and is heartbreaking as the sweet, gentle, 45 year old virgin podiatrist, Dr. Heckyl.

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Thanks for talking to me, Kent. I think Reed would probably get a real kick out of the fact that his fans are still discussing him and the wonderful films he left behind. And he seems to be gaining new admirers all the time, which speaks volumes about his character and his talent. Before signing off I thought I’d ask you what you’re up to now? Are you currently working on any projects or plans our readers might be interested in? And last but not least, are you still carrying that .38 around Hollywood?

Over the last fifteen years, I have slowly been turning into a bald headed geezer. I will never retire and hope to program my computers to keep making movies in my name even after I am gone. Recently, I have joined a wonderful family of Greek filmmakers who shoot on microbudgets in Manchester England as a producer of a horror musical called SPIDARLINGS. The director, Salem Kapsaski, was friends with the dearly departed Ken Russell and I have often wished both Ken and Ollie Reed were still with us to turn this movie inside out faster than you can say Timothy Carey and Beach Blanket BINGO! There are three documentary projects I have been shooting and editing concurrently while I create commercial Hollywood entertainment in various capacities and formats as I have since 1979. The doc nearest completion is about my very dear friend, actress Ann Savage, called DETOUR 45. When wonderful Ann passed away, she bequeathed her entire gun collection, NRA membership card, and favorite book Life Without Fear – Hand Guns and Self Defense to me, so now I have an arsenal to choose from and the little .38 doesn’t travel down the mean streets of Hollywood as often it used to.

5 Responses Oliver Reed at 77: A Conversation
Posted By Richard Brandt : February 12, 2015 7:50 pm

Best. Job. Ever.

I saw DR. HECKYL & MR. HYPE ages ago, but didn’t appreciate until I looked at this poster how much his makeup resembles Fredric March’s look as Hyde.

Posted By kingrat : February 13, 2015 12:43 am

Thanks for a wonderful post. TCM just showed Oliver Reed in a small role in THE ANGRY SILENCE.

Would love to see the documentary about Ann Savage and hear more about her from one of her friends. Adamson is a great interview!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 17, 2015 7:06 pm

Thanks for the kind comments! Kent is a great interview & I hope to have him back again to discuss his documentary about Ann Savage when it’s finished.

Posted By swac44 : February 20, 2015 1:47 pm

Having just watched Detour a couple of weeks ago, I love that his two favourite actors are Reed and Ann Savage. I’d love to seek out Adamson’s projects, and finally get around to watching that Warner Archive DVD of Sitting Target (among many other Reed titles that remain on my “must see” list).

Posted By virginia povey : August 7, 2015 12:30 pm

used to live opposite oliver reed in homepark road Wimbledon, have been told the story by my grandmother about the linage to peter the great in our family, was always and still is fascinated by these stories

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