Oliver Reed was a true British hero and hellraiser - but was also one of the finest actors this country has produced.
We caught up with Rob Crouch who is starring as the legendary icon in the West End next week to find out about why he chose to portray Ollie Reed, his crazy lifestyle, his relationship with Keith Moon, and how Reed died.
Sabotage Times: Do you agree with Reed’s assertion ‘Life should be lived and that's all there is to it’.
Rob Crouch: I don’t know if he was simply saying something to be outrageous or whether he genuinely believed it – but yes he certainly lived his life to the full – there’s absolutely no question about that. His constitution was ridiculous.
ST: Oliver Reed is a good fit for you…
RC: Oliver Reed felt like he was a good fit.
Mike Davies - who’s the co-writer - and I and I were talking about developing a one man show and I wanted to do something based on a real person where the audience went through a journey with some real highs and lows. I was interested in somebody who’s life and career encompassed quite a lot of peaks and troughs.
Another reason we chose to do Oliver Reed was because a tramp once said to me you look like Oliver Reed! This homeless guy said to me: “You look just like Oliver Reed”!
I guess that was when the seed was planted in my brain. I think it was meant as a compliment – I hope it was anyway!
Sometimes I do look like him, sometimes I don’t - but it’s enough. It was then we decided it would be a good fit – and let’s face it I was never going to do something about Lester Piggott or Zsa Zsa Gabor…
ST: Oliver Reed wasn’t just a washed up actor who appeared on 90s chat shows?
RC: The single moment where we really got excited was when Mike and I watched Reed on the Johnny Carson show in 1971 on youtube.
We’d watched stuff like The Word, Aspel and Co, and After Dark - but this was different. This was magic. It was watching him on top of his game – it was just incredible.
That was the moment we wanted to put him on stage. This is what we wanted to tell people about, this forgotten moment in 1971. You think about him being a tragic figure on 90s chat shows, but the renaissance of Gladiator was quite poignant because of that.
For a period of about five years he was absolutely The Daddy – more so that Connery, more so than Caine, more so than a lot of people who outlived him, who were better at playing the game – at being a movie star.
He was one of the best actors this country has produced in film, certainly one of the most successful - but a very short period of time - before he started going off the boil.
ST: Was it due to his alcoholism?
RC: It depends what you mean by an alcoholic. Richard Burton had to have 10 G&T’s to get out of bed in the morning. Oliver Reed wasn’t like that.
What he would do was go on a bender for five days and drink a pub dry. He would go mental – but then he would retreat and be in his garden just pottering around. He had a flame inside him. The Hellraiser term is convenient because he did Raise Hell - but he did it quite in controlled bursts.
What happened was as he got older he got less good at recovering.
I was talking to his niece as her dad was his manager David Reed, who said Ollie phoned him up one day saying: “Oh god I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’ve got a dreadful headache. I feel sick. I think I’m dying. And she said David replied: “You’ve got a hangover”.
He had this exceptional constitution that enabled him to live a lot harder and faster than any normal person. But then it starts catching up you. It used to be that you’d go out on the lash for days and then you’d turn up at work and no-one could see the difference. But your brain loses its elasticity, the body doesn’t metabolise it so well and you start slowing down.
I saw an interview with Ridley Scott talking about him. He only ever got two or three good takes out of him – he said Reed would just get bored. And so when Reed is working for great film directors that’s all it takes as everyone is on their game.
But if it wasn’t - Reed would just think: “Fuck this”, and start messing about and lose interest, concentration, and professionalism.
Don’t forget, in the early days he was fiercely ambitions. He was absolutely professional. It got eroded, becoming a vicious circle - he’s then not in films anymore, he’s phoning in the performances, and he becomes a liability.
What also happened was the film industry became risk averse. He got fired from ‘Cut-throat Island’ for threatening to punch one of the stars – he got his cock out and was drunk. 30 years ago it would have been seen as high spirits and totally acceptable - so then he got fired with depressing regularly.
When Scott decided to take him on he said: “I’m giving you this chance – don’t let me down”. And he didn’t. Right until the final weekend.
ST: Which killed him.
RC: Which killed him. It’s like Amy Winehouse, with people asking what killed her. If you stop and start again your body can’t cope and that’s what happened to Oliver Reed. He died of a massive heart attack. He’d had a massive session and was arm wrestling sailors in the bar.
They reworked the end of Gladiator and it became such a fitting final act in his life. It’s one of the things that attracted us to his story. It’s got the structure already made.
He starts off as this edgy rebel figure, becomes a laughing stock, then ultimately pulls it all around and proves to the world he could still do it – but then tragically is taken before he gets a chance to capitalise – or get a chance to fuck it up again. Who knows which he would have done? I suspect he may well have fucked it up again if he had survived Gladiator.
ST: Is it nurture or nature that makes people behave the way they do?
RC: I think it’s a bit of both. He had this ridiculous constitution that he was born with. But he had a very difficult relationship with his father. He was also massively dyslexic so he struggled at school. He was regarded as an idiot. He was still in his first year at school at 16 because he kept being held back.
He had a lot to prove to the world. He had a lot of anger and aggression – if you look at Wayne Rooney – he would have been in prison if he wasn’t a footballer - the same would have applied to Oliver Reed. I read somewhere Oliver Reed volunteered to fight in the Falklands War! A ridiculous idea but one that summed up him at times.
ST: I am intrigued by his friendship with Keith Moon – was it simply a case of two hellraisers together?
RC: I really believe it was something deeper than that. Of course they could match each other pint for pint and both lived their lives to excess – but I genuinely believe there was real friendship and respect - Reed was devastated when Moon died.
ST: Favourite Reed story?
RC: I would simply say the one where he absolutely nails a scene he’s filming. Where everyone - actors, director, producer, extras – everyone - is awed by the intensity of his acting, his talent. He then takes everyone – everyone - to the bar and buys them all a drink. He downs his drink, then says goodnight. That was the essence of the man at his finest: a great actor, a generous man, and a great drinker.
OLIVER REED: WILD THING
Performed by Rob Crouch. 1 & 8 April.
Tickets/information: 08448 112 334 / www.theambassadorstheatre.co.uk
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