ROBERT SELLERS TALKS ABOUT OLIVER REED

Robert Sellers is the prolific author of many film biographies and film business books, including 'The Battle for Bond' (2006) about the first attempts to bring 007 to the screen, 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life' (2003) about the history of Handmade Films, and 'Hellraisers' (2008) about the exploits of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole and Oliver Reed. Sellers also recently co-wrote the legendary stunt director Vic Armstrong's auto-biography ('My Life as Indiana Jones, James Bond, Superman and Other Heroes', 2011). I spoke to him about his latest book, a new biography of Oliver Reed entitled 'What Fresh Lunacy is This?', which has been authorised by the actor's family and takes a deeper look at his personality and artistic legacy.

Prior to 'What Fresh Lunacy is This?', you wrote 'Hellraisers' about the exploits of Burton, Harris,  O'Toole and Reed. What is it about the lives of such actors that you find so fascinating?
It's partly a nostalgic thing, I'm quite a nostalgic person and these were the movie stars I grew up watching on TV. They fascinated me, especially when I started to read up about them and discovered that their private lives would actually have made better movies than some of the ones they appeared in. I'm attracted to people like Reed and the Marvins, Mitchums and Brandos; larger than life characters who didn't give a stuff about convention and lived exactly the way they wanted to.

Do you think they represent a bygone era? What do you think of their modern equivalents?
Absolutely, they wouldn't be allowed to get away with it now. These guys were lucky because in the '50s and '60s they had a good relationship with the press. Indeed, in many cases they went out drinking with them, so a lot of their bad behaviour went unreported. You also didn't have the profusion of TV channels and gossip mags you have today, they weren't in the spotlight as much as stars now. As for  modern equivalents, in terms of talent, yes we have the likes of Johnny Depp, but those old guys were unique; when people like Ollie Reed or Lee Marvin pass away God doesn't replace them.

Is it fair to say that of the 'Hellraisers' quartet, Oliver Reed was your favourite?
I have a soft spot for O'Toole, but Ollie may well be the most endearing. The phrase most used by people I talked to for the book to describe Ollie was 'Jekyll and Hyde': he could be incredibly articulate and great company one minute, the next, after that one drink too many, an absolute monster. But people forgave his Mr. Hyde moments because the Jekyll side of his personality was so charming. There was also a lack of edge to his antics. Yes, he could get dark and violent, but for the great majority of the time he employed charm and humour in his antics. He was a clown, really.

You already wrote about Reed in 'Hellraisers'. Reed wrote his own autobiography in 1979 ('Reed All About Me'), and Cliff Goodwin wrote the acclaimed biography 'Evil Spirits' (2000). What made you feel another book on Reed was warranted?

I did feel that a 'definitive' book on Reed hadn't been written. His 1979 autobiography was ghost written and full of inaccuracies, while remaining a good read, so too Goodwin's book, although he didn't speak with much of the family or any of Ollie's closest film colleagues. Ollie was such a huge cultural icon and film personality that I think he was due a BIG 500 page opus. I hope I've delivered it.

Why do you feel Reed's family was willing to help with your book?
The family have been approached over the years by numerous writers with the intention of doing an 'official' biography but always felt the time wasn't right. I think my approach to concentrate more on Reed's film career, to rehabilitate him as an actor if you like, was something that appealed. I also wanted to explore the real Oliver, the man behind the hellraiser image, a man who was shy, vulnerable and articulate. Of course, the boozy stories are all present and correct, plus a legion of new ones, so in the final analysis I think it's quite a balanced book.

What do you feel their participation brings?
It was invaluable. From the very early years of Ollie's life, right to the final hours of his existence on earth I was able to call on first hand witnesses. Every milestone, every major event or turning point I could draw upon the people who were actually there. The family were also incredibly candid; they didn't hold back.

Do you personally feel Reed's life story is ultimately a sad, triumphant or a bittersweet one?
You could call it bittersweet. When he died, the papers all said he wasted his life. Michael Winner, Ollie's very close friend, responded that far from wasting his life the opposite was true: ''He had a wonderful life. He enjoyed himself. He did a lot of movies, he didn't end up broke, he had a lovely wife and lovely children. How can that be a wasted life.'' I agree.

What do you think are the most common misconceptions about Oliver?
That he was constantly on the piss and that he was drunk when he worked. Far from it, on set he was the most amazingprofessional, totally dedicated to the job; and he saw acting as a job by the way, not a craft. A lot of people I spoke to remarked how Ollie was the most professional actor they'd ever worked with. He was invariably the first on set in the morning, knew his lines, was sober and did whatever the director asked him to do, no ego, no mind games, no tantrums, no bullshit. Evenings were different, of course, he'd get shit faced and raise hell.

Which areas of Oliver's life do you find it hard to reconcile with?
His attitude and treatment of women, I guess. He was a male chauvinist without doubt, though he did enjoy playing up to that image just to piss off the feminists. He once said that his ideal woman was a deaf and dumb nymphomaniac whose dad owned a chain of off licences. But he did hold very Edwardian attitudes towards women, preferring that his wives/girlfriends didn't pursue a career of their own, he was the bread winner and they stayed at home, cooked for him and produced children.

How high do you place Oliver's talents as an actor? How much did he fulfil his talent?
Very highly. He had enormous screen charisma. Olly was magnetic, you can't take your eyes off him when he's onscreen, and that's a gift, you can't be taught that. You've either got it or you haven't and Ollie had it in spades. He also had a wonderfully deep voice. Strangely enough, he never acted on stage in his life, he was a pure film actor. He also never went to drama school. He was self-taught, essentially, learning as he made his way up in films. I think he's easily the equal to actors like Sean Connery, Michael Caine etc.

How did you anticipate your interviewees would recall Reed?
I did feel that it would be split right down the middle between those who couldn't stand his boorish behaviour and those who found it a laugh, but I was pleasantly surprised by how many people deeply loved Ollie, even those he did the most heinous things to. He was like a naughty school boy, really. I was also surprised at just how shy he was in real life and how much self-confidence he lacked. To combat this insecurity Ollie rarely appeared on chat shows as himself, instead he played some warped version of what he perceived the public thought Oliver Reed behaved like. That’s why he got pissed on chat shows or larked about because you had to be yourself, and he just couldn’t do it, so he'd get slaughtered.

What was the funniest or most memorable new story you found out?
Almost everyone I spoke to had an Ollie Reed anecdote, some had a whole bunch of them. Probably the maddest new story I uncovered happened during the shooting of CASTAWAY (1986) in the Seychelles. Ollie's hotel was situated next to the airport and one morning, heavily intoxicated, he ran onto the runway and attacked a plane coming into land. They had to make an emergency manoeuvre.

Why do you think Reed is much more of a British icon than say an American icon? Do you think it has to do with attitudes towards heavy drinking?

Yes I think so. Ollie's brother David was his manager for many years and one of the reasons why Ollie never cracked Hollywood was the perception he was an alcoholic. They also didn’t know how to cope with him. It had nothing to do with Ollie the actor, it was his behaviour, perceived or otherwise. Back then, the Americans were terribly cautious about drinking and rudeness. They were quite puritan about it. You went out to dinner with a Hollywood producer and if you took more than one glass of wine you were looked upon as a drunkard. Nowadays, they're all coked up to the eyeballs, of course.

Do you personally feel Oliver was an alcoholic?
That's a really difficult question. I'm not sure and that may sound totally mad. The thing was, he could go weeks, sometimes months, in fact, without touching a drop. He also didn't wake up in the morning and feel the desire to start drinking; vodka with his cornflakes. What he was undoubtedly was an almighty binge drinker.

Do you feel it all started to go wrong for Reed once he decided not to move to the US as his career started to gain heat?
Years later Ollie did admit that he'd made a mistake not going to Hollywood earlier, say '74/'75 when he was at his peak. He was offered the role of Lonnegan in THE STING (1973) and Quint in JAWS (1975). This was confirmed to me by Richard Zanuck personally. But this thing about self-confidence reared its head again, Ollie was nervous about going to Hollywood, he was nervous of being anywhere he didn’t feel secure, away from his gang of mates. Undoubtedly this damaged his career. One can only speculate where his career would have taken him had he made JAWS.

Was it your idea to try to balance out the differing viewpoints? Reed comes across in your book as a complex, warm, humorous person who was tons of fun but also a difficult and occasionally volatile man. How much of your approach towards was coloured by your own reading of the man?
I try not to approach a book subject with an opinion or view point. It sounds bizarre, but I think its terribly important to be as objective as possible; you're a messenger not a preacher. I interviewed something like 70 people for this book and it's their opinions, their view points which are important. It's your job as a writer to deploy them in the right way to produce a balanced account of someone's life.

How much was your approach an attempt to counteract previous books or the common perception of Reed?
The common perception of Oliver Reed being this hell raiser and boozer was actually a fairly significant part of his life, he did drink like a lunatic, staggering amounts at times, and did cause chaos, but there were other aspects to his personality that the family stressed hadn't been commented upon before. For example, his love of nature and his peaceful pursuit of gardening. There were huge contradictions in his character that I wanted to highlight, for example: he was always courteous to women, stood up for them in restaurants and opened doors for them, but he held extremely chauvinistic views. He was a barrel of contradictions.

If you could have had a pint with Oliver, what would you have asked him?

Why he never took himself seriously as an actor. Glenda Jackson said something very interesting: that he was very clear in his own mind that he was a star. He would always come on the set as though he was in charge of the whole thing; there was that undercurrent all the time, that he was a star. But he was completely unsure that he was an actor and that's a real shame. I don't think he really knew how good he was.

What do you feel are Reed's top 5 performances?

OLIVER! (1968): This was Ollie's international breakthrough and his performance remains hypnotic. So malevolent is he as Bill Sikes that even when he isn't on screen his presence remains tangible. The child actors were terrified of him. Cleverly Reed only ever appeared on set in front of the juvenile actors in character, so their reactions to him remained very 'real.'

THE DEVILS (1971): This is probably Reed's best performance. Unfortunately it was an achievement utterly overshadowed by all the controversy surrounding the film. Ollie felt at the time that his performance was slightly compromised by Russell's operatic visuals. ''There was so much going on that it was difficult to make a performance live,'' he said. ''The performances got lost in the tirade of masturbation, flagellation and kissing God's feet.'' It’s also incomprehensible to learn that Reed wasn’t nominated for a single acting award for THE DEVILS. If a top class actor gave a comparable performance today he'd get his arse licked by every critic in the land.

THE BROOD (1979): Around the late '70s, Ollie's career began to nose dive and he was making poor choices. This state of affairs exacerbated in the '80s and he began to fall out of love with making movies, but he would always raise his game for a director that he recognised to be of unquestionable talent. Certainly David Cronenberg fell into that category, even though prior to THE BROOD he'd made only a few films. Reed saw in Cronenberg a real talent and he gives a brilliantly measured and understated performance.

THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1988): A strange choice you may think, especially since Ollie only appears in a brief cameo, as the God Vulcan alongside a very young Uma Thurman, but it's one of the few instances on film where Reed was allowed to play comedy, something he enjoyed doing. Because of his malevolent looks, Ollie played villains mostly, especially in his later years, but he loved comedy and loved working with Terry Gilliam, one of the few directors to give him the creative freedom to mould and play the part how he wished. It's a quite exceptional comedy performance, one that Gilliam admits still makes him laugh.

GLADIATOR (2000): It had to be. This is the role and performance that had Reed lived would have changed his life. When casting Proximo, producer Douglas Wick told me they were looking for an actor who had that larger than life quality: someone who could send men to their deaths with a twinkle in his eye and you would forgive him for it. Ollie was perfect. He brought such gravitas to the part, sheer magnetism, primitiveness, and also honesty. How fitting that GLADIATOR was to be Ollie's final picture.


Which overlooked films should every Reed fan make sure they catch?
THE DAMNED (1963), one of Ollie's early Hammer films, is a little gem. Part Teddy Boy flick, part sci-fi chiller, part Cold War paranoia, it was directed by Joseph Losey a year before he made THE SERVANT. Ollie plays a violent street thug who beats up tourists in a rundown English coastal resort. There are very definite shades of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) in its depiction of gang violence. Ollie gets a great death scene, too.

REVOLVER (1973) is a terrific Italian crime drama (with a great Ennio Morricone score) that Ollie made in the early 70s. He plays a no-nonsense prison warden whose wife is kidnapped by the Mafia and the only way to get her back is to break a criminal from jail. If you like European crime films this is a must-see.

I've always liked HANNIBAL BROOKS (1969). It used to be on the TV all the time when I was growing up, but in recent years it seems to have been forgotten somewhat. It's the one where Ollie has to escort an elephant over the Swiss Alps to freedom during the Second World War. Ollie gives one of his most endearing performances and this just might be Michael Winner's most likeable film.

I interviewed Robert via email during July 2013. I'd like to thank him for his time.

'What Fresh Lunacy is This?' can be ordered from Amazon UK here, and via The Book Depository here.


3 comments:

Jeff Flugel said...

Fantastic interview, Paul! I have Seller's book on ITC and it's a beaut. Thanks for posting this and letting me know about the Ollie Reed bio...Reed has always been one of my favorite actors and it will be a treat to read a proper book about his life and career.

Clare Jordan said...

Great interview, great questions, great photos too!

Gold Gato said...

I'm enjoying the book right now. Fantastic FILM star and so loyal to his country. Just wished he had taken the Bond role for OHMSS and done Polanski's MacBeth.