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Oliver Reed

Oliver Reed died on 2 May 1999, aged 61. The actor, who appeared in over 70 films including nine Hammer productions, had been filming Steven Speilberg's Gladiators in Malta. He was taken ill while out drinking with friends in a bar in Valetta and died on the way to hospital.

Robert Oliver Reed was born in February 1938. After leaving school, he left his home in Tunbridge Wells and headed for London where he got a job as a nightclub bouncer in Shepherd's Market. A few weeks later, the club was raided by police. He then worked as a seed packer for Carter's Tested Seeds in Raynes Park before deciding to become a boxer. "I fancied myself as a light-heavyweight," he recalled in 1961. He won his first fight, at Mitcham's Fair Green, but he wasn't so lucky with his second, "I took an awful beating from a man who turned out to be a former professional. So I hung up my gloves and got myself a job as a porter in St. Helier Hospital, Carshalton. Six months later came National Service and I found myself with the Medical Corps in Malaya and Hong Kong."

On returning to civilian life, Reed mixed with the Chelsea Set but was unimpressed, "It bored the hell out of me! I decided on an acting career." Seeking advice from his uncle, director Carol Reed, he was told to try RADA, or spend as much time as possible in the cinema. Not surprisingly, Oliver took the unconventional route into acting, spending his time in the cinema and studying his heroes - Peter O'Toole, Albert Finney, Richard Harris, James Dean and Marlon Brando - rather than enrolling at RADA. Among his earliest films were The Square Peg, The Four Just Men, The Angry Silence and The League of Gentlemen.

His break came when he secured the lead role of Richard of Gloucester in a seven-part BBC television series, The Golden Spur. On New Year's day, 1960, Oliver married model Kate Byrne. The following day, he reported to Bray Studios for his first Hammer film, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll. Further films roles were slow in coming until Michael Carreras cast him in The Sword of Sherwood Forest. His most memorable Hammer appearance in The Curse of the Werewolf followed in August 1960. The following year saw Oliver in three more films for Hammer; The Pirates of Blood River, The Damned and Captain Clegg.

It was shortly after finishing The System, the first of a number of films for director Michael Winner, that Oliver was involved in an incident which almost brought his acting career to a premature end. He recalled in his autobiography, Reed All About Me (Carnacalla Enterprises: 1979), "I managed to con my way into becoming a member of The Crazy Elephant, a nightclub in Jermyn Street in the West End. I went there one night with a couple of friends of mine and as we walked past a table occupied by a group of young men, one of them said, 'Look out, here comes Draculal' It was a reference to my horror movies. 'Watch it!' I said, 'or I'll bite your jugular vein out.' The next thing I knew was having this glass in my face. Then they jumped on me as I clutched my face with my hands. They kicked me to the floor and as I lay there with blood spurting from my face, they kicked me again. They were tearaways. Villains. Or if they weren't, they put on a pretty good act."

Fearing his acting career was over, the badly-scarred Reed took a job selling shop signs, then bought himself a Mini and became a minicab driver, "...not realising that minicabs was a misnomer that meant anything but Minis."

The release of The System coincided with Oliver's eventual return to acting, when he was offered the role of Claude Debussy, in Debussy, a Ken Russell production for the BBC. "Hammer Films had given me my start and Michael Winner my bread, then Ken Russell came on the scene and gave me my art." Over the next decade, some of Oliver's best remembered work would be for Russell: Women in Love, Tommy and The Devils. During this period, he also appeared in Oliver! (directed by his uncle), Hannibal Brooks and his final film for Hammer, The Brigand of Kandahar: "It was the worst film I ever made for Hammer." In 1990, Oliver would provide the narration for the TV compilation, The World of Hammer.

His marriage to Kate Byrne was dissolved in 1970 and, in September 1985, Oliver married 21-year-old Josephine Borge. They moved to north Cork in 1993 and made their home in Castle McCarthy, a large house set in 17-acres of grounds.

On 15 May, two weeks after his death, a funeral service was held in St. James Church, Mallow, County Cork. Among the mourners were his widow, Josephine, two children, Mark (from his marriage to Kate Byrne) and Sarah (a daughter from a 12-year relationship with ballet dancer Jacquie Daryl whom he first met on the set of Oliver! ), and two brothers, Simon and David. Also present were Michael Winner, former world snooker champion Alex Higgins, and actors Michael York, John Hurt and Peter O'Toole. Richard Harris paid his respects to the fellow actor in a local bar. Oliver was buried in his home village of Churchtown, across the road from his local pub, O'Brien's Bar.

Oliver's penultimate film, Parting Shots, his sixth film for Michael Winner, was released the week after his death. Meanwhile, Steven Speilberg plans to digitally regenerate Reed in scenes he didn't complete in Gladiators. Oliver was also due to appear in an adaptation of H.E. Bates' Uncle Silas books. Producers, Yorkshire Television, plan to proceed with the project and are currently searching for a replacement to take the role of Silas.

Oliver's undoubted talent as an actor was often overshadowed by the media's coverage of his drinking and off-screen antics. And it was this aspect of his personality that much of the press concentrated on in their obituaries to the star. However, those that knew him, knew his real life persona belied this portrayal by the media. Michael Winner paid tribute to the actor in the Daily Mail: "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."

Source: Dark Terrors, Issue 17, 1999

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