There was always something menacing about British actor Oliver Reed. He had a thick bull neck, a sinewy frame, dark eyes, a noticeable scar on his face and a flat nose. He was a notorious boozer and rabble-rouser,too, a life as rough as his visage. The presentation wasn’t always gentle, either; when he appeared in the 1980s on David Letterman’s show, for instance, he would answer questions only in German. If there was a beast inside, it came out during his first starring role, the blood-curdling “The Curse of the Werewolf” from 1961.
The only werewolf film from Hammer Film Productions, the Terence Fisher film was feted Saturday night at Pitzer College in Claremont with a 50th anniversary celebration that featured a life-size sculpture of the hirsute monster, a creation of Mike Hill.
“The Curse of the Werewolf” finds Reed at his hair-raising best as Leon, the illegitimate child of an imprisoned beggar and the deaf-mute daughter of his jailer. Leon takes a job in a vineyard and, one evening, feels uneasy one evening when the full moon begins to rise. Faster than you can say “silver bullet,” Leon turns into a werewolf and kills a woman.
Hammer was important for Reed early on: He had roles in its “Sword of Sherwood Forest” and “The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll,” both in 1960, and “The Pirates of Blood River” in 1962. The anniversary got me to thinking about the snarl of Reed onscreen and off.
Directors did seem to love him. Michael Winner cast him in six films including one of Reed’s few comedies, “The Jokers” (1966), with a young Michael Crawford, and the 1967 film “I’ll Never Forget What’s His Name.” Reed worked with Ken Russell several times, on the 1967 TV biopic “Dante’s Inferno” and then in “Women in Love” (1970), in which he and co-star Alan Bates wrestled in the buff; “The Devils” (1971); and “Tommy” (1975). Carol Reed, the actor’s Oscar-winning director, used his nephew to great effect as the vicious Bill Sikes in “Oliver!” (1968), which picked up an Ocar for best picture. Reed proved he could be a swashbuckler, too, playing Athos in Richard Lester’s version of “The Three Musketeers” (1973), “The Four Musketeers” (1975) and “The Royal Flash” (also 1975).
Reed died of a heart attack in 1999 at age 61 while drinking in a bar during the filming of Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator.” The end went badly, and even star Russell Crowe — himself known for bad behavior — saw nasty full-moon fever in the soon-to-expire elder actor.
Crowe recalled later: “I never got on with Ollie. He has visited me in dreams and asked me to talk kindly of him. So I should … but we never had a pleasant conversation. I have seen him walk down the street in Malta drunk as a lord and just hit anybody he got near to — even a man walking with his children. I just found that to be — not impressive. He drank himself to death. He sat on a bar stool until he fell off it and carried on drinking … lying in his own piss and vomit he continued to drink till he passed out. What did the tabloids say he drank on the day he died? Something like 30 beers, eight or 10 dark rums and half a bottle of whiskey. In the end, he created such a weird energy around him that no one drinking with him cared.”
– Susan King
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