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Sunday, May 2, 1999 Published at 20:32 GMT 21:32 UK


Oliver Reed: The original hellraiser

His notoriety peaked in 1985 when he married 21-year-old Josephine

Oliver Reed will probably be better remembered for his off-screen antics than his work as an actor.

His career took off in the 1960s, but he found greater fame as a hard-drinking hellraiser.

He was born in Wimbledon, south London, on 13 February 1938.

The BBC's Arts Correspondent Nick Higham looks back at Oliver Reed's career
But by the time he hit his teens, his wild streak had already surfaced. He ran away from the family home in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, to become a Soho strip club bouncer, fairground boxer and hospital porter.

Acting soon followed, during his national service in Hong Kong, and his long search for a showbusiness break began soon after.

60s heart-throb

The lead role in a BBC series, playing Richard of Gloucester, led to a string of television parts before the movies beckoned in the shape of Hammer horror films.

He was quickly cast as the type of actor people "love to hate" and became one of the handful of British actors never out of a well-paid job.

His larger-than-life screen presence was capitalised on by Ken Russell, who cast him in Debussy on television and then in the films Women in Love, The Devils and Tommy.

But it was the nude wrestling scene with Alan Bates in the 1969 film Women in Love that started the wave of publicity that later threatened to engulf Reed.

'I don't punch people any more'

His hard-drinking reputation and the scrapes he found himself in almost overshadowed later films, including Musketeers' Triple Echo and Castaway.

The actor explained his behaviour by saying that having "cultivated the image of a baddie", he would pursue it, if it was what people wanted to see.

"That is why, if I go on a chat show, I give them the very thing they want, and sometimes I go over the top," he said.

"But I don't punch people any more; I am too old for that now. And very often I have hit someone only to avoid being hit myself."

Escapades which either he or others have recounted include:

  • Spiking snooker ace Alex Higgins's whisky with Chanel perfume, followed by Higgins squirting washing-up liquid in his creme de menthe
  • His occasional habit of displaying the bird claws tattooed on his private parts, a performance which was once described as his "party trick"
  • He denied downing 104 pints of beer in a two-day session before marrying his wife, Josephine. "The event that was reported actually took place during an arm-wrestling competition in Guernsey about 15 years ago," he said. "It was highly exaggerated."
  • He once arrived at Galway airport lying drunk on a baggage conveyor
  • He once said: "I like the effect drink has on me. What's the point of staying sober?"

16-year-old companion

His notoriety peaked in September 1985 when he married 21-year-old Josephine Burge, who had been his companion since she was 16.

His previous marriage was to Irish model Kate Byrne, with whom he had a son Mark. The marriage was dissolved in 1970 after 10 years.

He also had a daughter, Sarah, from a 12-year relationship with a ballet dancer, Jacquie Daryl.

But beyond the legend there was a man with a marvellous speaking voice who was the ultimate professional - always word perfect and unfailingly courteous to colleagues and technicians.

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