Four 'Hellraisers,' Living It Up In The Public Eye A hard-drinking actor? Hardly a novel phenomenon. But four of the 20th century's greatest actors — Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole and Oliver Reed — were also possibly its greatest drinkers. In Hellraisers, biographer Robert Sellers tells tales from the intersection of talent and wretched excess.
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Four 'Hellraisers,' Living It Up In The Public Eye

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Four 'Hellraisers,' Living It Up In The Public Eye

Four 'Hellraisers,' Living It Up In The Public Eye

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From two great novelists to four acclaimed actors. Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed and Peter O' Toole were among the four greatest actors of their generation and perhaps of all time. They brought new vigor on stage to Shakespeare and Shaw. They made British cinema sexy in classic films including: "Lawrence of Arabia," "Oliver," "Becket" and "This Sporting Life." They classed up Hollywood cheese like "Cleopatra." And they also, in the words of Oliver Reed, didn't live in the world of sobriety.

"Hellraisers" is the title a new book about these four screen legends of the same time and place. It makes you wonder how they made any of those films, between epical drinking binges, pub brawls and crawls, carousing, canoodling and public scenes of ribaldry and boorishness.

Robert Sellers is the author of "Hellraisers." He joins us from London.

Mr. Sellers, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. ROBERT SELLER (Author, "Hellraisers"): Hi. You make it sound very interesting. I might read it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, that's the idea. And why did you put this particular quartet together? I mean a drunken actor is - how shall I say this - not a phenomenon.

Mr. SELLERS: My original idea was to do a sort of a reference book on hell-raisers in general, a sort of an A to Z, as it were. But I thought that would be a little bit too episodic. So I just thought well, let's narrow it down -try and make it into a narrative book so its almost a story. So I thought Burton, Harris, O'Toole and Ollie Reed were the greatest drinkers of all time so I thought they were a nice grouping. And also, they're from pretty much the same generation. They all worked together. There's a lot of cross-fertilization going on. They drank together, they whored together and they worked together. So it made perfect sense to group them together.

SIMON: Before we get you to detail some of the hijinks, remind us how good they were as actors and for that matter, how good Peter O'Toole, the last one standing, can still be.

Mr. SELLERS: Well, I think you look no further than the Oscars. Burton, I think seven nominations. Criminal, actually, that they never received the Oscars they richly deserved. O'Toole in 2002 picked up a lifetime-achievement Oscar, didnt he? He gave that one last speech. It's very difficult to be a great actor and a genuine film star at the same time.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SELLERS: They're quite exclusive. Burton, particularly, was a global superstar. Oliver Reed never quite made it in America, strangely enough.

SIMON: But a great actor - a great, great actor.

Mr. SELLERS: But a great actor. He was scared of Hollywood, I think. He was offered the lead role in "Jaws," would you believe, and turned it down.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. SELLERS: He was quite happy living in England. But the other three were huge international stars and great actors.

SIMON: Okay. What everybody's waiting for: how bad did they be?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SELLERS: One of the joys of this book was speaking to some of the people who were there at the time and actually were able to prove that the stories actually happened. There's a great example: Oliver Reed, when he made "The Three Musketeers," it was made in Spain and the cast and crew stayed in this wonderful posh hotel in Madrid. And in the dining room was this wonderful ornate fishpond with these Koi carp or goldfish in the water.

And in the dead of night one evening, Oliver Reed came down and stole the fish from the ornamental pond. Put the fish in his bathtub and spent all night with some carrots, shaping the carrots into the shape of fish. And then went down and put the carrots into the pond, and then went to bed.

And then for breakfast, when all the rest of the guests are eating breakfast in this wonderful dining room, he arrives and said good morning to everybody and then dived into the pond and started eating what the diners thought were live fish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SELLERS: And the police were called. The manager called the police and he was escorted out of the building, shouting, You can't touch me, I'm a musketeer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SELLERS: And that's one of those great stories. It has to be apocryphal. It can't be true. And I interviewed Michael York and he told me he was one of the diners.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. SELLERS: And he saw it happened. So it's nice to sort of legitimize these wonderful stories.

SIMON: Yeah. There's some uglier ones too though.

Mr. SELLERS: Yes. I mean they all had their dark side, very much so. Less so Peter O'Toole, but I think the others something about the Celt, isn't it? The dark side of the Celt.

Harris, I think probably was the darkest. He could get extremely violent when he was drunk. There are stories of him throwing a wardrobe at his wife one evening.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. SELLERS: Another time, he woke up one morning and looked in the mirror, and his whole face was covered in scars and smeared in dried blood. And he went downstairs and asked his wife, what happened? You know, what happened last night? And she says, you can't remember? You can't remember smashing up an entire restaurant? He threw tables and chairs through windows. He just wrecked the whole establishment. And he couldn't remember.

SIMON: Yeah. I had, I was going to say pleasure, honor, I really count it as that, as seeing Peter O'Toole on stage in London a few years ago.

Mr. SELLERS: So have I. Wonderful, wonderful. Wonderful actor.

SIMON: I saw him in "Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell."

Mr. SELLERS: So did I. Yeah. Fabulous.

SIMON: What a magnificent performance. Was he...

Mr. SELLERS: Yes. Absolutely superb.

SIMON: Was he drunk?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SELLERS: No. Well, he can't drink. Well, he does and he doesnt. He had this operation in the 70s where most of his stomach was removed...

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SELLERS: ...because of his excessive drinking. And after that the doctor said literally, if you drink you will die. And he was off the sauce - off the booze - for about 10 years and then he slowly went back on it.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SELLERS: But only the odd little indulgence, shall we say. He doesn't really drink heavily, because it would kill him. But yet, he always looks slightly drunk, doesnt he?

SIMON: Well...

Mr. SELLERS: I think it's just his natural countenance, I think. But going back to O'Toole, the fact he couldnt drink, there's a wonderful film, "My Favorite Year"...

SIMON: Oh my gosh.

Mr. SELLERS: ...which I'm sure people in America know about that film. It's a wonderful film.

SIMON: Know about it, I think its one of the favorite films ever.

Mr. SELLERS: It's a terrific movie.


Mr. SELLERS: It's a terrific movie. There's a scene, I think it was 1981-'82, there's a scene where his character has to drink one of those small airplane miniature bottles.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SELLERS: And for the shot, obviously, they all knew that Peter couldn't drink. So they got about 10 or 20 of these bottles, emptied them of the alcohol, washed them out with water and then filled them with water. So when he drank, he's drinking water. But one bottle got through, that wasnt emptied and that's the one he drank and he was violently sick for about two hours.

SIMON: We interviewed Richard Harris...


SIMON: ...after his career had resurfaced a number of years ago. Just the most charming man in the world. It was wonderful. And I will never forget, we asked a little bit about his hell-raising. Here's what he told us about those years, his reputation.

Mr. RICHARD HARRIS (Actor): I was never - I got to tell you, I was never - I'm not into it. I've never - it doesnt really - why would it worry me after I'm gone? I won't be around to observe what people say about me. Look what they say about me now, for God's sakes and I'm alive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRIS: A lot of it's not very complimentary, you know? So why would I worry about it after I'm dead?

SIMON: Despite all, did each of them have a core of professionalism for something that really also created, we should never forget, a very impressive body of work between them.

Mr. SELLERS: Yeah. Well, Michael Winner said that Oliver Reed, when he was directing him, I'm not sure about other directors, but when he was directing him, he never drank. He only drank at night. He's like Jekyll and Hyde, you know. So yeah, they had huge responsibility on their shoulders as the star of a film.

But there were the odd days. There's a wonderful story, when O'Toole was making a film at Shepperton, or Pinewood one of the big studios here in England. And they said, okay, we don't need you for an hour, Peter, off you go, we're lighting the next scene. So he went into the dressing room and then they finishing lighting the scene and the director said, can you go and get Peter now? We're ready for him.

And the assistant went into the dressing room and the dressing room was empty. There was no sign of Peter at all. Gone. Vanished. And he looked around the dressing room, and the television was on. And it was covering a local horse race and this is God's truth the camera zoomed into the crowd and Peter O'Toole was actually in the crowd of the horse race. Hed legged it, and got a cab to the local race course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SELLERS: He was actually on the - and this poor assistant had to go back, and said, I sorry. He's at the local races. And how do you know that? He's actually on the television. He's cheering the winner. And they had to go and get him and drag him back to the studio and say you have to work now Peter. You know, so they were professional but they had the odd lapse, shall we say. More than most.

SIMON: Mr. Sellers, thanks so much.

Mr. SELLERS: Oh my pleasure. My pleasure. I've enjoyed it. Thank you.

SIMON: Robert Sellers in London. His new book "Hellraisers: The Life And Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole & Oliver Reed."

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