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

<strong>He'll Play This Bout First:</strong> Peter O'Toole starred as Hamlet in an Old Vic production directed by Laurence Olivier in 1963. What's in the glass is anyone's guess.
He'll Play This Bout First: Peter O'Toole starred as Hamlet in an Old Vic production directed by Laurence Olivier in 1963. What's in the glass is anyone's guess.

Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed and Peter O' Toole were among the four greatest actors of their generation. Onstage, they brought new vigor to Shakespeare and Shaw. Onscreen, 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.

They also, in the words of Oliver Reed, didn't live "in the world of sobriety" — thus, Hellraisers, a new book about these four legends who lived in the same time and place. The stories collected in it make you wonder how they made any art at all between drinking binges, pub crawls and pub brawls, public scenes of ribaldry and all-around boorishness.

Robert Sellers, the author, initially set out with the idea of a reference book of hell-raisers, only to discover that it would have been too episodic. So he narrowed his focus, picked these four titans, wove a narrative — "so it's almost a story," as he puts it.

"Burton, Harris, O'Toole and Ollie Reed were the greatest drinkers of all time," Sellers tells NPR's Scott Simon. "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."

And they were a talented — an immensely talented — group. Burton was nominated for seven Oscars, O'Toole eight. It's criminal, Sellers thinks, that they never won, though O'Toole did pick up a lifetime-achievement award in 2002.

"It's very difficult to be a great actor and a genuine film star at the same time," Sellers argues. "They're quite exclusive."

These four were both. Burton, particularly, was both immensely talented and a global superstar — a sensation on Broadway in John Gielgud's celebrated 1964 production of Hamlet, and a hit onstage as King Arthur opposite Julie Andrews' Guenevere in Camelot a few years before. A tabloid favorite, he was married — twice — to Elizabeth Taylor, with whom he began a torrid and breathlessly reported-on affair during the filming of Cleopatra, which even in the age of Avatar remains one of the most expensive epics in Hollywood history.

Reed, by contrast, never quite made it big in America — though he did make an impression in 1968's Best Picture, playing the wicked Bill Sikes in the musical Oliver.

"He was scared of Hollywood, I think," Sellers says. "He was offered the lead role in Jaws, would you believe, and turned it down. He was quite happy living in England."

A Fish Tale That Turns Out To Be True

Good as they were, these four could be very, very bad. The tales of their carousing have grown over the years until they've become legend — which is why, Sellers says, it was particularly rewarding to track down those who could give firsthand accounts of outrageous stories you'd think must have been embellished.

Reed, for instance: Filming the 1973 adventure The Three Musketeers in Madrid, the cast and crew were staying in an expensive hotel with an ornate fishpond in the dining room, full of koi — the overgrown goldfish often seen lazing about in ponds in Japanese gardens and public parks.

"In the dead of night one evening, Oliver Reed came down and stole the fish from the ornamental pond," Sellers says. "[He] put the fish in his bathtub and spent all night with some carrots, shaping the carrots into the shape of fish. And then he went down and put the carrots into the pond, and then went to bed."

<strong>He Can Top That:</strong> Oliver Reed stacks up the dead soldiers with friends circa 1990.
He Can Top That: Oliver Reed stacks up the dead soldiers with friends circa 1990.

Next morning, Reed arrives in the dining room and says "Good morning" to everybody — and then he dove into the pond and started eating what the diners thought were live fish. The manager called the police. Reed was escorted out of the building, shouting, "You can't touch me, I'm a Musketeer!"

Too good to be true, right? Turns out that the actor Michael York — he played D'Artagnan in that movie, though younger audiences might know him as Basil Exposition in the Austin Powers films — was one of the diners that morning, and he swears it happened just like that.

"It's nice to sort of legitimize these wonderful stories," Sellers says.

A Darker Version Of Life At The Top

Some stories, of course, are less larky.

"They all had their dark side," Sellers says. "Less so Peter O'Toole, but I think the others — something about the Celt, isn't it? The dark side of the Celt?"

Richard Harris, who played Burton's King Arthur role opposite Vanessa Redgrave when Camelot was turned into a film, "probably was the darkest," Sellers says. "He could get extremely violent when he was drunk."

"There are stories of him throwing a wardrobe at his wife one evening," Sellers says. "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? 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, just wrecked the whole establishment. And he couldn't remember."

O'Toole, the last surviving member of the Hellraisers quartet, doesn't drink much anymore.

"He can't drink — well, he does and he doesn't," Sellers says. "He had this operation in the '70s, where most of his stomach was removed because of his excessive drinking. And after that the doctor said, literally, 'If you drink, you will die.' "

And so O'Toole "was off the sauce, off the booze, for about 10 years," Sellers says. "And then he slowly went back on it. But only the odd little indulgence, shall we say. He doesn't really drink heavily, because it would kill him."

That surgery, and its effects, would cause havoc on the set of the '80s comedy My Favorite Year.

"There's a scene where his character has to drink one of those small airplane miniature bottles," Sellers explains. "Obviously, they all knew 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. ... But one bottle got through, and that's the one he drank."

The upshot: O'Toole was violently ill for about two hours.

'Why Would I Worry About It?'

The four hell-raisers enjoyed their excesses, and they were not men to worry much about their reputations.

<strong>Home Is Where The Hooch Is:</strong> Richard Harris and his wife, Elizabeth, the life of the party circa 1960.
Home Is Where The Hooch Is: Richard Harris and his wife, Elizabeth, the life of the party circa 1960.

"Why would it worry me after I'm gone?" Richard Harris asked Scott Simon in a 1994 interview. "I won't be around to observe what people say about me. Look what they say about me now, for God's sake — and I'm alive. A lot of it's not very complimentary, you know? So why would I worry about it when I'm dead?"

And yet at their core, Harris and his brothers in boozing — who did, after all, assemble an impressive body of work — had a solid sense of professionalism.

"Michael Winner said that Oliver Reed, when he was directing him ... he never drank," Sellers reports. "He only drank at night. He was like Jekyll and Hyde."

Harris died in 2002, Burton in 1984, Reed in 1999 — during the filming of Gladiator, another Best Picture winner for the man who never made it big in Hollywood. He played Proximo, the retired gladiator who helps train the movie's hero.

When they were at their peaks, these men "had huge responsibility on their shoulders as the star of a film," Sellers acknowledges. "But there were the odd days. ... There's a wonderful story where O'Toole was making a film at Shepperton, or Pinewood — one of the big studios here in England. And they said, 'OK, we don't need you for an hour, Peter, off you go, we're lighting the next scene.' "

When they were ready for O'Toole, the assistant charged with fetching him went to the star's dressing room only to find it empty.

"There was no sign of Peter at all," Sellers says. "Gone. Vanished. 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 — and the camera zoomed into the crowd and Peter O'Toole was actually in the crowd."

The star of the film had bolted from the studio and gotten a cab to the local racecourse.

"And this poor assistant had to go back, and said, 'He's at the local races,' " Sellers says. " 'How do you know that?' 'He's actually on the television, cheering the winner.' "

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