The Life and Inebriated Times

of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, and Oliver Reed

by Robert Sellers

St. Martin’s, 286 pp., $25.99

The chapter headings tell all you really need to know about this book: The Plastered Fifties, The Soused Sixties, The Sozzled Seventies, The Blotto Eighties, The Pickled Nineties. The final chapter is sadly and fittingly enough titled: Last Man Standing—referring, of course, to Peter O’Toole, the only survivor of these four highly talented and demon-accursed actors.

I got to know some of these worthies in varying degrees of acquaintanceship during the sixties and seventies. The Burtons because some tax arrangement found them in Paris shooting The Sandpiper, supposedly situated in California, a film for which both stars had infinite contempt. At that time I wrote a column reviewing films and theater three times weekly in the International Herald Tribune. Burton read me, found he agreed mostly with what I had had to say, and began passing me scripts he was receiving practically every day to get my reactions.

Friendship with Elizabeth was slower to develop, but before long, we two females were merrily referring to “your Richard” and “my Richard” (Grenier). Our two Richards found quite a bit in common—apart from drink—and Burton wound up giving “my Richard” a very fine jacket blurb for his first novel, Yes And Back Again. (It was Elizabeth, however, who saw to it that her Richard’s text got to the publishers on time.)

In passing, let me note that the author rather irritatingly keeps referring to Miss Taylor as “Liz,” an appellation she never used herself, nor did she appreciate people addressing her thus. And in terms of the Burtons being heavy drinkers: Although her Richard, indeed, could consume a substantial amount of alcohol, in the two years that I spent a fair amount of time in his company, I never found him unable to recite verse, from Shakespeare to Dylan Thomas, other than clearly and flawlessly by the end of any long evening.

Those were merry days, in the early sixties, at the French film studios of Boulogne-Billancourt outside Paris. The Burtons were on one set; on another were Peter O’Toole, Peter Sellers, and Woody Allen shooting What’s New, Pussycat? Burton and O’Toole, both very bright, engaging, and witty fellows, were something of a treat to spend time with.

Hellraisers concentrates on how four tremendously gifted men seemed hell-bent on self-destruction. It makes painful reading, recounting as it does one drunken pub crawl after another, followed by yet another marriage split apart, punctuated by the gradual sliding-down of their once glorious celebrity. The author makes no real effort to analyze the why or wherefore that drove these talented men to their relatively early deaths.

Oliver Reed’s life is probably the most painful of all to follow. Slightly less known than the other three, he apparently was endowed with a singularly strong constitution that led him to the kind of excess that brought him to his demise at age 61. While making Gladiator in Malta, Reed whooped it up riotously with a group of young British sailors, matching and mastering them in bouts of arm-wrestling, drinking all the while. The sailors finally left, and Reed settled down on the tavern floor, falling asleep, never to wake. Director Ridley Scott, in a kind of tribute (at a cost of some $2 million to the budget), gave Reed’s character a redeeming death onscreen, with the help of computer grafting.

My one encounter with Reed was on the set of Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers, where, fittingly enough, he was cast as Athos, the alcoholic nobleman with a secret past. There were no drinks, but we did have a long, thoughtful, intelligent, entertaining discussion—not of just the film, but of the French novelist Alexandre Dumas, the relationship of Athos and the young Gascon swashbuckler D’Artagnan (played in the film by Michael York, who is quoted sympathetically here), and what it was like working with Richard Lester as a director. Oliver Reed was both perceptive and wickedly entertaining.

I only met Richard Harris at the night of his triumph at the Cannes Film Festival where his performance in This Sporting Life would earn him the best actor award. That night the actor was high—ebullient, indeed—from the sheer charge of the cheering throngs. I do remember, however, his director Lindsay Anderson lying across the threshold to Harris’s hotel room to block entrance to all the eager young women yearning to pay their respects, in person, to the actor.

Peter O’Toole, Last Man Standing, was delightful, witty, and charming—someone you would like to have as a friend. He certainly made life on any film set, to say nothing of a festival, a special pleasure. I see, looking through my files, that I once described O’Toole thus at a festival in Sicily:

The O’Toole surface is light, rapid, entertaining, enthusiastic with quantities of beguiling, casual charm. He is an easy, almost incessant, talker, darting from reminiscence and anecdote to serious and well-thought-out intellectual judgments. Under the altogether engaging surface, though, one does sense now and then a rather considerable angst.

The last time I saw O’Toole was in a small café on Rue Washington in Paris, just around the corner from my apartment. It wasn’t very late, maybe ten in the evening, and the place was deserted except for O’Toole. He was slumped down, his head on his arms on the table. He looked lonely and, well, miserable. Of course, I couldn’t just say, “Well, hello, Peter. How about coming up to my place.” Fortunately, his health is such nowadays that drink is no longer possible. Also, happily, he is still acting. Last Man Standing.

Cynthia Grenier is a writer in Washington.

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