They Lived This Way Because Nobody Else Could

My vices protect me but they would assassinate you!

That is from Mark Twain, a man who talked the talk, walked the walk, drank the drank and, for good measure, smoked the smoke. This was the famous quote that kept running through my mind like a mantra, or a rallying cry, as I read the trashy, sensationalistic, poorly written masterpiece by Robert Sellers entitled Hellraisers. The full title is Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed. To be frank, and anyone who knows even a little about any of these icons, the book could have focused on just one of them and had more than enough material to fill a volume. That it is crammed with (outrageous) stories involving all four of them is almost too much of a bad thing (bad meaning good but also meaning awful). What follows is not a review so much as a celebration.

I read this book in short, ecstatic snippets over the course of the past month. If you are the type of person who buys toilet books (does anyone buy toilet books?), this one is an automatic addition to your potty arsenal. Me, I was reading it before bedtime and while the laugh-out-louds were frequent, I invariably got drunk enough from the contact buzz to pass out after a few pages.

I think this book can be properly appreciated as a document of (cliche alert!) a truly different era. These types of artists simply don’t exist anymore and, to be honest, they could not possibly exist. I’m not necessarily implying that contemporary cinema will suffer for it, but these days (as Richard Harris points out) Tom Cruise shows up at a screening with a bottle of Evian while Harris and his compatriots would turn up, with neither irony nor a compulsion to impress, sporting a bottle of scotch. Is our society, or our silver screen, unduly affected by this passing of the gourd? Who knows. And who cares.

One thing that is certain: celebrities today are unhealthily obsessed with their status. Their capacity for sensation is a business decision, often engineered by PR hacks, or else enacted electronically: a tweet here and an interview there, all safely behind the glass. Could you imagine having a pint with just about any Hollywood A-lister? Of course you couldn’t. The fact of the matter was, these four rapscallions were (cliche alert!) men of the people, and by word –and more significantly, by deed– they were both entirely at ease and happiest when they were surrounded by the so-called common folk. Even though each of them was extraordinary in his own way(s), all of them came from difficult or at least potentially unpromising origins: they knew how little separated them from the coalminers they came up with, and how fortunate they were getting paid to pretend as opposed to breaking their backs in a factory.

And, (cliche alert!) talk about keeping it real. These chaps threw back pints and threw around their fists because they wanted to and, to a certain extent, they had to. Here’s an instructive anecdote: On a visit to Rome Harris persuaded one of the film executives to join him in order to witness first hand that it wasn’t always the actor who started all the brawling. On their first night they went to a bar and listened as a drunken American tourist spelt out in a loud voice how he was going to do in Harris. The executive advised his client to take no notice. “Do you want me to wait until I get a bottle across the face,” reasoned Harris, “or go in and get it over with.” The executive could see only logic in this statement and Harris took the insulting Yank outside and flattened him.

Here’s the thing. That’s not old school; that is one room and no electricity school. And while I’m not endorsing or advocating a top tier artist (or any average citizen) employing violence to settle their disputes, there is something almost refreshing (not quite quaint, but close) in this mano a mano arithmetic. Consider that, and compare it to our contemporary film, rock, and especially rap superstars with their posses, guns and melodramatic beefs. Drive-bys and group beatings? How about this: Got a problem? Let’s squash it right here, right now, without weapons or a crew of thugs jumping in.

At the same time, I’m not suggesting that these paleolithic antics didn’t have deleterious effects on their lives, as well as their art. Did we get the best they had to give? The verdict on all four (particularly Burton) is quite clearly nay. But would we otherwise have gotten This Sporting Life? Could we ever conceive Lawrence of Arabia? (It’s commonly agreed that O’Toole’s work here is among the best in movie history, but it may not be as well known that the almost impossibly elegant actor was hearty enough to endure an excruciating desert shoot that would have crippled many other thespians.)

Did each of them forfeit the best years of their artistic (not to mention actual) lives to drinking and skylarking? Perhaps, although it depends upon one’s definition of what entails a life best lived, and that is fodder for another discussion altogether. Based on the anecdotes and testimonials contained within these pages, not a single one of them regretted leading such unabashed existences (even if none of them could recall large chunks of those lives due to the state they were often in).

Let’s look at The Tale of the Tape (taken directly from the book).

Exhibit A, Richard Harris:

– One night Harris was thrown out of a pub at closing time, but still in need of a drink boarded a train just to make use of its open bar. With no idea where the train was headed he arrived in Leeds completely (inebriated) at one in the morning. With nowhere to go he walked down a nearby street and seeing a light on in a house chucked a stone at the window. The owner came storming out but upon recognizing Harris invited the star inside. Harris stayed there for four whole days and wasn’t sober once. Eventually the man’s wife phoned (Harris’s wife): “I’ve got your husband.” She was shocked when (Harris’s wife) replied, “Good, keep him.”

– In his favorite New York bar the bartender would see Harris walking in and immediately line up six double vodkas.

– At home in the Bahamas neighbors took to dropping by uninvited. To deter them Harris conceived an impish plot. One afternoon a family living close by turned up. Walking inside they found Harris with two mates sitting naked watching porno movies and masturbating. “Oh, hello there,” said Harris. “Come on in.” The incident went round the island like all good gossip does and afterwards Harris was left pretty much in peace; the way he wanted it.

– “When they took him away to hospital (shortly before his death)”, recalls director Peter Medak, “the lobby just completely stopped, and Richard sat up on the stretcher and turned back to the whole foyer and shouted, ‘It was the food! Don’t touch the food!’ That was typical Richard.”

(Personal note: just looking at the various interviews and clips on YouTube reveal without any doubt that Harris was a master storyteller and what we used to without irony call a bon vivant. He is a pub legend and if he did little else in his long life than bring amusement and joy to the thousands of people fortunate enough to have their eyes, ears and beers in his vicinity, it was a great deal more than most human beings are capable of imparting. Of course he did much more than that and he will endure as one of the genuine characters of the 20th Century.)

 

Exhibit B, Richard Burton:

(Personal note: this book will be a required purchase for anyone who has ever been fascinated by Burton’s relationship with Elizabeth Taylor. I must confess, I’ve never cared much about it, or her, but could not help but be amused, and startled, to discover that in her prime she could drink just about any other human being under the table. “I had a hollow leg (in those days)…my capacity was terrifying,” she recalls. So they had that little hobby in common, but it was definitely Liz’s looks that put the hook in Burton. “Burton referred to Taylor’s tits as ‘Apocalyptic. They would topple empires before they withered.'” Let’s stop and savor that for a second: there are novelists whose collected works don’t contain a line that perfect. Inevitably, both Burton and Taylor withered, and it was from the inside out. Anyone who was born between 1970 and 1980 can recall seeing these two on TV (or in a movie) and thinking “What’s all the fuss about?” and having their parents quickly set them straight. In their primes they were arguably the brightest and most beautiful stars in the Hollywood galaxy. But wither they did, and it was an expensive, languid, and hard-earned degeneration. With Burton, it wasn’t a matter of how much he consumed, but how he managed to find time to eat or sleep or breathe. On a given day he might plow through three full fifths of vodka. I’m not certain I’ve had that many martinis in my life. All of which is to say, of the four, Burton is generally considered the one who had the most to give and gave the most away as a result of his addictions –which either prompted or exacerbated a lethargy and greediness that devoured entirely too much of his energy and ability. More than a few notable folks offered the opinion that had Burton exerted a bit more control over his vices he may have ultimately become the most revered stage actor of all time, surpassing even Olivier.)

– During one particular scene (in 1966’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) Burton was required to down a whiskey. The props department brought in flat ginger ale, the movies’ usual substitute for scotch, but Burton waved it away. “It’s only a short scene, won’t need more than a couple of takes. Bring me some real whiskey.” In fact the scene needed 47 takes. “Imagine it, luv,” Burton bragged to a journalist later, “47 whiskies!”

– Burton had arrived to work on The Klansmen drunk and stayed drunk throughout filming, consuming three bottles of vodka a day, a routine he’d been following for the past six months…when (the director) was filming Burton’s death scene he complimented the make-up man. “You’ve done a great job.” The make-up man replied, “I haven’t touched him.”

– Staggering home at three in the morning, O’Toole tried to carry (Burton)…and both men stumbled into the gutter. Somebody stopped beside them on the pavement. It was Alan Bates, O’Toole’s ex RADA colleague. “Peter,” he said, “today I’ve just signed up for my first commercial picture.” “We both looked up,” recalled O’Toole, and said “You coming down to join us, then?”

Exhibit C, Oliver Reed:

(Personal note: I have a special place in my heart for Ollie. I couldn’t have been more than ten the first time I saw the musical Oliver! and Reed, as Bill Sikes, scared the living shit out of me. He was the real deal: the kind of face you could smash a torch into, break a bottle on and pour hot oil over and he’d smile…before he killed you. I then enjoyed him as the perfectly cast father in the movie version of Tommy. He was (cliche alert!!) absolutely one of those rare actors who, for me, I’d watch in virtually anything he did just because he had that presence: he loved the camera and the camera bloody loved him. That he ended up dying, in a bar, after drunkenly arm wrestling with a group of sailors four decades younger was…pathetic, predictable, perfect.)

– In an early role (as a werewolf, in a wretched B-movie), Reed enjoyed keeping his make-up on at the end of the day and terrifying fellow motorists at traffic lights.

– After Tommy Reed and The Who’s Keith Moon continued their rabble-rousing friendship. Reed enjoyed a game that he christened “head butting”. Each player was required to smash his head against his opponent until one collapsed or surrendered. A regular victim was (The Who’s bass player) John Entwistle, who, after being knocked out three times, pleaded with the nightclub owner to either ban the game or ban Ollie.

– Filming The Great Question (1983) Reed was stuck in Iraq…in what was essentially a war zone. One night Reed joined the crew for numerous drinks in the hotel bar and, looking in the nearby restaurant, saw a Texas oil billionaire whom he knew. Jumping up, obviously drunk as a skunk, he rushed upstairs to his room. “When he came back down he was wearing a western shirt and cowboy boots and walked John Wayne style into the restaurant to see his buddy,” recalls stunt man Vic Armstrong. “Inside he gave this guy a Texas handshake, as he called it, which basically means lifting your leg up and smashing your cowboy boot down on the table. So Ollie walked up to this guy’s table, surrounded by women and other dignitaries, and smash, all the cutlery and glass went flying in the air. Suddenly Ollie looked at the guy and it wasn’t his mate at all, it was some Arab with his harem, deeply offended that this westerner had come stamping on his table and upsetting everything.

– Reed had his private parts (which he was fond of calling his “mighty mallet”) emblazoned with the images of two eagle’s claws. Not long after, he had an eagle’s head tattooed on his shoulder, so when people asked why he had an eagle’s head on his shoulder he could reply, “Would you like to see where it’s perched?”

Exhibit D, Peter O’Toole:

(Personal note: after reading this book I’m more convinced than ever that if I could come back as another person and experience their life, Peter O’Toole would be on the very short list.)

– Interviewer: “Are you afraid of dying?” O’Toole: “Petrified.” Interviewer: “Why?” O’Toole: “Because there’s no future in it.” Interviewer: “When did you last think you were about to die?” O’Toole: “About four o’clock this morning.”

– O’Toole once arrived late for a ferry back to Ireland, the gangplank having just been raised. When the captain refused him entry O’Toole seized the ship’s papers, without which it couldn’t sail. He was only persuaded to hand them over by the arrival of a policeman. O’Toole then chartered a plane to Dublin, hired a taxi upon landing and raced from the airport to the harbour. When the ferry arrived there was O’Toole waiting on the dock to challenge the officer to a fistfight.

– O’Toole had never been the most subtle of people and old age hardly dented his un-PC ways. He had little time for the current crop of British stars like Hugh Grant. “Ugh, that twitching idiot! Ooh, I musn’t say that, must I, but he’s just a floppy young stammerer in all his films.” (Personal note: HaHaHaHa!)

– At the 2002 Oscars, O’Toole was to receive a lifetime achievement award. However, on discovering the bar served no alcohol, he threatened to walk out. Panicked producers had some vodka smuggled in.

In the final analysis, these men were geniuses on the screen, and depending upon how one judges such things, geniuses off it as well. One could maintain that, like Oscar Wilde, they were equally geniuses at life: they lived life fully on their own terms, and after all the broken glass, bludgeoned livers, wrecked relationships, wounded feelings and untapped potential, the sum shined brighter than the bits and pieces. Were they running away from their demons even as they rushed, face first, into a mirror or bar brawl or oncoming vehicle? Perhaps. But there was a courageousness to their conviction and intolerance for half-measures that, for better or worse, we’ll seldom if ever see again. They lived the lives they led because they had no choice, and more to the point, because nobody else could.

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