Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed

Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed

by Robert Sellers

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312668143
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/26/2011
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 441,183
Product dimensions: 5.36(w) x 8.18(h) x 0.86(d)

About the Author

ROBERT SELLERS is the author of eight books. He contributes regularly to Empire, Total Film, Cinema Retro, and The Independent. A former stand up comedian, he lives in the United Kingdom with his wife and daughter.

Read an Excerpt

HELLRAISERS (Chapter One)An Aperitif

Throughout the history of movies there have always been hellraisers; actors and booze go together like Rogers and Hammerstein or eggs and bacon. Film producer Euan Lloyd, who worked over the years with Frank Sinatra, Robert Mitchum and Dean Martin, says that drinking simply went with the job. ‘Whether it was lack of confidence or just habit, it was hard to tell, but a destroyer could comfortably swim in the ocean of liquid consumed by actors.’

Lloyd’s association with Burton and Harris was the boy’s own adventure, perhaps the archetypal hellraiser movie, The Wild Geese, which also starred veteran boozer Stewart Granger and Roger Moore, himself not averse to a bit of elbow-bending, but able to hold it more than most. By 1978, after decades on the piss, Burton and Harris were mere shadows of their former selves. One day during a break in filming they sat together under the African sun reminiscing and trying to make sense of their lives. ‘We were like two old men,’ Harris said. ‘Once the greatest hellraisers in the world, we were now too tired to stand up and pee. After two hours of philosophical discussion, we came to the conclusion that the tragedy of our lives was the amount of it we don’t remember, because we were too drunk to remember.’

So why did they do it, Burton, Harris, O’Toole and Reed, why did they drink themselves to death, or – in the case of O’Toole – come within a hairsbreadth of it? Burton said it was ‘to burn up the flatness, the stale, empty, dull deadness that one feels when one goes offstage.’ More likely it was to get over the realization that he was appearing in a piece of shit. Nor was he averse to getting pissed on the job. Maybe it went hand in hand with his reputation as a legendary womanizer: not long after starting his infamous affair with Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Cleopatra, Richard Burton answered the phone at her home. It was Taylor’s husband, Eddie Fisher, demanding to know what he was doing there. ‘What do you think I’m doing?’ Burton replied. ‘I’m fucking your wife.’ Probably emptying his drinks cabinet, as well.

Burton’s intake was prodigious. At the height of his boozing in the mid-70s he was knocking back three to four bottles of hard liquor a day. On The Klansman he was drunk for the entire production. ‘I barely recall making that film,’ he confessed. Burton loved the sheer sociability of booze, drinking in pubs, talking with mates and sharing stories; he was a man who enjoyed life better with a glass in his hand. After sex it was the thing he loved most in life. Coupled with his nicotine addiction – it’s rumoured he smoked 50 a day – Burton embraced that seemingly inbred Celtic desire to walk dangerously close to the precipice perhaps more than anyone.

Harris too loved the communal nature of boozing. He loved nothing better than going into a pub on his own and by the end of the evening being surrounded by a new gang of boisterous pals. ‘Men, not women,’ he’d state. ‘Boozing is a man’s world.’ For years Harris habitually drank two bottles of vodka a day. ‘That would take me up to seven in the evening, then I’d break open a bottle of brandy and a bottle of port and mix the two.’ Asked by a reporter once to describe how much booze he’d consumed over his lifetime Harris was only exaggerating mildly when he replied. ‘I could sail the QE2 to the Falklands on all the liquor I drank.’

There was also an element of being the naughty schoolboy about Harris’s drinking, of showing off. ‘I adored getting drunk and I adored reading in the papers what I had done the night before.’ He knew full well what he was doing by getting pissed all the time and ending up in police cells or brawling in public, but didn’t think it that awful. Neither did he hate himself for it in the morning or feel guilty. No, Harris just believed that the world and too many people in it were boring old farts and his mission was to live life to the fullest and spread a little joy around. ‘So I did, and damn the consequences.’

O’Toole was another who loved the social life of a drinker, propping up bars in Dublin or London, nattering with saloon-bar poets and philosophers, putting the world to rights. ‘But I don’t really know what I get out of it,’ he once said. ‘What does anyone get out of being drunk? It’s an anaesthetic. It diminishes the pain.’ O’Toole would drink to excess for no good reason, as he became intoxicated quite quickly due to the delicate state of his insides; he suffered from ill health most of his life, particularly from intestinal pain.

Naturally eccentric, the drink merely compounded the affliction, and fame when it came threw a spotlight on it so all the world could gawp and gasp at his escapades. This was a man who travelled the world yet never wore a watch or carried a wallet. Nor upon leaving home did he ever take his keys with him. ‘I just hope some bastard’s in.’ More than once, on the occasions when someone was not, O’Toole had to explain to the police why he should be breaking into his own property.

There was an undercurrent of violence to his drinking, too. At his hellraising peak the gossip columns were filled with accounts of booze-fuelled antics: a brawl with paparazzi on the Via Veneto in Rome, a fistfight with a French count in a restaurant, his fleeing Italy on the eve of being arrested, even the beating up of a policeman. O’Toole’s social life often was in danger of eclipsing his talent. ‘I was silly and young and drunken and making a complete clown of myself. But I did quite enjoy the days when one went for a beer at one’s local in Paris and woke up in Corsica.’

For Reed, like Burton and Harris, it wasn’t so much drinking he loved but the fact that it took place in pubs. He loved the companionship, the camaraderie with other men, the chance to challenge people to drink contests or bouts of arm wrestling. All his life he preferred the friendships he made in pubs to those on a film set. ‘You meet a better class of person in pubs.’

He also loved the loss of inhibitions in a person when they drank and so found great sport in getting anyone in his vicinity totally smashed. ‘People make so much more sense when they’re drunk and you can get along famously with people you couldn’t bear at other times.’ Journalists who visited him were invariably plied with unhealthy amounts of drink and staggered home after the encounter with the battle scars of a war correspondent.

Reed was proud of the fact that he could drink any man under the table. His favourite tipple was ‘gunk’, his own invention, an ice bucket with every drink in the bar poured into it. The Daily Mirror reported a doctor’s findings that the safe limit for any man’s consumption of alcohol was four pints a day, and then printed a story that Reed had managed to knock back 126 pints of beer in 24 hours and photographed him performing a victory horizontal hand-stand across the bar.

Reed’s antics were perhaps unmatched by any other hellraiser – and they are legion. He once arrived at Galway airport lying drunk on a baggage conveyor. On an international flight he incurred the wrath of the pilot by dropping his trousers and asking the air hostesses to judge a prettiest boy contest. All this led one journalist to say that calling Oliver Reed unpredictable was like calling Ivan the Terrible ‘colourful’.

All these men played up to their boozy, brawling, madcap image; some resented the press label of hellraiser, others wallowed in it, turning it almost into a badge of honour and a second career. ‘What that group of actors had was a fine madness, a lyrical madness,’ said Harris. ‘We lived our life with that madness and it was transmitted into our work. We had smiles on our faces and a sense that the world was mad. We weren’t afraid to be different. So we were always dangerous. Dangerous to meet in the street, in a restaurant, and dangerous to see on stage or in a film.’

Director Peter Medak recognizes that this element of danger was a significant part of the hellraiser’s make-up. ‘It was the same with Burton and O’Toole, and Harris and Reed, there was this terrible sense of danger around them, you didn’t know if they were going to kiss you, hug you or punch you right in the face. They were just wonderful.’

HELLRAISERS. Copyright © 2008, 2009 by Robert Sellers.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Told in the free-ranging anecdotal style of the bar stool bard—and taken, presumably, with the requisite tumberful of tipple—these breezy tales of outcast British actors stumbling, bumbling and humping their way to stardom, offer up truly guffaw-worthy camp and idiocy. All the classic bits are there. . . . The sprightly smash 'n dash of the prose so wonderfully captures the wanton belligerence of both binging and stardom you almost feel the guys themselves are telling the tales (and moaning and toasting all the while.)"

—GQ 

"A book celebrating famously unrepentant drunks is a welcome surprise . . . Like the rejuvenating martinis and blurry haze of cigarettes in "Mad Men," Robert Sellers's nostalgic Hellraisers . . . amounts to an unapologetic celebration of the plastered and the damned in our sanctimonious "Oprah" age of public confession and easy redemption."

—The Wall Street Journal

 "Robert Sellers' outrageously entertaining history proves that today's celebrities don't have much on Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, Richard Harris and Oliver Reed."

—The Daily Beast

"Hellraisers wants only to be a rowdy collection of greatest hits, and it lives up to that fun-loving ambition."

—The New York Times

"An incredibly entertaining series of anecdotes, interspersed with unpretentious and conversational interviews—all about drinking."

—The La Times

"As the colorful anecdotes collected in this book make clear, some stars are born rather than made."

—The New York Post

“Their names are included up there with the acting greats and these boys spent quite a bit of time behaving badly. From O’Toole getting arrested for wooing an insurance building, Reed dropping his pants in public to show off his “mighty mallet,” Harris attacking cars in Italy, to Burton urinating onstage, it is laid out in hilarious detail by Sellers. The hijinks, happening in a time before real paparazzi we have now, did not come without a price, although while on top, these men lived life to the fullest and never looked backward or even forward. . . . These extraordinary characters and ultimately charming men continued to grab life by the horns even when the partying slowed. The men were more than actors; they were legends, and they never let anyone forget it for an instant.”

San Francisco Book Review

"The most outrageous film book of the season, by far, is Robert Sellers' Hellraisers. . . . We no longer think of the exploits and peccadilloes of self-annihilating alcoholics as a roistering, almost Elizabethan source of anecdotage and amusement, but for the last historical period where people did, Burton, Harris O'Toole and Reed were the source of more stories, both hilarious and monstrous, than anyone else."

The Buffalo News

"Equal parts funny and appalling, Hellraisers takes us back to the glory days of stage and screen actors Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Oliver Reed."-

-Connecticut News

"There are some wonderful tales here."

—Dallas Morning News

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Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
kila_squid More than 1 year ago
I heard about this book on NPR and was intrigued. While I am a fan of the actors featured, my interest in the book had less to do with them and more to do with their lifestyle, which is a good thing. The book is a bit of a biography, but mostly it is a tale of drunkeness and debauchery...my favorite topics. It is a quick read. I think I read it in a day, but I find myself re-reading passages of it. When your life has turned into an endless array of PTO meetings, soccer games and other suburban banalities, turn to Hellraisers and pour yourself a gin and tonic. I was surprised by how much I actually came to like the four actors featured (O'toole, Harris, Burton and Reed)..but I wouldn't want to be married to them.
SongSanDiego More than 1 year ago
I love to read about lives with passion, craziness, overindulgence and whatnots. If you are one of those who can't understand drinking, smoking and taking mind-altering drugs and consider them sins, you should not pick up this book. Many of the episodes in this book kept me laughing at night, some made me cringe, some made me to put down the book and think. Since these actors represent the big part of British/American film history, you will also find this book most entertaining.
jbowie21 More than 1 year ago
I found this book very absorbing and interesting. Mr. Sellers fills the book with plenty of background and tons of interesting stories and behind the scenes tidbits. I understand the focus of this book was on the "hell raising" of these talented men, however I do wish these exploits weren't always treated with such a light hand. Each of these men could have been the focus of a tragic tale as well and by playing off nearly all of their substance abuse issues with humorous stories or in a humorous manner does not, in fact, portray the whole story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book and a quick read. I was amazed that these men lived as long as they did! In the end, I came to admire the life they chose but only because they were honest about what they wanted. They did what they pleased but I couldn't have married any one of them. The biggest surprise is the turn around in O'Toole's life, and he is the only survivor of the group. Highly recommended for fans of Burton, Harris, O'Toole and Reed!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a fan of these four and found nothing new here. The author used the word pissed about a million times. The book was erratic, jumping around. The author just glosses over stories. I cannot believe a publisher reviewed this mess before going to print. No pictures anywhere in the book. You will need a drink to get through this mess. IT COULD HAVE BEEN SO MUCH MORE....
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A perfect example of drunken excess and self destruction at its finest
E-Reads More than 1 year ago
In contrast to the idea that just because someone consumes seemingly endless quantities of alcohol resulting in various forms of crazy behavior, that person should stop drinking, I liked the author's relative objectivity regarding the drinkers he writes about in this book. However, I wish he would have gone beyond describing a series of happenings to some famous guys who drank, drank, drank. The subject offers many layers for consideration but, for the most part, this book read like one long introductory paragraph after another. I wish he would have crafted a creative thinkpiece by weaving a better connecting thread through it all and taken a risk with some kind of statement. Otherwise, what's the point?
kraaivrouw on LibraryThing 6 months ago
This is an odd book. It's basically a collection of anecdotes from the drinking lives of four amazing actors. The anecdotes pretty much follow one basic form: Person X got really drunk, did something stupid, doesn't remember it, doesn't regret it. There is a slight variation where Person X remembers it and regrets it, but this variation doesn't occur often. It's slightly different for each man - with Richard Harris and Oliver Reed there is a fight of some kind, with Richard Burton there is also Elizabeth Taylor (who drank as much or more than he did), and with Peter O'Toole there is always a bon mot. In the end the endless repetition of dumb activities reads like a great advertisement for a 12-step program - the pursuit of fun is all so desperate and boring and soulkilling. I'm a bit undecided as to whether or not this reaction is by design or not - the author is so absent and deadpan it's difficult to know what he might think.I was reminded of reading Touched with Fire, Kay Redfield Jamison's study of artists and bipolar disease. She neatly punctures the idea that madness and art are romantically and inextricably intertwined and instead dares to wonder how much these individuals might have accomplished had they not suffered from depression. Anyone who has ever been through a severe depression knows that there's nothing romantic or even remotely creative about it. When getting out of bed is your biggest achievement for the day it's hard to produce anything other than tears. I was left to wonder what they all might have been without the booze. It's telling that Peter O'Toole, the only one forced to quit drinking due to health concerns, is the only one of the four still alive.
craso on LibraryThing 6 months ago
Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed are all very talented British actors who drank to extreme. Like all actors they craved attention and they found it at the local pub. There they could tell stories and challenge other drinkers to arm wrestle or head bang. They drank to have fun, but like anything done to excess, they caused others harm. They had failed marriages and their careers suffered. Some may say there lives were wasted, they would say their lives were full.This book is organized into chronological order starting with the actors formative years then moving into each decade of their careers and then the last chapter is devoted to the last remaining hellraiser. The author chronicles their antics at work and in their private lives. I am amazed that no one sued them and they were never in jail for long. If an actor in this decade did half the things these guys did it would be all over the internet in a minute and I don't think fans would consider it cute or funny. Actors now in days end up in jail and vilified in the press.I bought this book because Peter O'Toole and Oliver Reed are among my favorite actors. They have enormous screen presence, probably due to their bad boy personalities. I never really paid much attention to Richard Burton or Richard Harris. Burton was more famous for being Elizabeth Taylor's husband than for his acting. I was very surprised at the hellraising she did. According to this book she was a bigger drinker than he was. The author has a "boys-will-be-boys" attitude about these gentlemen. I can't help but think that they all had psychological needs that drinking and carousing filled. They wanted to feel accepted or noticed or were just lonely. I still enjoy watching them on screen even after reading this book. The book doesn't cast them in a bad light. It's more like a loving tribute to four sad silly men.
burningtodd on LibraryThing 6 months ago
These men lived the way that I want to live. They played by nobody¿s rules and were still successful. They had fun and lived, really lived. This book about the lives of Richard Harris, Richard Burton, Peter O¿Toole and Oliver Reed is a fascinating romp through the lives of the original British bad boys of film. My only complaint is that the book seems to be more vignettes from these men¿s lives, rather than a coherent through line. But it is still a laugh-out-loud good time.
dickmanikowski on LibraryThing 6 months ago
This biography of four of the most gifted and most self-destructive actors from post-WWII Great Britain had some astounding stories of truly bizarre excess. Nevertheless, I found it barely interesting enough to finish it.
michcard on LibraryThing 6 months ago
I loved this collection of silly, drunken stories. I finished feeling like these men were simply bored with life and alcohol made it more interesting. The author refers to critics who said they wasted their talents and I've read readers' reviews who said it demonstrates the sad horrors of alcohol, but none of these men seemed to show any regrets for their life choices.
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