At the peak of his career, in 1971, British exhibitors voted Reed 5th most popular star at the box office.
Reed was born at 9 Durrington Park Road, Wimbledon, to sports journalist Peter Reed and his wife Marcia (née Napier-Andrews). He was the nephew of film director Sir Carol Reed, and grandson of the actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and his mistress, May Pinney Reed. Reed claimed to have been a descendant (through an illegitimate step) of Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia. Reed attended Ewell Castle School in Surrey. Oliver's brother Simon Reed, a sports journalist, works for British Eurosport.
After compulsory military service in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Reed commenced his thespian career as an extra in films in the late 1950s. He appeared uncredited in a Norman Wisdom film, The Square Peg (1958). Uncredited television appearances during this period include episodes of The Invisible Man (1958) and The Four Just Men (1959). He was in a documentary Hello London (1958).
Reed played small uncredited parts in the films The Captain's Table (1959), Upstairs and Downstairs (1959), Life Is a Circus (1960), The Angry Silence (1960), The League of Gentlemen (1960) and Beat Girl (1960). He played a bouncer in The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960) for Hammer Films with whom he would become associated; the director was Terence Fisher.
Reed was in another Wisdom film, The Bulldog Breed (1960), playing the leader of a gang of Teddy Boys roughing up Wisdom in a cinema
Reed got his first significant roles in Hammer Films' Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960), against directed by Fisher. He went back to small roles for His and Hers (1961), No Love for Johnnie (1961) and The Rebel (1961).
Reed's first starring role came when Terence Fisher cast him in the lead for Hammer's The Curse of the Werewolf (1961). Hammer liked Reed and gave him good support roles in The Pirates of Blood River (1962), Captain Clegg (1962), These Are the Damned (1963), Paranoiac (1963), and The Scarlet Blade (1963).
He had the lead in a non-Hammer horror around this time, The Party's Over (made 1963, released 1965), directed by Guy Hamilton.
In 1964 he starred in the first of six films directed by Michael Winner, The System, (known as The Girl-Getters in the U.S.). The following year he had his first collaboration with Ken Russell, The Debussy Film (1965), a TV biopic of Claude Debussy.
Reed returned to Hammer for The Brigand of Kandahar (1965), then played the lead in a Canadian-British co production, The Trap (1966).
Reed's career stepped up another level when he starred in the popular, The Jokers (1966), his second film with Winner. After playing a villain in a horror movie, The Shuttered Room (1967) he did a third with Winner, I'll Never Forget What's'isname (1967).
Reed became a star playing Bill Sikes in Oliver! (1968), alongside Ron Moody, Shani Wallis, Mark Lester, Jack Wild and Harry Secombe, in his uncle Carol Reed's screen version of the successful stage musical.
He was in the black comedy The Assassination Bureau (1969); and a war film for Winner, Hannibal Brooks (1969). More successful than either was his second film with Russell, a film version of Women in Love (1969), in which he wrestled naked with Alan Bates in front of a log fire. Take a Girl Like You (1970) was a sex comedy with Hayley Mills; The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun (1970) was a thriller. The following year, Reed appeared in the controversial film The Devils (1971).
An anecdote holds that Reed could have been chosen to play James Bond. In 1969, Bond franchise producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were looking for a replacement for Sean Connery and Reed (who had recently played a resourceful killer in The Assassination Bureau) was mentioned as a possible choice for the role. Whatever the reason, Reed was never to play Bond. After Reed's death, the Guardian Unlimited called the casting decision, "One of the great missed opportunities of post-war British movie history."
He made a series of action-orientated projects: The Hunting Party (1971), Sitting Target (1972), and Z.P.G. (1972). The Triple Echo (1972) was directed by Michael Apted.
Reed also appeared in a number of Italian films: Dirty Weekend (1973), One Russian Summer (1973) and Revolver (1973). He had great success playing Athos in The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974).
Reed had an uncredited bit in Russell's Mahler (1974), was the lead in Blue Blood (1973) and And Then There Were None (1974) . His next project with Ken Russell was Tommy, based on The Who's 1969 concept album Tommy and starring its lead singer Roger Daltrey. Royal Flash (1975) reunited him with Richard Lester and George MacDonald Fraser.
Reed made another contribution to the horror genre, acting alongside Karen Black, Bette Davis, and Burgess Meredith in the Dan Curtis film Burnt Offerings (1976). He was in The Sell Out (1976) and The Great Scout & Cathouse Thursday (1976). He returned to swashbuckling in Crossed Swords (UK title The Prince and the Pauper) (1977), as Miles Hendon alongside Raquel Welch and a grown up Mark Lester, who had worked with Reed in Oliver!. Reed returned to the horror genre as Dr. Hal Raglan in David Cronenberg's 1979 film The Brood.
From the 1980s onwards Reed's films had less success, his more notable roles being Gen. Rodolfo Graziani in Lion of the Desert (1981), which co-starred Anthony Quinn and chronicled the resistance to Italy's occupation of Libya; and in Castaway (1986) as the middle aged Gerald Kingsland, who advertises for a "wife" (played by Amanda Donohoe) to live on a desert island with him for a year. He also starred as Lt-Col Gerard Leachman in the Iraqi historical film Al-Mas' Ala Al-Kubra (a.k.a. Clash of Loyalties) in 1982, which dealt with Leachman's exploits during the 1920 revolution in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq).
By the late 1980s, he was largely appearing in exploitation films produced by the impresario Harry Alan Towers, most of which were filmed in South Africa at the time of apartheid and released straight to video in the United States and UK. These included Skeleton Coast (1987), Gor (1987), Dragonard (1987) and its filmed-back-to-back sequel Master Of Dragonard Hill, Hold My Hand I'm Dying (aka Blind Justice) (1988), House Of Usher (1988), Captive Rage (1988), and The Revenger (1989).
His last major successes were Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) (as the god Vulcan), Treasure Island (1990) (as Captain Billy Bones), and Peter Chelsom's Funny Bones (1995).
His final role was the elderly slave dealer Proximo in Gladiator (2000), in which he played alongside Richard Harris, an actor whom Reed admired greatly both on and off the screen. The film was released after his death with some footage filmed with a double, digitally mixed with outtake footage. The film was dedicated to him. In addition to his posthumous BAFTA recognition, he shared the film's nomination for the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture with the rest of the principal players.
In addition to acting, Reed released several singles in the popular music vein, though with limited success. These included "Wild One"/"Lonely for a Girl" (1961), "Sometimes"/"Ecstasy" (1962), "Baby It's Cold Outside" (duet with Joyce Blair) and "Wild Thing" (1992) (duet with snooker ace Alex Higgins). Oliver also later narrated a track called "Walpurgis Nacht" by heavy metal band Death SS.
In 1959–1960, Reed married Kate Byrne. The couple had one son, Mark, before their divorce in 1969. While filming his part of Bill Sikes in Oliver!, he met Jacquie Daryl, a classically trained dancer who was also in the film. They became lovers and subsequently had a daughter named Sarah. In 1985, he married Josephine Burge, to whom he was still married at the time of his death. In his last years, Reed and Burge lived in Churchtown, County Cork, Ireland.
Reed's face was scarred in a 1963 bar fight, after which he received sixty three stitches and was in danger of losing his film career over his facial damage. He claimed to have turned down major roles in two Hollywood movies, including The Sting (although he did appear in the 1983 sequel The Sting II).
When the UK government raised taxes on personal income, Reed initially declined to join the exodus of major British film stars to Hollywood and other more tax-friendly locales. In the late 1970s Reed finally relocated to Guernsey as a tax exile. He had sold his large house, Broome Hall, between the villages of Coldharbour and Ockley some years earlier and initially lodged at the Duke of Normandie Hotel in Saint Peter Port.
In 2013, the writer Robert Sellers published What Fresh Lunacy Is This? – The Authorised Biography of Oliver Reed.
Reed was known for his alcoholism and binge drinking. Numerous anecdotes exist, such as Reed and thirty six friends of his drinking in one evening: Sixty gallons of beer, thirty two bottles of scotch, seventeen bottles of gin, four crates of wine, and a bottle of Babycham. He subsequently revised the story, claiming he drank 106 pints of beer on a two-day binge before marrying Josephine Burge; "The event that was reported actually took place during an arm-wrestling competition in Guernsey about 15 years ago, it was highly exaggerated." Steve McQueen told the story that in 1973 he flew to the UK to discuss a film project with Reed and suggested the two men visit a London nightclub. They ended up on a marathon pub crawl during which Reed got so drunk he vomited on McQueen.
Reed became a close friend and drinking partner of The Who's drummer Keith Moon in 1974 while working together on the film version of Tommy. With their reckless lifestyles Reed and Moon had much in common, and both cited the hard drinking actor Robert Newton as a role model. Christopher Lee, a friend and colleague of Reed, commented on his alcoholism in 2014: "when he started, after [drink] number eight, he became a complete monster. It was awful to see."
Reed was often irritated that his appearances on TV chat shows concentrated on his drinking feats rather than his latest films and acting career. In September 1975, in front of a speechless Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, the bellicose Reed had a glass of whisky poured over his head on-camera by an enraged Shelley Winters (Winters had been upset by Reed's derogatory comments toward women). David Letterman cut to a commercial when Reed became belligerent after being asked too many questions about his drinking during an August 1987 appearance on Late Night with David Letterman.
Reed was held partly responsible for the demise of BBC1's Sin on Saturday after some typically forthright comments on the subject of lust, the sin featured on the first programme. The show had many other problems, and a fellow guest revealed that Reed recognised this when he arrived and virtually had to be dragged in front of the cameras. Near the end of his life, he was brought onto some TV shows specifically for his drinking; for example The Word put bottles of liquor in his dressing room so he could be secretly filmed getting drunk. He left the set of the Channel 4 television discussion programme After Dark after arriving drunk and attempting to kiss feminist writer Kate Millett, uttering the phrase, "Give us a kiss, big tits".
However, Cliff Goodwin's biography of Reed, Evil Spirits, offered the theory that Reed was not always as drunk on chat shows as he appeared to be, but rather was acting the part of an uncontrollably sodden former star to liven things up, at the producers' behests. In October 1981, Reed was arrested in Vermont, where he was tried and acquitted of disturbing the peace while drunk. However, he pleaded no contest to two assault charges and was fined $1,200. In December 1987, Reed, who was overweight and already suffered from gout, became seriously ill with kidney problems as a result of his alcoholism and had to abstain from drinking for over one year on the advice of his doctor.
In his final years, when he lived in Ireland, Reed was a regular in the one-roomed O'Brien's Bar in Churchtown, County Cork, close to the 13th-century cemetery in the heart of the village where he was laid to rest.
Reed died from a heart attack during a break from filming Gladiator in Valletta, Malta, on 2 May 1999. He was 61 years old. Fellow Gladiator actor Omid Djalili said in 2016: "He hadn't had a drink for months before filming started...Everyone said he went the way he wanted, but that's not true. It was very tragic. He was in an Irish bar and was pressured into a drinking competition. He should have just left, but he didn't." His unpaid bill is now conserved in a frame as an ornament to decorate the same bar he died at.
The film had to be completed using computer-generated imagery (CGI) techniques and, in one place, a mannequin. Despite this, he was posthumously nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Reed's funeral was held in Churchtown, County Cork, where he had spent the last years of his life.