“Hellraisers,” a new biography by Robert Sellers, recounts the lives and misadventures of four of the most celebrated drunken actors of the past fifty years – Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed. Along the way, Sellers also shares a few salacious stories about his subjects’ randy drinking partners, ranging from the stalwart Humphrey Bogart to the loony Keith Moon.
Sellers interweaves the histories of Burton, Harris, O’Toole and Reed simultaneously and in chronological order, staggering from one intoxicated mishap to the next. These four distinguished actors all chose to flaunt their bad habits in public. While each underwent long periods of abstinence, none ever swore off the booze entirely. Nor did any of them disavow the joy they experienced from living lives of excess, even though each suffered great personal losses due to excessive drinking.
Nowadays, celebrities who get busted for bad behavior typically make an obligatory appearance on Oprah, apologizing to the general public for their mistakes and vowing to make amends. Not these chaps. O’Toole once famously rode a camel onto David Letterman’s stage, and then proceeded to offer the animal a can of beer. When Reed’s film career was stalling, he found a second vocation playing the drunken fool with astonishing regularity on British chat shows.
Sellers doesn’t shy away from discussing the darker side of these men’s lives. And yet a reader can’t help but marvel at how the four actors kept turning in stellar, or at least bankable, performances in film after film. Burton, the son of a dirt-poor Welsh coalminer, may have squandered his talents on abysmal movies and his money on jewels for his wife Elizabeth Taylor. But he also maintained an active thespian life until he died, and along the way supported all twelve of his brothers and sisters and their families. And Reed, best known to American audiences for playing the child abuser Bill Sykes in the musical “Oliver!,” might be excused for merely employing “method-acting” techniques when he secretly spiked the sodas of his adolescent co-stars at a wrap-up cast party.
Modern film goers who know these actors best for their recent roles in children’s movies (O’Toole played the restaurant critic in Disney’s “Ratatouille;” Harris was the original Dumbledore in the “Harry Potter” franchise) may be shocked by some of the stories included in this book. Harris, for instance, was in such a habit of getting arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct during the 1960s that he once stopped by a London police station at four in the morning to ask for his usual tea and toast. The coppers smiled at him indulgently and simply asked, “You again?” before putting on a kettle to boil.
This book is not for the weak-of-hearted, nor for any people who have suffered through the pain of having their lives ruined by an incurable alcoholic. But for readers who want to experience a bygone era when crazed celebrity behavior was considered eccentric and amusing, this biography is sure to provide plenty of politically incorrect laughs.