While reading the latest (blog entry) by the master of words, James Wolcott, which glimpses the tumultuous life of the late Oliver Reed, memories came flooding back to me of the day when I served this over-sized “one man wrecking crew”.
I had just arrived in New York City, was working as a waiter at P. J. Clarke’s, when Mr. Reed and a very young woman (almost illegally so for they seemed to be a couple), took a seat in my section shortly after lunchtime. And the first thing that came to mind at the time, besides of course, Hey, it’s Oliver Reed!, was how unbelievably polite he was and how gracious. Almost too much. And how ridiculously tall he seemed at the time from a sitting position. Our eyes were almost on the same level (and I’m about the same height), or perhaps it was just his arresting blue eyes that commanded your attention to the point where you thought you were eye level. They were pools.
“Good afternoon,” he said when I arrived, “this is a lovely place you have here,” he added. He spoke in a smooth-as-silk, high-British accent worthy of any of Shakespeare’s best-loved roues. Then he smiled the broadest of smiles awaiting my response.
“Er-ah, good afternoon,” I replied, “and thank you very much. This is a great place.” I was a little taken aback by his act, his almost seductive act, for if he hadn’t been with a girl I might’ve thought he was flirting. But then I suddenly realized the reason for this “act”. Guys like him with wreckage in their wakes are fearful their reps precede them, so putting their best foot forward hopefully obliterates that. And when you have that voice and those acting chops, let ‘er rip!
He ordered a glass of white wine, the goblet looking like a thimble in his hand, the “woman?” sitting beside him ordered a coke. Then I served their lunch and all came off without a hitch. But a few hours later, right about the time my shift was ending, Mr. Reed returned to P. J. Clarke’s for round two. The “girl” was at his side again (I found out she was his traveling companion whenever he was on a shoot, under the hopeless notion he’d behave when with her), and this time they took a seat in the section near the bar. Not my section.
“Back again?” I blithely said to the two as I passed their table on the way to the bar. And like all drinker’s who have a problem, instead of a normal reaction he gave me a guilty look. Where you shrug as if to say, “What can I tell ya’?” His face was now a boiling red as though he’d been drinking since lunch, his demeanor now more outgoing, much more animated. A frozen grin was plastered across his face.
But I said to the waiter working the table, based on what I’d experienced, “Reed’s a pretty nice guy, you won’t have a problem.” “Oh yeah?” said the old timer as if he knew something. Which of course he did.
For the next day when I returned to work and inquired about Mr. Reed, the story that followed was right out of one of his movies. Around nine thirty or ten o’clock Mr. Reed put his “sitter” in a cab, then bellied up to the bar for some real drinking. His celebrity purchased his entry in the group, his money bought its continuance after he got obnoxious. Which of course he did. Until finally, after he banged his glass on the bar garnering everyone’s attention, he roared aloud (in that golden voice), “I want all you women to leave this bar immediately. Bars are not for women, bars are for men! Am I right, guys?!? Whoopeeeee!!!” Then he poured his beer over his head and started hugging and kissing everyone in sight.
My friend, George, who worked the door and doubled as a pro wrestler, was quickly called to the scene for Oliver’s removal. Which wasn’t easy. But George knowing a move or two wrestled him out the door, but not before Oliver struck his head on the cigarette machine. It required putting some ice on his head which Mr. Reed strangely stood still for, as it seemed to suddenly jar him back into amity. Then, when the cut had stopped its bleeding after a band-aid had been applied, George put his arm around Oliver’s shoulder and walked him across the street as though they’d grown up together. Across the street to the Blarney Stone Bar, a blue collar joint that welcomed Mr. Reed as a hero. George then bought Mr. Reed’s first drink and tip-toed out the door the first chance he got. Mr. Reed was now their problem, not P.J. Clarke’s.
But when you think about it, for Oliver Reed and all of his ilk who roared through life when not in front of the camera, as though breaking up bars was cool and what is expected, what a terrible waste and what a shame it seems to piss away all that talent and then die young.
Or to quote James Wolcott’s eloquent words… “Mr. Reed seemed to have no respect for the craft or vocation of acting, a form of self-hate a number of once-studly, life-force actors seem to succumb to, stewing in their own pissiness and sinking deeper into hooded gazes and self-caricature punctuated by paroxysms. It’s a species of stardom that doesn’t exist much any more and I don’t miss it a bit.”
And as a bartender sometimes dealing with some of those “paroxysms”, I don’t miss it one bit either!
Til next time, dear reader…