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Oliver Reed "Dropped Down Dead" at a Pub During "Gladiator" Filming, Ridley Scott Says

The British actor and infamous imbiber played Proximo in the Best Picture winner.

To quote Maximus, the protagonist of Gladiator, "What we do in life echoes in eternity." The work of one of the stars of the Best Picture winner echoes in eternity too, because Oliver Reed, who played Proximo, died before filming could be completed on the 2000 Ridley Scott epic. According to the director, the hard-drinking British actor "dropped down dead" at a local pub after promising not to use alcohol during the shoot. Read on to learn exactly how the 61-year-old passed—and how Gladiator managed to give his character a proper sendoff regardless.

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Reed was a legendary actor and legendary drinker.

Oliver Reed in 1974
Central Press/Getty Images

Reed, who was born in 1938, first found success as an actor in several Hammer Horror films in the '60s, including The Curse of the Werewolf and The Damned. His star rose further when he played Bill Sikes, one of the antagonists in Oliver!, which took home the Best Picture Oscar in 1968.

Unfortunately, Reed's name was as synonymous with alcoholism as it was with his work—per NPR, he once said himself that he didn't live "in the world of sobriety." The actor's drinking feats were legendary and infamous; One rumor has it that he once drank more than 100 pints over the course of two days.

A friend of Keith Moon (the drummer for The Who and another famous drinker), Reed would occasionally get into trouble because of his affinity for alcohol. He was fined for his role in a drunken brawl in Vermont in 1981, and although there are lots of anecdotes about him staying sober when necessary and not letting his drinking impact his projects, it certainly gave him a reputation. When Reed appeared on talk shows, his drinking was as much a topic of conversation as his filmography.

"He only drank at night. He was like Jekyll and Hyde," Robert Sellers, the author of the book Hellraisers (which chronicles the exploits of Reed, Richard Burton, Richard Harris, and Peter O'Toole), told NPR.

RELATED: Charlie Sheen Reveals the Broken Promise That Made Him Finally Quit Drinking.

He was cast as Proximo in Gladiator.

Oliver Reed in Gladiator
DreamWorks Distribution

Reed acted consistently throughout his life, but his career inarguably slowed down after the '70s. When he was cast in Gladiator, it was viewed by the industry as the start of a career comeback.

Gladiator follows Russell Crowe's Maximus, a Roman general who becomes a slave and then rises through the ranks of the Colosseum as a gladiator to get revenge on the depraved emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) who betrayed him and killed his family. Reed played Proximo, a former gladiator who bought Maximus as a slave and eventually becomes his mentor.

According to a 20th anniversary oral history of Gladiator published by Variety in 2020, Scott knew what he was getting into with the actor and made Reed promise that he wouldn't drink during filming. To get around the rule, he only partook on the weekend.

"Ollie was very disciplined for us when we began filming in Morocco," Crowe told the Sunday Mail in 2000, as quoted by the New York Post. "But by the time we got to Malta, he had sufficiently relaxed to return to what he had to do."

"He was a force of nature, and there was no stopping him," the star added.

He died at a pub in Malta after challenging sailors to a drinking match.

Oliver Reed looking at a tower of stacked glasses in 1985
Dave Hogan/Getty Images

On May 2, 1999, Reed was at a bar called The Pub on Archbishop Street in Valletta, Malta, where Gladiator was filming.

"One Sunday morning, he dropped down dead in the floor of a pub," Scott told Variety. "He probably had a couple of pints and said, 'I don't feel good,' laid on the carpet and died."

"He's in this bar in Valletta and this British Destroyer [HMS Cumberland] is anchored in the bay and the crew comes in," screenwriter David Franzoni said in the same oral history. "He challenges the crew to some sort of drinking debauch. He drinks some, passes out, and dies. I still have his bar tab, by the way."

Scott added that David Hemmings, the actor who played the Colosseum's announcer Cassius, had "promised to look after him and said to me, 'I'm really sorry, old boy.'"

A police spokesman told The Guardian at the time that although a friend attempted to resuscitate Reed after he collapsed, he died in an ambulance en route to the hospital.

"Everyone said he went the way he wanted, but that's not true. It was very tragic," wrote Omid Djalili, who had a minor part in Gladiator, for The Guardian. "He was in an Irish bar in Malta and was pressured into a drinking competition. He should have just left, but he didn't."

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Cutting-edge CGI was used to complete Reed's scenes.

Oliver Reed in Gladiator
DreamWorks Distribution

Reed had almost completed filming all of his scenes in Gladiator, which was to be his 100th movie. However, his death left Scott and his colleagues in a bind. According to the New York Post, rather than do costly re-shoots with a new actor, the production spent $3 million to digitally superimpose Reed's face over the body of a stand-in.

"We managed to finish off what was required from Oliver, stealing digital images of his face and attaching them to an appropriate body," Scott told Variety.

The filmmaker did have to rewrite Proximo's final scene, however. Originally he was supposed to have survived the film, but it was much easier technically to have him die in a heroic sacrifice—and, it's not a bad ending thematically, either.

James Grebey
James has been an entertainment journalist for more than a decade, writing and editing for outlets like Vulture, Inverse, Polygon, TIME, The Daily Beast, SPIN Magazine, Fatherly, and more. Read more
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