‘Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed’ by Robert Sellers


One of life’s oddities is how often a series of genuinely comedic incidents congeals into, if not tragedy, then tragic loss.

Robert Sellers certainly has no intention of turning readers’ thoughts in that moody direction, but “Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed” probably will, though there’s a tremendous amount of unapologetic, unself-conscious fun to be had on the way to introspection.

Burton, Harris, O’Toole and Reed were four of the great actors to emerge in postwar British stage and cinema; they also were legendary drunks, who not only pursued their avocation -- it surely was more than a recreation -- in public and without regrets. Today, when what we used to term a “hard drinker” is routinely referred to as a “high-functioning alcoholic,” it’s difficult to imagine an account of their lives free of judgment or amateur psychoanalysis. Sellers, a drama school grad and former London stand-up comic-turned-film writer and pop culture critic, manages to pull it off.


It may be, in fact, that he just loves a great series of stories about fascinatingly intelligent and preternaturally talented men behaving in utterly outrageous ways. It doesn’t matter. What you’ve got in this book is an incredibly entertaining series of anecdotes, interspersed with unpretentious and conversational interviews -- all about drinking. (Readers will want to be advised that Sellers, perhaps as a stylistic tic, perhaps as an ill-advised attempt to suggest the drinkers’ milieu, rather too frequently resorts to slang and vulgarity. It’s really the only boring thing about the book.) Most of the stories are outrageously funny, although, like the ones you’re likely to hear from the guy on the next stool at your local, they may be a bit manicured.

One of the funniest involves the great theater actor Wilfrid Lawson, whom Sellers has taking Burton around to a local pub just before a matinee performance of a play in which Lawson was appearing. Since he wasn’t required on stage during the early part of the first act, Lawson settled into the stalls with Burton to watch the opening scenes like any other audience member. Finally, Lawson tapped Burton on the shoulder and said, “You’ll like this bit. This is where I come on.” It’s a wonderful story, but if you’re a bit familiar with the literature of postwar British theater, you’ve read it before -- though never involving Burton.

Harris, who was -- as the Irish say -- “a difficult man when he had drink taken,” was frequently violent, and there’s nothing funny about that. Still, what can you say about a guy who, momentarily sober, asks to see his wife and is informed that she’d left him some years before. “Did she?” he wondered. “I wasn’t fully aware.”

One of the interesting things about these four actors and their drinking was how important its public dimension was. Anyone familiar with the drinking life knows how crucial company can be -- an uncritical audience for and source of stories and companionship that demands no more than that you stand your round. Still, except for Burton -- the tormented son of a Welsh miner -- the carousing seemed for these artists an adjunct of their performance: a self-destructive performance art.

“We weren’t all brooding, introspective, addicted lunatics,” O’Toole says. “And we weren’t solitary, boring drinkers, sipping vodka alone in a room. No, no, no; we went out on the town, baby, and we did our drinking in public. We had fun!”

O’Toole, who all but gave up drinking after a near-fatal medical crisis in the mid-1970s, was the only one of the four to cork the bottle. Perhaps that was possible because his drinking was simply an adjunct to a far deeper and more pervasive eccentricity: “I will not be a common man,” he wrote in a notebook while a teenager. “I will stir the smooth sands of monotony.”

Sellers rather grandly describes the 77-year-old O’Toole, recently an Oscar nominee for his work in “Venus,” as “the last surviving British reprobate.” He quotes the actor, who still keeps Shakespeare’s sonnets -- which he has committed to memory -- by his bedside, as musing: “The common denominator of all my friends is that they’re dead. There was a time when I felt like a perpendicular cuckoo clock, popping up and down in pulpits saying: ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun.’ They were dying like flies.”

And so they did: Burton, burned out at the heartbreakingly early age of 58; Reed in a farcical arm-wrestling bout at 61; Harris unrepentant as a noble ruin at 72. None ever admitted to regretting a drop that crossed their lips. Au contraire: “O’Toole, Burton and I all drank to excess not because we had problems, but because we loved it,” Harris said. Reed told an interviewer: “I don’t have a drink problem. But if that was the case and doctors told me I had to stop, I’d like to think that I would be brave enough to drink myself into the grave.”

Our therapeutic culture, which far too casually conflates rehab with redemption, would dismiss both sentiments out of hand as rank denial. Perhaps, though, there’s a kind of antique dignity in the simple refusal to justify one’s self upon demand. Like the lover’s heart, the artist’s daemon has its own reasons.

I’ve recently been reading through the work of Michael Hartnett, a wondrously gifted Irish poet, all but unknown outside his native island though revered by his contemporaries. He was 59 when he drank himself to death in 1999. Still, in an anthology of postwar Irish poetry forthcoming from Harvard in the spring, the editor notes “the surprising number of poems dedicated to Hartnett. . . .” Perhaps that’s because of sentiments like these -- from Hartnett’s “The Poet as Black Sheep” -- which might apply to Sellers’ hell-raisers, as well:

I have seen him dine

in middle-class surroundings,

his manners refined,

as his family around him

talk about nothing,

one of their favorite theses.

I have seen him lying

between the street and pavement,

atoning, dying

for their sins, the fittest payment

he can make for them,

to get drunk and go to pieces.