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Remembering the legendary Gladiator actor who died in Malta during iconic film shoot
He was known to be both kind AND rowdy!

Caroline Curmi

Malta affectionately remembers the filming of Gladiator on local shores as one of the biggest productions to have ever graced the island, but one great tragedy mars this great event.

Cast as old gladiator trainer Antonius Proximo, 61-year old actor Oliver Reed made his way to Malta as part of the Gladiator cast. His links with alcoholism had been well documented over the years, but at the time it was believed that the film would be the right tool to kickstart a comeback for the troubled actor.

However, alcohol would rob him of his life on 2nd May 1999, when he died from a heart-attack after a drinking binge during a break from filming.

It is believed that on that fateful afternoon, Oliver was joined at The Pub in Valletta by his wife Josephine Burge, some friends and several sailors from the H.M.S Cumberland, the latter of which he had become embroiled in a drinking challenge with.

With a bill totalling an astounding Lm270 (that’s over €600), it was reported that he had downed eight pints of lager, a dozen shots of rum, half a bottle of whiskey and several shots of Hennessy cognac. The bill had been the group’s collective one which he had wanted to cover himself.

Reed would later get involved in not one but five arm-wrestling matches with the young sailors, which he all won. However, he collapsed after the final round and was pronounced dead while in the ambulance on his way to the hospital. Over the years, The Pub turned into a shrine celebrating his life.

In an interview with The Guardian, fellow actor Omid Djalili explains how he had initially felt intimidated by the veteran actor but through the Gladiator film, the pair got to know each other: “He was a very benign presence, with these piercing blue eyes. He would always leave a pause after you spoke, to be sure you had finished what you wanted to say – he couldn’t stand people who interrupted. And his work was of the highest order. He had such gravitas. I don’t think anyone else could have played that role,” he says.

Asked about Oliver’s death, Omid replied that: “Everyone said he went the way he wanted, but that’s not true. It was very tragic. He was in an Irish bar in Malta and was pressured into a drinking competition. He should have just left, but he didn’t.”

At the time of his death, filming for Gladiator had not yet wrapped and Oliver’s remaining scenes were constructed through CGI (computer generated imagery). His role in the film would go on to earn him a posthumous BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor nomination.

RIP Oliver Reed!

13th February 2020


Caroline Curmi
Written by
Caroline Curmi
When she’s not having a quarter-life crisis, Caroline is either drawing in a café, frittering her salary on sushi or swearing at traffic in full-on Gozitan. There is also the occasional daytime drink somewhere in the equation. Or two. A creative must be allowed at least one vice.

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