The nephew of distinguished film director Carol Reed, Robert Oliver Reed was born in the London borough of Wimbledon on 13 February 1938. A former hospital porter and nightclub bouncer, he began acting at the end of the 1950s. Minor parts in British films as diverse as Hello London (1958), The Square Peg (1958), The Captain's Table (1959) and The League of Gentlemen (1959) led to cameos in Hammer's The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960) and The Men of Sherwood Forest (1960).
Director Terence Fisher and producer Anthony Hinds chose the actor over seventeen others to play the part of Leon in The Curse of the Werewolf (1961). Makeup artist Jack Ashton later commented that Reed's "powerful bone structure was just right for the appearance and his gifts as an actor were perfect for the part. In addition he resembles a wolf anyway when he is very angry." The role earned him international recognition and the nickname 'Mr. Scowl'.
Reed remained a Hammer regular until 1965, lending a smoldering intensity to his roles in The Pirates of Blood River (1962), Captain Clegg (1962), The Damned (1963), The Scarlet Blade (1963), Paranoiac (1964) and The Brigand of Kandahar (1965). The latter he described as "The worst film I ever made for Hammer!"
His later life was marred by a hell-raiser reputation, fuelled by several controversial incidents on British television during the 1980s. It is testament to his professionalism, however, that Reed never allowed his personal activities to compromise his acting commitments. Actress and MP Glenda Jackson recently said of him "he had no problem with alcohol."
Reed had recently completed work on the Michael Winner movie Parting Shots (1999) and was working on a forthcoming Ridley Scott epic Gladiator at the time of his death.