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10 Acting Legends Ruined By Their Alcoholism

by George Rumtic
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Though we loved them onscreen, their lives offscreen were quite the mess. Whether out of habit, for fun, or out of despair, these actors and actresses came to depend on the bottle, which resulted in disastrous health problems, relationship troubles, and in many cases, premature deaths.

10Barbara Payton

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Photo via Wikipedia

Starting out as a small-town Minnesota girl, this gorgeous blonde ran off to Hollywood, and it wasn’t long before she became one of the biggest stars of the 1940s and 1950s, starring alongside acting greats like James Cagney, Gary Cooper, and Gregory Peck.

However, Payton’s personal life was a chaotic disaster. Chock full of affairs with seemingly every man she encountered, violent relationships, shoplifting, prostitution, and numerous run-ins with the police, the only thing that seemed to offer any stability to this troubled actress was the bottle. Primarily in the 1960s, her alcoholism worsened.

After losing custody of her son due to her debauched lifestyle, Payton’s life unraveled even further. For instance, in 1962, she was charged with public drunkenness after being found sleeping at a Sunset Boulevard bus stop dressed in a coat and bathing suit, and she was arrested the same year for drunk and disorderly conduct during a boisterous afternoon party. It wasn’t long after that she was spending night after night in bars and pubs, and at the age of 39, she was found dead of heart and liver disease, her appearance so altered that she could hardly be identified.

9Bernard Lee

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Photo via Wikipedia

With 50 years of acting under his belt and over 100 film and television credits to his name, Lee certainly kept busy as a thespian. Starting at the age of six and dabbling in stage productions before becoming renowned in film, his most notable work is surely as M., the head of the British Secret Service in 11 of the James Bond movies.

However, the tragic death of his beloved wife in a house fire, a vicious mugging, and unpaid debts caused Lee to sink into depression and alcohol abuse. In fact, his addiction was allegedly so strong that he was locked in his dressing room during breaks from the filming of the Edgar Wallace television series to prevent him from drinking. Still, Lee reportedly found a way. He hired a person to feed a straw through the keyhole, thus allowing him to enjoy it. In fact, prolific drinker Richard Burton purportedly admitted that he wasn’t in the same league as Lee, who once drank him under the table.

At the age of 73, Lee passed away due to stomach cancer, which can be and was most likely caused by his excessive alcohol consumption.

8Dennis Price


Photo via Wikipedia

Coming from an aristocratic family and boasting good looks and charm, there wasn’t much standing in the way of this British actor’s success. Becoming a matinee idol on stage and scoring it big later with one of the finest comedies to come out of England, 1949’s Kind Hearts and Coronets, Price and his contemporaries Alex Guinness and James Mason seemed poised to take on international acclaim. However, it was then that the drinking began to get out of control.

Perhaps because of the anguish of his failing marriage, his hidden homosexuality, and for other unknown reasons, in 1954 Price found himself in his best suit with his head in the oven of his apartment. Though that suicide attempt failed due to the timely intervention of a cleaning woman, Price began a much more gradual suicide that involved his use of alcohol.

Though he went on to star in popular British comedies and military dramas, his co-stars claimed that he would start on a crate of Guinness at breakfast and finish it by the end of the day, along with plenty of scotch. Reported to be drunk most of the time by his associates, he would faithfully show up to the studio with booze in a shopping bag, and he once ambled on stage during the first act of a play performing the final one.

Near the end of his life, his once suave persona and charismatic good looks had been eroded by his addiction to the bottle, and he died, not surprisingly, of liver cirrhosis.

7Andre The Giant

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Photo credit: Ethan

Though he was known by many as The Eighth Wonder of the World, an intimidating French wrestler that stood almost 2.2 meters (7.5 ft) and weighed around 227 kilograms (500 lb), it is his role as Fezzik in the family classic The Princess Bride that has cemented him in the minds and hearts of fans everywhere. In addition to his role in that 1987 film, he starred in Trading Mom, Micki & Maude, Conan the Destroyer, and several television shows.

However, it was his legendary consumption of alcohol that has earned him a place on our list. He consumed somewhere around 7,000 calories of it a day. During one six-hour session, he drank 119 standard bottles of beer before collapsing in the corridor of the hotel he was staying at. His drinking partners let him lie under a tarpaulin they dragged over him. When one bar owner in Kansas City let Andre know he could stay as long as he kept drinking, he was still there at 5:00 AM, having gone through some 40 vodka-and-tonics. Being one of the highest-paid wrestlers of his time, much of his income was spent on beer and hard liquor; after a month of filming The Princess Bride, his bar bill totalled over $40,000.

Although known by his friends as generally being a gentle man, under the influence the hulk was a force to be reckoned with. He once flipped a small car over with a few men inside that had the nerve to pick on him inside a bar, and another time, he and fellow wrestler Dusty Rhodes took off on a pair of horse-drawn carriages through the streets of Manhattan.

Despite the fact that Andre suffered from acromegaly, which was the main factor in his decline, his unhealthy appetite for booze was one of the main components of his harmful lifestyle, which experts say caused him to develop diabetes and die of heart failure much earlier than he otherwise might have at the age of 46.

6John Barrymore

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Photo credit: The World’s Work

This classical actor of the early 1900s was from the famed Barrymore family of thespians and praised as one of the greatest of his generation. He became known for playing sympathetic alcoholic characters on film—ironic, as he himself was a raging alcoholic.

Although known for his fantastic Shakespearean enactments, his performance as Mr. Hyde, and later his role as Sherlock Holmes, his tragic youth and difficult later years escalated his drinking to the point that his second wife once caught him trying to drink her cologne. He appeared later on in a hit comedy film called Dinner at Eight, directed by George Cukor and released in 1933. In it, he starred in one of his first films as a drunkard, playing an alcoholic actor.

However, it wasn’t many years later that his career was finally ruined due to his habit of returning to the bottle due to the effect that liquor had on his memory. From the year 1936 on, he needed cue cards to complete his roles. A few of these roles would chronicle the tale of a man who sinks into a life of drinking and debauchery, and his hands shook uncontrollably. In 1942, at the age of 60, struggling with cirrhosis, kidney disease, and chronic edema, he finally crumpled and died not too soon after.

5Peter O’Toole

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Photo credit: ABC TV

With eight Academy Award nominations, performances in some of the most acclaimed films of all time (most notably Lawrence of Arabia), and also respected as a theater actor, it seemed like O’Toole could hardly do wrong on screen. His personal life, however, was quite another story.

Even from early on in his acting career, O’Toole enjoyed his fair share of the bottle. During the filming of Lawrence of Arabia, his wild drinking sprees in the city of Beirut, Lebanon, were stuff of legend, and he was reportedly drunk for the duration of the filming of the 1964 classic, Becket. He was even once said to have taken a date to watch a play in Soho that he soon realized he was starring in.

In fact, O’Toole and his drinking buddies were so often smashed that he fondly recalled going “for a beer at one’s local in Paris and [waking] up in Corsica,” and claimed that John F. Kennedy had been dead some 22 years before he found out about his assassination.

After suffering from abdominal pain and warnings that liquor would do him in, O’Toole finally gave up drinking, but his excessive consumption had already taken its toll. In later years, his once-lauded good looks had notably withered, and in 2013, he died in a London hospital, ravaged by years of drinking and chain-smoking.

4Richard Burton

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Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

A magnificent actor famed for his dynamic style, baritone voice, and relationship with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton was described as a successor to the great Laurence Olivier and can still be seen in brilliant performances in films like his Oscar-nominated Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

But old habits die hard. Burton claimed that he started drinking at the age of 12, and at his worst, he was drinking three bottles of vodka a day. In fact, during his filming of The Klansman, he was barely able to stand, and therefore took many of his shots sitting or lying down. Offscreen, he wasn’t much better; he once downed 21 shots of tequila before diving into the sea when he heard of a reported shark sighting.

In 1974, Burton almost died from a binge on hard liquor, and even a few years before, in 1970, doctors had warned him that alcohol abuse would eventually kill him. His destructive habit had caused his kidneys to grow to abnormal proportions and his spine was found (during an operation in the early 1980s) to be covered with crystallized alcohol. Ignoring the advice of medical professionals, this marvelous Welsh actor’s career ended abruptly in 1984 with his death at the age of 58, his body riddled with the effects of alcoholism.

3Errol Flynn

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Photo via Wikipedia

The original ladies’ man, lauded as the definitive symbol of masculinity and virility, Errol Flynn is remembered as the archetypal swashbuckler in films playing heroes like Robin Hood and Captain Blood. Offscreen, however, his life was debauched, depraved, and daring to the highest extreme. A notorious womanizer, brawler, and cocaine user, he was also known for his love of the bottle.

A drinking partner of Cuba’s Fidel Castro himself, Flynn’s fondness for alcohol was well documented. For example, a bachelor pad that he shared with actor David Niven in Malibu was so notorious for the copious amount of alcohol drunk there that it was nicknamed “Cirrhosis-by-the-Sea.” He also hosted sex-, alcohol-, and cocaine-fueled parties on his private boat. He would even show up to his film set smashed, once drunkenly wagering the film crew $500 that he could bed his co-star Olivia de Havilland.

His decadent lifestyle caused him to collapse in an elevator in his early thirties, after which a doctor told him that his heart and lungs had been damaged. He nevertheless continued in his overindulgence, and he died at the age of 50 of a heart attack, his body bloated, overweight, and stricken with cirrhosis.

2Oliver Reed

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During the late ’60s and early ’70s, this English actor was one of the biggest box office draws in Britain. Renowned for his performances in films like The Trap, Oliver!, and The Three Musketeers series, his persona offscreen wasn’t as charming as those he played for the camera.

He once confessed that he did “not live in the world of sobriety.” No truer words could have been spoken. Fellow actor and producer David Hemmings claimed that Reed “could drink 20 pints of lager with a gin or creme de menthe chaser and still run a mile for a wager,” and that he once drank 126 pints of beer in 24 hours and then performed a horizontal handstand on the bar.

Known for wreaking havoc during his inebriated states, which included tomfoolery, violence, and infidelity, stories of his actions while intoxicated abound. In 1980, for instance, he went to a church for a christening so drunk that he swayed back and forth while standing, and at a reception held later, he held the baby in his arms and stumbled up and down the room pretending to play rugby with the child as the ball. He was also known for exposing his tattooed penis in public, bringing attention to it as his “mighty mallet.” He once climbed a chimney naked pretending to be Santa Claus, urinated on the Australian flag, and lay drunk on an airport baggage conveyor.

Before he had completed the shooting of his final film Gladiator, he went to a pub one night and drank eight bottles of beer, three bottles of rum, and a few shots of whisky before finally suffering a heart attack and dying shortly after.

Looking back at his fascinating life, Reed often claimed he had just one regret, which was that he “didn’t drink every pub dry and sleep with every woman on the planet.”

1Humphrey Bogart

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Photo via Wikipedia

He has been called the greatest male actor in the history of American cinema. With multiple Oscar nominations and performances in classics like Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, and countless others, it’s not hard to see how Bogie has become one of the most respected in the pantheon of Hollywood thespians.

However, in his personal life, Bogart was known as quite the drinker. One of his friends said, “Bogart’s a helluva nice guy until around 11:30 PM. After that, he thinks he’s Bogart.” Then, he could become angry, stubborn, or even abusive when drunk, and later on in his illustrious career, it began to affect his work, as he frequently came to the set either drunk or hungover. He once showed up in his pajamas, refusing to work and instead riding around the Warner Brothers studio on a bicycle. During his filming of the adventure film Sahara, he reportedly refused to leave his dressing room until his wife at the time, Mayo Methot, brought him a thermos of martini.

Even off the set, Bogart could rarely last long without getting smashed, once drunkenly leaving a restaurant with their safe before deserting it on Beverly Hills Boulevard. He even got dragged into court after assaulting a few women who had tried to take off with the toy panda that he had brought to an exclusive club as a drinking partner. Though he drank with the likes of Richard Burton and Frank Sinatra, he still got into trouble and became banned from pubs, bars, and clubs.

His long-term love of drinking and smoking had a terrible effect on him in later years, as he was diagnosed with cancer in 1956 and died shortly after. Even in his last days, he could still be found with a glass of sherry in hand. He once jokingly claimed that he had been on the wagon only once in his life, citing it as the most miserable afternoon of his life.

“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short” –Henry David Thoreau

fact checked by Jamie Frater