Reed never had any acting training or theatrical experience. His films included Women In Love, The Assassination Bureau, The Devils, I'll Never Forget What's 'Isname, Oliver!, Tommy, The Three Musketeers, Zero Population Growth, Castaway, and Gladiator.
A major international star in the late 1960s and 1970s, Reed's career declined in the 1980s. Some of his contemporaries have ascribed his frequent appearances in films which wasted his talent to his desire for financial security: when the UK government raised taxes on personal income to astronomical levels in the 1970s, Reed declined to join the exodus of major British film stars to Hollywood and other more tax-friendly locales, and consequently saw a goodly portion of his fees going to Inland Revenue.
Reed married three times. In 1959 he wed Kate Burn, they had one son, Mark, before their divorce in 1969. He then married Jackie Daryl in 1969, but they divorced in 1970, after having a daughter, Sarah. His last wife was Josephine Burge, whom he married in 1985.
Burly and with a 48 inch chest, he began his career playing romantic leads, but gradually acquired a tougher image. He was famous for his excessive drinking, and was once forced to leave the set of a television discussion programme after arriving drunk and attempting to kiss feminist writer Kate Millett.
Reed's drinking bouts fitted in with the "social" attitude of many rugby teams in the sixties and seventies, and there are numerous anecdotes such as Reed and 36 friends drinking, in an evening, 60 gallons of beer, 32 bottles of Scotch, 17 bottles of gin, four crates of wine and one bottle of Babycham. He claimed of the story that he drank 106 pints of beer on a 2-day binge before marrying Josephine; "The event that was reported actually took place during an arm-wrestling competition in Guernsey about 15 years ago, it was highly exaggerated." Despite occassional reports in publications such as The Sydney Morning Herald, Reed never played for the Sunday rugby team the Entertainers.
Reed was often irritated that his appearances on TV chat shows concentrated on his drinking feats, rather than his latest film.
He died suddenly of a heart attack in St. Julian's, Malta reportedly after drinking three bottles of rum and after beating five sailors at arm wrestling. His death came while he was in the middle of filming Gladiator, and his remaining scenes were completed using a body double and digitally manipulating previously shot footage. Alex Higgins, himself suffering from throat cancer, was the only celebrity to attend Reed's funeral in Ireland. "Consider Yourself", a song from the hugely successful Oliver!, was played at the funeral.