Why Shelley Winters Dumped A Drink On Oliver Reed On Live TV

Live television has a long and storied history of providing unexpected, occasionally raucous moments that are seen by a captivated audience of millions watching along at home. Delays that have been worked in by the networks can serve to keep the worst (or best, depending on one's outlook) of it censored before it beams out over the airwaves, but it doesn't prevent everything; even in 2022, audiences were shocked when actor Will Smith suddenly came onstage and slapped comedian Chris Rock in response to Rock's pointed jokes at the expense of Smith's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. In 1975, people tuning in at home to "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" saw a much slower burn that began as two guests exchanged jokes that eventually turned pointed and offensive, escalating to a physical confrontation between American actress Shelley Winters and British actor Oliver Reed.

Winters was well known for her spirited and outspoken manner by the mid-1970s. Born in Saint Louis, Missouri in 1920, Winters grew up in Brooklyn, New York (via Turner Classic Movies), and auditioned in 1938 for the part of Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With The Wind." She made her Broadway debut in 1941, and her first cinematic role was in 1943's "What A Woman!" Per Winters herself, she was often typecast as "the bad blonde bimbo usually going up against the sweet brunette." A then off-brand role as a plain factory worker in 1951's "A Place In The Sun" earned her an Oscar nomination and kicked off a new era in which she was often typecast in seedy, shrewish roles.

Oliver Reed was riding high in 1975

Per Turner Classic Movies, Winters took a break from Hollywood in the mid-1950s to study at the Actor's Studio and do some work on Broadway. She returned to the silver screen as a character actor, winning Oscars in 1959 ("The Diary of Anne Frank") and 1965 ("A Patch of Blue") and famously playing Charlotte Haze in the 1962 adaptation of "Lolita." She was prodigious, appearing in a bevvy of roles throughout the 1960s and 1970s, including her role as a former swimming champion who performs heroically during an at-sea disaster in "The Poseidon Adventure." 

Oliver Reed was born in Wimbledon, London, England in 1938, per The Irish Times. After working as a boxer, bouncer at a strip club, and morgue attendant, as well as a stint in the British Army, he became a film extra. His first film was 1960's "The League of Gentlemen" and he soon became a British film idol, starring in "The Curse of the Werewolf," "Women In Love," "The Devils," and "Oliver!" By the 1970s, Reed was the highest paid actor in England, and in 1974 was quoted as saying, "Get rid of me and you get rid of the entire British film industry." He was also reportedly known for his heavy drinking and outspoken, outlandish demeanor, which he wasn't shy about playing up in interviews. In 1975, he appeared on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." Shelley Winters was a fellow guest alongside Reed.

Showdown on The Tonight Show stage

As seen on YouTube, Shelley Winters and Oliver Reed are both enthusiastically talking over, under, and about one another from nearly the first moment they meet on the stage of "The Tonight Show." During a discussion about why some Americans feel intimidated by the British, Reed inexplicably announces, "Most of them, you see, we've made love to," at which Winters quips "I would have remembered." There is a hilarious call back to this exchange minutes later when Reed discusses his difficulty in growing a mustache, joking, "It proves I'm not terribly virile," to which Winters announces "I remembered!" The audience laughs and applauds, and Reed, who had already shown some irritation at Winters' interruptions, makes a dirty joke in response that was partially bleeped out. 

The interview carries on, with Winters continually interrupting Reed and Reed commanding Winters to stop talking and be quiet. He asks the audience if they agree, and some cheer, although one person heartily boos. This is apparently too much for Reed to endure, or maybe it's all part of a bit, as he pompously retorts with "Women's liberation, madam, will never survive! Not while I'm in the kitchen!" This somehow leads to Reed inspecting the soles of Winters' shoes and the two of them trading non sequiturs and barbs until Winters seemingly leaves the stage for the evening, to which Reed tells Johnny Carson "She's all right, she can't shout at us now. So much for women's lib. Where's the lady that shouted?"

Oliver Reed had a lot to say about the women's liberation movement

Reed is left to finish his interview and he and Johnny Carson go back to discussing the women's liberation movement, which Reed is against, yelling that women belong in the kitchen but the men are the better chefs and earnestly explaining, "I think a woman's place is looking after her man and her children and I think a man's place is to look after her, to protect her, and to provide a bit of warmth." Many cheer for Reed, but some heckle him, to which he responds "Shhh! Quiet, woman!" At that point, Shelley Winters returns to the stage, walks over to Reed, and as he stands to meet her, unceremoniously dumps a drink over his head and leaves the stage again, to wild cheers, whistles, and applause. Reed stands for a moment before sitting down and continuing, deadpan, "I think the women's liberation movement...," extending the crowd's enthusiastic response even further. 

Reed later discussed the incident on ITV Channel Television (also available on YouTube), noting he was "on with Shelley Winters, who never keeps her mouth shut at all." Reed claimed that producers told him ahead of time that she would talk a lot and to tell her to be quiet if she interrupted him, noting he "didn't know what to say so I said nothing" after she poured the drink over his head, and called it "a giggle. She's a showman and I'm a showman and that's our business."