Laurence Olivier

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Laurence Olivier
Born 22 May 1907
Dorking, Surrey, England
Died 11 July 1989
Steyning, West Sussex, England

Laurence Kerr Olivier, Baron Olivier of Brighton, OM ( 22 May 1907– 11 July 1989) was an Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA and four-time Emmy winning English actor, director, and producer. He was regarded by many as the greatest English speaking actor of the 20th century.

Olivier's career stretched over several decades, prolific both on stage and in film. In both media, he played a wide variety of roles, from Shakespeare's Othello to a Nazi dentist in Marathon Man and Sir Toby Belch. A High Church clergyman's son who found fame on the West End stage, Olivier became determined to master Shakespeare, and in turn he became one of the foremost interpreters of the bard in the 20th century. In later years, Olivier became torn by guilt over having left his second wife Vivien Leigh, and so he immersed himself in his work. Olivier played over 120 stage roles, including: Macbeth, Romeo, Hamlet, Othello, Uncle Vanya, and Archie Rice. He appeared in nearly sixty films, including William Wyler's Wuthering Heights, Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake is Missing, Richard Attenborough's Oh! What a Lovely War, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Sleuth, John Schlesinger's Marathon Man and his own Hamlet.

Early life

Olivier was born in 1907 in Dorking, Surrey. He was raised in a severe, strict, and religious household, ruled over by his father, Gerard Kerr Olivier, an Anglican priest.Young Laurence took solace in the care of his mother, Agnes, and was grief-stricken when she died (at 48) when he was only 12. He was educated at St Edward's School, Oxford, and, at 15, played Katherine in his school's production of The Taming of the Shrew, to rave reviews. After his brother, Richard, left for India, it was his father who decided that Laurence — or "Kim", as the family called him — would become an actor.

Early career

Olivier then attended the Central School of Dramatic Art at the age of 17. In 1926, he joined The Birmingham Repertory Company. At first he was given only paltry tasks at the theatre, such as being the bell-ringer; however, his roles eventually became more significant, and in 1937 he was playing roles such as Hamlet and Macbeth. Throughout his career he insisted that his acting was pure technique, and he was contemptuous of contemporaries who adopted the 'Method' popularized by Lee Strasberg. Olivier met and married Jill Esmond, an actress in 1930 and had one son, Tarquin, born in 1936.

Olivier was not happy in his first marriage from the beginning, however. Repressed, as he came to see it, by his religious upbringing, Olivier recounted in his autobiography the disappointments of his wedding night, culminating in his failure to perform sexually. He renounced religion forever and soon came to resent his wife, though the marriage would last for ten years.

He made his film debut in The Temporary Widow, and played his first leading role on film in The Yellow Ticket; however, he held film in little regard. His stage breakthroughs were in Noel Coward's Private Lives in 1930, and in Romeo and Juliet in 1935, alternating the roles of Romeo and Mercutio with John Gielgud. Olivier did not agree with Gielgud's style of acting Shakespeare, and was irritated by the fact that Gielgud was getting better reviews than he was. He continued to hold his scorn for film, and though he constantly worked for Alexander Korda, he still felt most at home on the stage. He made his first Shakespeare film, As You Like It, with Paul Czinner, however, Olivier disliked it, thinking that Shakespeare did not work well on film. Olivier then saw a production of The Mask of Virtue, and one thing in particular interested him about it: Vivien Leigh.

Vivien Leigh

Olivier with his future second wife, Vivien Leigh, in Fire Over England (1937)
Olivier with his future second wife, Vivien Leigh, in Fire Over England (1937)

Olivier congratulated Leigh on her performance, and a friendship began. Olivier took her to lunch one day, and the friendship developed. Alexander Korda cast the two as leads in Fire Over England, and when the film was finished, the two began an affair. They appeared in two other films together, 21 Days, and Korda's epic, That Hamilton Woman, with Olivier as Lord Nelson. They wanted to marry, but both Leigh's husband and Olivier's wife at the time, Jill Esmond, at first, refused to divorce them. Finally divorced, they married on 31 August 1940, at the San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara, California, with Katharine Hepburn as maid of honour.

Olivier and Leigh planned to star in a run of Romeo and Juliet in New York. It was an extravagant production, and was a commercial failure. However, back in England, Olivier became the co-manager of the Old Vic Theatre, along with his good friend Ralph Richardson, and John Burrell.

Wuthering Heights

Olivier continued to hold his contempt for films, claiming they were "just a quick way to earn money." He got his break in Hollywood when cast as Heathcliff in Samuel Goldwyn's production of Wuthering Heights. Olivier worked with Merle Oberon for the second time (the first had been in The Divorce of Lady X), however, despite their relative tolerance for each other on the first film, sparks flew on Wuthering Heights, presumably due to the fact that he had wanted Leigh for the role, and she had been rejected.

Director William Wyler disagreed with Olivier on many things regarding his performance, in particular, the fact that he would keep yelling, a technique that was needed for the theatre, but not for film, and forced Olivier to alter his style. Olivier later admitted that this was for the better, and his performance in the film earned him his first Oscar nomination. But he was still unhappy and still felt most at home on the stage. This success led to more leading roles for Olivier, including Maxim de Winter in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, and Mr. Darcy in MGM's Pride and Prejudice.


When World War II broke out, Olivier intended to join the Air Force, but was still contractually obliged to other parties. He apparently disliked actors such as Charles Laughton and Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who would hold charity cricket matches to help the war effort. Olivier took flying lessons, and racked up over 200 hours. After two years of service, he became a lieutenant in the Fleet Air Arm but never saw combat.

When Olivier returned to London, and to the stage, the populace noticed a change in him. Olivier's only explanation was: "Maybe it's just that I've got older."

Shakespeare Trilogy

After gaining widespread popularity in the film medium, Olivier was approached by several investors (namely Filippo Del Giudice, Alexander Korda and J. Arthur Rank), to create several Shakesperean films, based on stage productions of each respective play. Olivier tried his hand at directing, and as a result, created three highly successful films: Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III.

Henry V

Olivier made his directorial debut with a film of Shakespeare's Henry V. At first, he did not believe he was up to the task, instead trying to offer it to William Wyler, Carol Reed, and Terence Young. The film was shot in Ireland (due to the fact that it was neutral), with the Irish plains having to double for the fields of Agincourt. During the shooting of one of the battle scenes, a horse collided with a camera that Olivier was attending. Olivier had had his eye to the viewfinder, and when the horse impacted, the camera smashed into him, cutting his lip, and leaving a scar that would be prominent in later roles.

The film opened to rave reviews, despite Olivier's initial reluctance. It was the first widely successful Shakespeare film, and was considered a work of art by many. The film received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor, but the Academy, in Olivier's opinion, did not feel comfortable in giving out all of their major awards to a foreigner, so they gave him a special Honorary Award. Olivier disregarded the award as a "fob-off".


Olivier followed up on his success with an adaptation of Hamlet. He had played this role more often than he had Henry, and was more familiar with the melancholy Dane. However, Olivier was not all that comfortable with the role of Hamlet, as it was more introverted, as opposed to the extroverts that he was famous for. The running time of Hamlet (1948) was not allowed to exceed two-and-a-half hours, and as a result Olivier cut almost half of Shakespeare's text, and was severely criticized for doing so by purists, most notably Ethel Barrymore. Barrymore stated that Olivier's adaptation was nowhere near as faithful to the original text as her brother John's stage production from 1922. Ironically, Barrymore had to present the Best Picture Oscar that year, and was apparently visibly shaken when she read "Hamlet".

The film ended up being another resounding critical and commercial success both in Britain and abroad, and won Olivier the Best Picture and Best Actor awards at the 1948 Academy Awards. This was the first British film to win Best Picture, and the only time that Olivier would win Best Actor, a category he would be nominated in five more times before his death. Olivier also became the first person to direct himself in an Oscar-winning performance, a feat not repeated until Roberto Benigni directed himself to Best Actor in 1999 for Life is Beautiful. Also, Olivier is still today the only actor ever to receive an Oscar for 'acting' Shakespeare. Olivier, however, did not walk away with the Best Director Oscar that year, preventing what would have pratically been a clean sweep of all the major awards the film was nominated for.

Richard III

Olivier's third major Shakespeare project as director and star was Richard III. Alexander Korda initially approached Olivier to reprise on film the role he had played to acclaim at the Old Vic in the 1940s. This role had been lauded as Olivier's greatest (until his 1955 stage production of Macbeth), and is widely considered to be his greatest screen performance. During the filming of the battle scenes in Spain, one of the archers actually shot Olivier in the ankle, causing him to limp. Fortunately, the limp was required for the part, so Olivier had already been limping for the parts of the film already shot.

Although the film was critically well received, it was a financial failure. Korda sold the rights to the American television network NBC, and the film became the first to be aired on television and released in theatres simultaneously. Many deduce that from the enormous ratings that the NBC transmissions received, more people saw Richard III in that single showing than all the people who had seen it beforehand.


Macbeth was supposed to have been Olivier's next Shakespeare film. However, due to Richard III's dismal box-office performance, along with the deaths of Alexander Korda and Mike Todd, the film would never be made. Olivier cited this as his biggest disappointment, as his Macbeth had been praised as one of the all-time great performances.

The Entertainer

Since the end of World War II, apart from his Shakespeare trilogy, Olivier had made only sporadic film appearances. Towards the end of the 1950s, British theatre was changing with the rise of the " Angry Young Men". John Osborne, author of Look Back in Anger wrote a play for Olivier titled The Entertainer, centred on a washed-up stage comedian called Archie Rice. As Olivier later stated, "I am Archie Rice. I am not Hamlet." During rehearsals of The Entertainer, Olivier met Joan Plowright. He left Vivien Leigh for Plowright, a decision that apparently gave him a sense of guilt for the rest of his life. Olivier married Plowright on St. Patrick's Day, 1961. Leigh died in 1967.

National Theatre

Olivier was one of the founders of the National Theatre. He became the founding director; however, his career at the National ended, in his view, in betrayal and tragedy.


For Othello, Olivier underwent a transformation, requiring extensive study and heavy weightlifting, in order to get the physique needed for the Moor of Venice. It is said that he bellowed at a herd of cows for an hour to get the deep voice that was required. In 1965, John Dexter's production of the play was filmed, and secured Olivier his 6th Oscar Nomination for Best Actor.

Three Sisters

Olivier's final film as director was the 1970 film Three Sisters, based on the Chekhov play of the same name, and the National Theatre production. It was, in Olivier's opinion, his best work as director.

Later career

Olivier had left his romantic screen persona and became a character actor, appearing more frequently in films. He was unrecognisable as Othello in the film adaptation of the National Theatre play. After being gradually forced out of his role as director of the Royal National Theatre, Olivier became concerned that he had not done enough to provide for his family after he died. As a result, between 1973 and 1986 when his health gave out, he did many films and TV specials on a "pay cheque" basis on the condition that he would not have to promote the film on release. Some of these later films he even despised, such as the notorious flop Inchon.

In 1967 Olivier underwent radiation treatment for prostate cancer, and was also hospitalised with pneumonia. For the remainder of his life, he would suffer from many different health problems, including bronchitis, amnesia and pleurisy. In 1974 he was diagnosed with a degenerative muscle disorder, and nearly died the following year, but he battled through the next decade, earning money in case of financial disaster.

One of Olivier's enduring achievements involved neither stage nor screentime. In 1974, UK Thames Television released The World at War, an exhaustive 26-part documentary on the Second World War to which Olivier, with some reluctance, lent his voice. His narration serves as the voice of God, surveying with deep lament the devastation as it unfolds.

When presenting the Oscars in 1985, he absent-mindedly presented the Best Picture winner of the year by simply stepping up to the microphone and saying "Amadeus". He had grown forgetful, and had forgotten to read out the nominees first.

He died in Steyning, West Sussex, England, from cancer in 1989, at the age of 82. Lord Olivier is interred in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, London, only the second actor (the first was David Garrick) to be accorded that honour.

Bisexuality claims

Since Olivier's death, several biographers have produced books about him, several of which bring up the claim that Olivier was bisexual. Joan Plowright said:

Laurence Olivier
I have always resented the comments that it was I who was the homewrecker of Larry's marriage to Vivien Leigh. Danny Kaye was attached to Larry far earlier than I.
Laurence Olivier

referring to biographer Donald Spoto's claim that Kaye and Olivier were lovers. According to Sir Noel Coward, sexually speaking, Olivier had "a puppy-like acquiescence to all experiences." Terry Coleman's authorised biography of Olivier suggests a relationship between Olivier and an older actor, Henry Ainley, based on correspondence from Ainley to Olivier. Olivier's son Tarquin disputed this as 'unforgivable garbage'. and sought to suppress them, leading Dame Joan Plowright to privately state that "a man who had been to Eton and in the Guards might be expected to be a little more broad-minded".

In August 2006, on the radio program Desert Island Discs, Plowright responded to the question of Oliver's alleged bisexuality by stating: "If a man is touched by genius, he is not an ordinary person. He doesn't lead an ordinary life. He has extremes of behaviour which you understand and you just find a way not to be swept overboard by his demons. You kind of stand apart. You continue your own work and your absorption in the family. And those other things finally don't matter." .


Olivier was the founding director of the Chichester Festival Theatre (1962–1966) and of the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain (1962–1973) for which he received his life peerage. He was knighted in 1947, and created a life peer in 1970 (the first actor to be accorded this distinction) as Baron Olivier, of Brighton in the County of Sussex. He was admitted to the Order of Merit in 1981. The Laurence Olivier Awards, organised by The Society of London Theatre, were renamed in his honour in 1984. Though he was a Life Peer and one of the most respected personalities in the industry, Olivier insisted that one should address him as "Larry", and he simply would not listen to anyone addressing him with honorifics such as "Lord", and "Sir".

Fifteen years after his death, Olivier once again received star billing in a movie. Through the use of computer graphics, footage of him as a young man was integrated into the 2004 film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow in which Olivier "played" the villain.


For a complete list of Olivier's award wins and nominations, see Laurence Olivier list of awards & nominations

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