He was an English actor who dominated the British stage of the mid-20th century. He also worked in films throughout his career, playing more than fifty cinema roles.
Too Many Crooks
The Temporary Widow
Friends and Lovers
The Yellow Ticket
No Funny Business
As You Like It
Conquest of the Air
Fire Over England
The Divorce of Lady X
Words for Battle
This Happy Breed
Father’s Little Dividend
The Magic Box
The Beggar’s Opera
The Devil’s Disciple
Term of Trial
Bunny Lake Is Missing
Romeo and Juliet
The Shoes of the Fisherman
Oh! What a Lovely War
Dance of Death
Battle of Britain
Nicholas and Alexandra
Lady Caroline Lamb
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution
A Bridge Too Far
The Boys from Brazil
A Little Romance
The Jazz Singer
The Jigsaw Man
Wild Geese II
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (archival footage)
Laurence Olivier was nominated for eleven competitive Academy Awards. He won one and received two Honorary Awards:
- Best Actor in a Leading Role Wuthering Heights (1939)
- Best Actor in a Leading Role Rebecca (1940)
- Best Actor in a Leading Role The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fifth with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France (1944)
- Best Director Hamlet (1948)
- Best Actor in a Leading Role Hamlet (1948) – WON
- Best Actor in a Leading Role Richard III (1955)
- Best Actor in a Leading Role The Entertainer (1960)
- Best Actor in a Leading Role Othello (1965)
- Best Actor in a Leading Role Sleuth (1972)
- Best Actor in a Supporting Role Marathon Man (1976)
- Best Actor in a Leading Role The Boys from Brazil (1978)
Honorary Academy Awards
The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fifth with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France (1944) – “For his outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing ‘Henry V’ to the screen.”
1979 – “For the full body of his work, for the unique achievements of his entire career and his lifetime of contribution to the art of film.”
We have all, at one time or another, been performers, and many of us still are – politicians, playboys, cardinals and kings. ~ Laurence Olivier
Laurence Kerr Olivier, Baron Olivier, OM was born May 22, 1907 in Dorking, Surrey, England. He was the youngest of the three children of the Rev. Gerard Kerr Olivier (1869–1939) and his wife Agnes Louise, née Crookenden (1871–1920). Their elder children were Sybille (1901–1989) and Gerard Dacres “Dickie” (1904–1958).
Gerard Olivier had begun a career as a schoolmaster, but in his thirties, he discovered a strong religious vocation and was ordained as a priest of the Church of England. He practiced extremely high church, ritualist Anglicanism and liked to be addressed as “Father Olivier”. This made him unacceptable to most Anglican congregations, and the only church posts he was offered were temporary, usually deputizing for regular incumbents in their absence. This meant a nomadic existence, and for Laurence’s first few years, he never lived in one place long enough to make friends.
In 1912, when Laurence Olivier was five, his father secured a permanent appointment as assistant priest at St Saviour’s, Pimlico. He held the post for six years, and a stable family life was at last possible. Olivier was devoted to his mother, but not to his father, whom he found a cold and remote parent. Nevertheless, he learned a great deal of the art of performing from him. As a young man Gerard Olivier had considered a stage career and was a dramatic and effective preacher. Olivier wrote that his father knew “when to drop the voice, when to bellow about the perils of hellfire, when to slip in a gag, when suddenly to wax sentimental … The quick changes of mood and manner absorbed me, and I have never forgotten them.”
In 1916, after attending a series of preparatory schools, Olivier passed the singing examination for admission to the choir school of All Saints, Margaret Street, in central London. His elder brother was already a pupil, and Olivier gradually settled in, though he felt himself to be something of an outsider. The church’s style of worship was (and remains) Anglo-Catholic, with emphasis on ritual, vestments and incense. The theatricality of the services appealed to Olivier, and the vicar encouraged the students to develop a taste for secular as well as religious drama. In a school production of Julius Caesar in 1917, the ten-year-old Olivier’s performance as Brutus impressed an audience that included Lady Tree, the young Sybil Thorndike, and Ellen Terry. He later won praise in other schoolboy productions, as Maria in Twelfth Night (1918) and Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew (1922).
From All Saints, Olivier went on to St Edward’s School, Oxford, from 1920 to 1924. He made little mark until his final year, when he played Puck in the school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; his performance was a tour de force that won him popularity among his fellow pupils. In January 1924, his brother left England to work in India as a rubber planter. Olivier missed him greatly and asked his father how soon he could follow. He recalled in his memoirs that his father replied, “Don’t be such a fool, you’re not going to India, you’re going on the stage.”
While playing the juvenile lead in Bird in Hand at the Royalty Theatre in June 1928, Olivier began a relationship with Jill Esmond, the daughter of the actors Henry V. Esmond and Eva Moore.
In 1930, with his impending marriage in mind, Olivier earned some extra money with small roles in two films. In April he traveled to Berlin to film the English-language version of The Temporary Widow, a crime comedy with Lilian Harvey, and in May he spent four nights working on another comedy, Too Many Crooks. During work on the latter film, for which he was paid £60, he met Laurence Evans, who became his personal manager.
Olivier and Esmond married on July 25, 1930 at All Saints, Margaret Street, although within weeks both realized they had erred.
That same year he had his first important West End success in Noël Coward’s Private Lives, and he appeared in his first film.
In 1931 RKO Pictures offered Olivier a two-film contract at $1,000 a week. He accepted and moved to Hollywood, despite some misgivings. His first film was the drama Friends and Lovers, in a supporting role, before RKO loaned him to Fox Studios for his first film lead, a British journalist in a Russia under martial law in The Yellow Ticket, alongside Elissa Landi and Lionel Barrymore.
Olivier returned to RKO to complete his contract with the 1932 drama Westward Passage, which was a commercial failure. Olivier’s initial foray into American films had not provided the breakthrough he hoped for; disillusioned with Hollywood, he returned to London, where he appeared in two British films, Perfect Understanding with Gloria Swanson and No Funny Business. He was tempted back to Hollywood in 1933 to appear opposite Greta Garbo in Queen Christina, but was replaced after two weeks of filming because of a lack of chemistry between the two.
In 1935 he played in a celebrated production of Romeo and Juliet alongside Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft, and by the end of the decade he was an established star.
Following Olivier’s success in Shakespearean stage productions, he made his first foray into Shakespeare on film in 1936, as Orlando in As You Like It, directed by Paul Czinner. The following year Olivier appeared alongside Vivien Leigh in the historical drama Fire Over England. He had first met Leigh briefly at the Savoy Grill and then again when she visited him during the run of Romeo and Juliet, probably early in 1936, and the two had begun an affair sometime that year. While his relationship with Leigh continued he conducted an affair with the actress Ann Todd.
In late 1938, lured by a salary of $50,000, the actor travelled to Hollywood to take the part of Heathcliff in the 1939 film Wuthering Heights, alongside Merle Oberon and David Niven. In less than a month Leigh had joined him, explaining that her trip was “partially because Larry’s there and partially because I intend to get the part of Scarlett O’Hara”—the role in Gone with the Wind in which she was eventually cast. Olivier did not enjoy making Wuthering Heights, and his approach to film acting, combined with a dislike for Oberon, led to tensions on set. The resulting film was a commercial and critical success that earned him a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor and created his screen reputation.
After returning to London briefly in mid-1939, the couple returned to America, Leigh to film the final takes for Gone with the Wind, and Olivier to prepare for filming of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca—although the couple had hoped to appear in it together. Instead, Joan Fontaine was selected for the role of Mrs. de Winter, as the producer David O. Selznick thought that not only was she more suitable for the role, but that it was best to keep Olivier and Leigh apart until their divorces came through. Olivier followed Rebecca with Pride and Prejudice, in the role of Mr. Darcy. To his disappointment, Elizabeth Bennet was played by Greer Garson rather than Leigh. He received good reviews for both films and showed a more confident screen presence than he had in his early work. In January 1940 Olivier and Esmond were granted their divorce. In February, following another request from Leigh, her husband also applied for their marriage to be terminated.
On stage, Olivier and Leigh starred in Romeo and Juliet on Broadway. It was an extravagant production, but a commercial failure. The couple had invested almost all their savings in the project, and its failure was a grave financial blow. They were married in August 1940, at the San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara, California.
In 1943, at the behest of the Ministry of Information, Olivier began working on Henry V. Originally, he had no intention of taking the directorial duties, but ended up directing and producing, in addition to taking the title role. He was assisted by an Italian internee, Filippo Del Giudice, who had been released to produce propaganda for the Allied cause. The decision was made to film the battle scenes in neutral Ireland, where it was easier to find the 650 extras. John Betjeman, the press attaché at the British embassy in Dublin, played a key liaison role with the Irish government in making suitable arrangements. The film was released in November 1944.
In 1944, together with Richardson and John Burrell, Olivier was the co-director of the Old Vic, building it into a highly respected company. There his most celebrated roles included Shakespeare’s Richard III and Sophocles’s Oedipus.
In January 1947 Olivier began working on his second film as a director, Hamlet (1948), in which he also took the lead role. The original play was heavily cut to focus on the relationships, rather than the political intrigue. The film became a critical and commercial success in Britain and abroad.
Hamlet became the first non-American film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, while Olivier won the Award for Best Actor.
In the 1950s Olivier was an independent actor-manager, but his stage career was in the doldrums until he joined the Avant Garde English Stage Company in 1957 to play the title role in The Entertainer, a part he later played on film.
While Leigh made Streetcar in 1951, Olivier joined her in Hollywood to film Carrie, based on the controversial novel Sister Carrie; although the film was plagued by troubles, Olivier received warm reviews and a BAFTA nomination. Olivier began to notice a change in Leigh’s behavior. After a holiday with Coward in Jamaica, she seemed to have recovered.
In January 1953 Leigh traveled to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to film Elephant Walk with Peter Finch. Shortly after filming started she suffered a breakdown, and returned to Britain where, between periods of incoherence, she told Olivier that she was in love with Finch and had been having an affair with him; she gradually recovered over a period of several months. Because of the breakdown, many of the Oliviers’ friends learned of her problems.
Olivier directed his third Shakespeare film in September 1954, Richard III (1955), which he co-produced with Korda. The presence of four theatrical knights in the one film—Olivier was joined by Cedric Hardwicke, Gielgud and Richardson however it was not a box-office success, which accounted for Olivier’s subsequent failure to raise the funds for a planned film of Macbeth. He won a BAFTA award for the role and was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award, which Yul Brynner won.
Leigh became pregnant in 1956 and withdrew from the production of Coward’s comedy South Sea Bubble. The day after her final performance in the play she miscarried and entered a period of depression that lasted for months. The same year Olivier decided to direct and produce a film version of The Sleeping Prince, retitled The Prince and the Showgirl. Instead of appearing with Leigh, he cast Marilyn Monroe as the showgirl. Although the filming was challenging because of Monroe’s behavior, the film was appreciated by the critics.
During the production of The Prince and the Showgirl, Olivier, Monroe and her husband, the American playwright Arthur Miller, went to see the English Stage Company’s production of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court. Olivier had seen the play earlier in the run and disliked it, but Miller was convinced that Osborne had talent, and Olivier reconsidered.
Osborne was already at work on a new play, The Entertainer, an allegory of Britain’s post-colonial decline, centered on a seedy variety comedian, Archie Rice. Having read the first act—all that was completed by then—Olivier asked to be cast in the part. He had for years maintained that he might easily have been a third-rate comedian called “Larry Oliver”, and would sometimes play the character at parties. Behind Archie’s brazen façade there is a deep desolation, and Olivier caught both aspects, switching, in the words of the biographer Anthony Holden, “from a gleefully tacky comic routine to moments of the most wrenching pathos”
The role of Archie’s daughter Jean was taken by three actresses during the various runs. The second of them was Joan Plowright, with whom Olivier began a relationship that endured for the rest of his life.
Two films featuring Olivier were released in 1960. The first—filmed in 1959—was Spartacus, in which he portrayed the Roman general, Marcus Licinius Crassus. His second was The Entertainer, shot while he was appearing in Coriolanus; the film was well received by the critics, but not as warmly as the stage show had been. For his performance, Olivier was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. He also made an adaptation of The Moon and Sixpence in 1960, winning an Emmy Award.
The Oliviers’ marriage was disintegrating during the late 1950s. In May 1960 divorce proceedings started; Leigh reported the fact to the press and informed reporters of Olivier’s relationship with Plowright. The decree nisi was issued in December 1960, which enabled him to marry Plowright in March 1961. A son, Richard, was born in December 1961; two daughters followed, Tamsin Agnes Margaret—born in January 1963—and Julie-Kate, born in July 1966.
From 1963 to 1973 he was the founding director of Britain’s National Theatre, running a resident company that fostered many future stars. His own parts there included the title role in Othello (1964) and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (1970).
In 1969 Olivier appeared in two war films, portraying military leaders. He played Field Marshal French in the First World War Film Oh! What a Lovely War, followed by Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding in Battle of Britain.
Among the roles he hoped to play, but could not because of ill-health, was Nathan Detroit in the musical Guys and Dolls. In 1972 he took leave of absence from the National to star opposite Michael Caine in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film of Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, which The Illustrated London News considered to be “Olivier at his twinkling, eye-rolling best”; both he and Caine were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, losing to Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
Olivier spent the last 15 years of his life in securing his finances and dealing with deteriorating health, which included thrombosis and dermatomyositis, a degenerative muscle disorder. Professionally, and to provide financial security, he made a series of advertisements for Polaroid cameras in 1972, although he stipulated that they must never be shown in Britain; he also took a number of cameo film roles, which were in “often undistinguished films”. Olivier’s move from leading parts to supporting and cameo roles came about because his poor health meant he could not get the necessary long insurance for larger parts, with only short engagements in films available.
Olivier’s dermatomyositis meant he spent the last three months of 1974 in hospital, and he spent early 1975 slowly recovering and regaining his strength. When strong enough, he was contacted by the director John Schlesinger, who offered him the role of a Nazi torturer in the 1976 film Marathon Man. Olivier was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and won the Golden Globe of the same category.
In the mid-1970s Olivier became increasingly involved in television work, a medium of which he was initially dismissive. He won several Emmys.
In 1978 he appeared in the film The Boys from Brazil, playing the role of Ezra Lieberman, an ageing Nazi hunter; he received his eleventh Academy Award nomination. Although he did not win the Oscar, he was presented with an Honorary Award for his lifetime achievement.
Olivier continued working in film into the 1980s, with roles in The Jazz Singer (1980), Inchon (1981), The Bounty (1984) and Wild Geese II (1985). He continued to work in television; in 1981 he appeared as Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited, winning another Emmy, and the following year he received his tenth and last BAFTA nomination in the television adaptation of John Mortimer’s stage play A Voyage Round My Father. In 1983 he played his last Shakespearean role as Lear in King Lear, for Granada Television, earning his fifth Emmy.
The same year he also appeared in a cameo alongside Gielgud and Richardson in Wagner, with Burton in the title role; his final screen appearance was as an old, wheelchair-bound soldier in Derek Jarman’s 1989 film War Requiem.
After being ill for the last 22 years of his life, Olivier died of renal failure on 11 July 1989 aged 82 at his home near Steyning, West Sussex. His cremation was held three days later, and a memorial service was held in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey in October that year.
Olivier’s honors included a knighthood (1947), a life peerage (1970) and the Order of Merit (1981). For his on-screen work he received four Academy Awards, two British Academy Film Awards, five Emmy Awards and three Golden Globe Awards. The National Theatre’s largest auditorium is named in his honor, and he is commemorated in the Laurence Olivier Awards, given annually by the Society of London Theatre. He was married three times, to the actresses Jill Esmond from 1930 to 1940, Vivien Leigh from 1940 to 1960, and Joan Plowright from 1961 until his death.
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