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Laurence Olivier

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Laurence Olivier

The Right Honourable
The Lord Olivier
circa 1961
Born Laurence Kerr Olivier
(1907-05-22)22 May 1907
Dorking, Surrey, England
Died 11 July 1989(1989-07-11) (aged 82)
Ashurst, West Sussex, England
Cause of death
Renal failure
Occupation Actor, director, producer, screenwriter
Years active 1926–1988
Spouse(s) Jill Esmond (1930–40; divorced)
Vivien Leigh (1940–60; divorced)
Joan Plowright (1961–89; his death)
Children 2 sons, 2 daughters
Relatives Sydney Olivier (uncle, deceased)
Noël Olivier (cousin, deceased)

Laurence Kerr Olivier, Baron Olivier, OM (; 22 May 1907 – 11 July 1989) was an English actor, director, and producer. Olivier is generally considered to have been one of the greatest actors of the 20th century.[1]

During a six-decade career, Olivier played many roles on stage and screen. His three Shakespeare films as actor-director, Henry V (1944), Hamlet (1948), and Richard III (1955), are among the pinnacles of the bard at the cinema. On stage his more than 120 roles included Richard III, Macbeth, Romeo, Hamlet, Uncle Vanya, and Archie Rice in The Entertainer. He appeared in nearly sixty films, including William Wyler's Wuthering Heights (1939) and Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940). He was the founding artistic director of the National Theatre Company in 1963, a post in which he remained for a decade. He had earlier filled the same post at the Old Vic after the Second World War. The largest stage in the National Theatre building was later named after him.[2]

Olivier retired from the stage in 1974, but his work on-screen continued until the year before his death in 1989.[3] For television, he starred in Long Day's Journey into Night (1973), The Merchant of Venice (1973), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1976), Brideshead Revisited (1981), and King Lear (1983), among others. His later films for cinema included Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Sleuth (1972), John Schlesinger's Marathon Man (1976), and Franklin J. Schaffner's The Boys from Brazil (1978).

Actor Spencer Tracy stated that Olivier was "the greatest actor in the English-speaking world",[4] and others said he was the best in the world, or that he was the best they would ever see perform.[5][6][7][8][9] Director Jonathan Miller (who directed Olivier in The Merchant of Venice) warned: "I hope that no actor tries to copy him."[10] Olivier's AMPAS acknowledgments include twelve Oscar nominations, with two wins (for Best Actor and Best Picture for the 1948 film Hamlet), plus two honorary awards including a statuette and certificate. He also won five Emmy Awards from the nine nominations he received. Additionally, he was a three-time Golden Globe and BAFTA winner.

Olivier was the youngest actor to be knighted as a Knight Bachelor, in 1947, and the first to be elevated to the peerage two decades later.[11] He married three times, to actresses Jill Esmond, Vivien Leigh, and Joan Plowright, his widow.

Early life

Olivier was born on 22 May 1907 in Dorking, Surrey, England. He was raised in a severe, strict, and religious household, ruled over by his father, Gerard Kerr Olivier (1869–1939), a High Anglican priest[12] whose father was Henry Arnold Olivier, a rector. Olivier took solace in the care of his mother, Agnes Louise (née Crookenden; 1871–1920), herself the sister of a High Church Anglican vicar. She died at age 48 in 1920.[13] Gerard Dacres "Dickie" (1904–1958) and Sybille (1901–1989) were his two elder siblings. His uncle Sydney was a career civil servant and Fabian who eventually became Governor of Jamaica and Secretary of State for India in the first government of Ramsay MacDonald. Another uncle was artist Herbert Arnould Olivier. Olivier had two cousins Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Alfred Arnould Olivier (South Staffordshire regiment) and Evelyn Olivier. [14] In 1918, Olivier's father accepted the position of minister at St. Mary's Church, Letchworth, Hertfordshire, and the family lived at the Old Rectory, now part of St Christopher School. He was educated at the choir school of All Saints', Margaret Street, London.[15] He played Brutus in his school's production of Julius Caesar at the age of 9, where Ellen Terry noted he was "already a great actor".[16] At 13, he went to St Edward's School, Oxford, again appearing in school drama productions: he was a "bold" Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew (selected for a schools' drama festival at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford)[16] and Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, played "very well, to everyone's disgust", as Olivier noted in his diary.[17] After his brother, Dickie, left for India, it was his father who decided that Laurence—or "Kim", as the family called him—would become an actor.[18]

Early career

With his first wife Jill Esmond (1930)

Olivier, 17 years old, attended the Central School of Speech and Drama, tutored by Elsie Fogerty.[19] In 1926, he joined the Birmingham Repertory Company. At first he was given only minor tasks at the theatre, such as bell-ringing; however, his roles eventually became more significant, and in 1927 he was playing Hamlet and Macbeth.[3] In 1928, he was cast to play Captain Stanhope in the Apollo theatre's first production of Journey's End, a play which would expand his career. He always insisted that his acting was pure technique, and he was contemptuous of contemporaries who adopted method acting popularised by Lee Strasberg.

Olivier married Jill Esmond, a rising young actress, on 25 July 1930; their only son, Simon Tarquin was born on 21 August 1936. Olivier was, however, from the beginning not happy in his first marriage. 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 temporarily renounced religion and soon came to resent his wife, though the marriage would last for ten years. Despite this supposed resentment, Olivier remained in congenial contact with Esmond until his death (as documented by their son Tarquin in his book, My Father Laurence Olivier), accompanying her to Tarquin's wedding in January 1965.

He made his film debut in The Temporary Widow and played his first leading role on film in The Yellow Ticket; however, he held the film in little regard.[19] His stage breakthrough was in Noël Coward's Private Lives in 1930, followed by Shakespeare's 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.[20][21] His tension towards Gielgud came to a head in 1940, when Olivier approached London impresario Binkie Beaumont about financing him in a repertory of the four great Shakespearean tragedies of Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear. However, Beaumont would agree to the plan only if Olivier and Gielgud alternated in the roles of Hamlet/Laertes, Othello/Iago, Macbeth/Macduff, and Lear/Gloucester, and that Gielgud direct at least one of the productions, a proposition Olivier declined.[22]

The engagement as Romeo resulted in an invitation by Lilian Baylis to be the star at the Old Vic in 1937–38. Olivier's tenure had mixed artistic results, with his performances as Hamlet and Iago drawing a negative response from critics and his first attempt at Macbeth receiving mixed reviews. However, his appearances as Henry V, Coriolanus, and Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night were triumphs, and his popularity with Old Vic audiences left Olivier one of the major Shakespearean actors in England by the season's end. He maintained his scorn for film, and though he constantly worked for Alexander Korda, he still felt most at home on-stage. He made his first Shakespeare film, As You Like It, with Paul Czinner. In 1939, Olivier starred in a production of "No Time for Comedy", written by S.N. Behrman, opposite Katharine Cornell; it was his first prominent role on Broadway.[23]

He first met Vivien Leigh in The Mask of Virtue in 1936, a friendship developed after he congratulated her on her performance. While playing lovers in the film Fire Over England (1937), they developed a strong attraction, and after filming was completed, they began an affair.[24] Leigh played Ophelia to Olivier's Hamlet in an Old Vic Theatre production, and Olivier later recalled an incident during which her mood rapidly changed as she was quietly preparing to go on-stage. Without apparent provocation, she began screaming at him, before suddenly becoming silent and staring into space. She was able to perform without mishap, and by the following day, she had returned to normal with no recollection of the event. It was the first time Olivier witnessed such behaviour from her.[25]


In Wuthering Heights (1939)

Olivier travelled to Hollywood to begin filming Wuthering Heights as Heathcliff. Leigh followed soon after, partly to be with him, but also to pursue her dream of playing Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939). Olivier found the filming of Wuthering Heights to be difficult, but it proved to be a turning point for him, both in his success in the United States, which had eluded him until then, and also in his attitude to film, which he had regarded as an inferior medium to theatre. The film's producer, Samuel Goldwyn, was highly dissatisfied with Olivier's overstated performance after several weeks of filming and threatened to dismiss him. Olivier had grown to regard the film's female lead, Merle Oberon, as an amateur; however, when he stated his opinion to Goldwyn, he was reminded that Oberon was the star of the film and a well-known name in American cinema. Olivier was told that he was dispensable and would be required to be more tolerant of Oberon.

The film was a great success and Olivier was praised for his performance, with a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actor. Leigh won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Gone with the Wind, and the couple suddenly found themselves major celebrities throughout the world. They wanted to marry, but at first both Leigh's husband and Olivier's wife at the time, Jill Esmond, refused to divorce them. Finally divorced, they were married in a simple ceremony on 31 August 1940, at the San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara, with only Katharine Hepburn and Garson Kanin as witnesses.[26] Olivier's American film career flourished with highly regarded performances in Rebecca and Pride and Prejudice (both 1940).

In Pride and Prejudice (1940)

Olivier and Leigh starred in a theatre production of Romeo and Juliet in New York City. It was an extravagant production, but a commercial failure.[27] Brooks Atkinson for The New York Times wrote, "Although Miss Leigh and Mr Olivier are handsome young people they hardly act their parts at all."[28] The couple had invested almost their entire savings in the project, and its failure was a financial disaster for them.[29]

With Vivien Leigh in That Hamilton Woman (1941)

The couple appeared together in That Hamilton Woman (aka, Lady Hamilton, 1941) for Alexander Korda, during his American exile,[30] with Olivier as Horatio Nelson and Leigh as Emma Hamilton. Shot between mid-September and mid-October 1940,[31] the film was intended as propaganda to end American neutrality.[32]


When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Olivier intended to join the Royal Air Force, but was still contractually obliged to other parties.[3] He took flying lessons, and racked up over 200 hours. After two years of service, he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Olivier RNVR, as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm,[33] but was never called to see action. Director Michael Powell wanted Olivier to play the lead in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) but Churchill objected to the movie and the Fleet Air Arm refused to release Olivier.[34]

In 1944, tuberculosis was diagnosed in Leigh's left lung, necessitating her spending several weeks in hospital. In the spring, she was filming Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) when she discovered she was pregnant, but suffered a miscarriage. She fell into a deep depression which reached its nadir when she turned on Olivier, verbally and physically attacking him until she fell to the floor sobbing. This was the one of many major breakdowns related to manic-depression, or bipolar mood disorder. Olivier came to recognise the symptoms of an impending episode—several days of hyperactivity followed by a period of depression and an explosive breakdown, after which Leigh would have no memory of the event, but would be acutely embarrassed and remorseful.[35]

In 1944, Olivier and fellow actor Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man and Shakespeare's Richard III, rehearsed over 10 weeks to the accompaniment of German V1 'doodlebugs'. "Far and away the greatest actor we have", Noël Coward wrote in his diary after seeing Olivier perform the lead in Richard III.[36] The enterprise, with John Burrell as manager, eventually extended to five acclaimed seasons ending in 1949, after a prestigious 1948 tour of Australia and New Zealand.

The second New Theatre season opened with Olivier playing both Harry Hotspur and Justice Shallow to Richardson's Falstaff in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, in what is now seen as a high point of English classical theatre. The magic continued with one of Olivier's most famous endeavours, the double bill of Sophocles' Oedipus and Sheridan's The Critic, with Olivier's transition from Greek tragedy to high comedy in a single evening becoming a thing of legend. He followed this triumph with one of his favourite roles, Astrov in Uncle Vanya.

Kenneth Tynan was to write (in He Who Plays the King, 1950): "The Old Vic was now at its height: the watershed had been reached and one of those rare moments in the theatre had arrived when drama paused, took stock of all that it had learned since Irving, and then produced a monument in celebration. It is surprising when one considers it, that English acting should have reached up and seized a laurel crown in the middle of a war". In 1944, Olivier filmed Henry V, which – in view of the patriotic nature of the story of the English victory – was viewed as a psychological contribution to the British war effort.

In 1945, Olivier and Richardson were made honorary Lieutenants with ENSA, and engaged in a six-week tour of Europe for the army, performing Arms and the Man, Peer Gynt and Richard III for the troops, followed by a visit to the Comédie-Française in Paris, the first time a foreign company had been invited to play on its famous stage.[37] When Olivier returned to London, the populace noticed a change in him. Olivier's only explanation was: "Maybe it's just that I've got older."[19]

A 2007 biography of Olivier, Lord Larry: The Secret Life of Laurence Olivier, by Michael Munn, claims that Olivier was recruited to be an undercover agent within the United States for the British government, by film producer and MI5 operative Alexander Korda on the instructions of Winston Churchill. Munn's main source was Hollywood producer Jesse Lasky, who believed that "Larry ... was drumming up support, and doing it with the British Government's sanction."[38] According to an article in The Daily Telegraph, actor David Niven, a good friend of Olivier, is said to have told Munn, "What was dangerous for his country was that (Olivier) could have been accused of being an agent. So this was a danger for Larry because he could have been arrested. And what was worse, if German agents had realised what Larry was doing, they would, I am sure, have gone after him."[39]

Post-war years

In 1947, Olivier was made a Knight Bachelor, and by 1948, he was on the board of directors for the Old Vic Theatre, and he and Leigh embarked on a tour of Australia and New Zealand to raise funds for the theatre. During their six-month tour, Olivier performed Richard III and also performed with Leigh in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal and Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth. The tour was an outstanding success, and although Leigh was plagued with insomnia and allowed her understudy to replace her for a week while she was ill, she generally withstood the demands placed upon her, with Olivier noting her ability to "charm the press". Members of the company later recalled several quarrels between the couple, with the most dramatic of these occurring in Christchurch when Leigh refused to go on-stage. Olivier slapped her face, and Leigh slapped him in return and swore at him before she made her way to the stage.

By the end of the tour, both were exhausted and ill, and Olivier told a journalist, "You may not know it, but you are talking to a couple of walking corpses." Later he would comment that he "lost Vivien" in Australia.[40] This may be a reference to Leigh's affair with Australian actor Peter Finch, whom Olivier met during the tour and invited to come to England. Once Finch made the move, Olivier became his mentor and put him under a long-term contract. Finch began an affair with Leigh in 1948, which continued on and off for several years, ultimately falling apart due to her deteriorating mental condition.[41]

The success of the Australian tour encouraged the Oliviers to make their first West End appearance together, performing the same works with one addition, Antigone, included at Leigh's insistence because she wished to play a role in a tragedy. Leigh next sought the role of Blanche DuBois in the West End stage production of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, and was cast after Williams and the play's producer, Irene Mayer Selznick, saw her in The School for Scandal and Antigone, and Olivier was contracted to direct.[42]

Leigh would go on to star as Blanche in the 1951 film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, which was directed by Elia Kazan. Olivier accepted a starring role in Carrie, director William Wyler's adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie, to accompany her to Hollywood and look after her as her mental health was already fragile. During the filming of Streetcar, Kazan had to wean her away from the interpretation she had developed in London under Olivier's direction.

In 1951, as their contribution to the Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, alternating the play each night and winning good reviews. They took the productions to New York, where they performed a season at the Ziegfeld Theatre into 1952. The reviews there were also mostly positive, but critic Kenneth Tynan angered them when he suggested that Leigh's was a mediocre talent which forced Olivier to compromise his own. Tynan's diatribe almost precipitated another collapse; Leigh, terrified of failure and intent on achieving greatness, dwelt on his comments, while ignoring the positive reviews of other critics.[43] She was performing on Broadway when she received news that she had won her second Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in A Streetcar Named Desire. In January 1953, Leigh travelled to Ceylon to film Elephant Walk with Peter Finch. Shortly after filming commenced, she suffered a breakdown, and Paramount Pictures replaced her with Elizabeth Taylor. Olivier returned her to their home in England, where, between periods of incoherence, Leigh told him that she was in love with Finch, and had been having an affair with him. She gradually recovered over a period of several months. As a result of this episode, many of the Oliviers' friends learned of her problems. David Niven said she had been "quite, quite mad", and in his diary, Noël Coward expressed the view that "things had been bad and getting worse since 1948 or thereabouts."[44]

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 Shakespearean films, based on stage productions of each respective play. Olivier tried his hand at directing, and as a result, created three critically successful films: Henry V, Hamlet, and Richard III.

Henry V

During the Second World War, 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 and Carol Reed, who both thought Olivier would be better at the task.[45] The film's battle scenes were shot in Ireland (because it was a neutral country, there was no risk of aeroplanes appearing in shot), with the Irish plains serving as the fields of Agincourt and the Irish army providing extras for the battle scenes. During the shooting of one of the battle scenes, a horse collided with a camera with Olivier behind it. Olivier had had his eye to the viewfinder; and, when the horse crashed into his position, the camera smashed into him, cutting his lip and leaving a scar that would be visible in later roles.[45]

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".[46]


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 particularly comfortable with the introverted role of Hamlet, as opposed to the extroverts whom he was famous for portraying. The running time of Hamlet (1948) was not allowed to exceed 153 minutes, and as a result Olivier cut almost half of Shakespeare's text, excising Rosencrantz and Guildenstern completely.

The film became a critical and commercial success in Britain and abroad,[3] winning Olivier Best Picture and Best Actor at the 1948 Academy Awards. It was the first British film to win Best Picture, and Olivier's only Best Actor win. Olivier also became the first person to direct himself in an Oscar-winning performance.

Richard III

Olivier's third Shakespeare project as film 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. During the filming of the battle scenes in Spain, one of the archers accidentally shot Olivier in the ankle, causing him to limp. Fortunately, the limp was required for the part, and Olivier had already been limping in the parts of the film already shot.[47]

Olivier would be nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for the fifth time. Korda sold the rights to American television network NBC, and the film became the first to be aired on television and released in theatres simultaneously.

Last years with Vivien Leigh

Leigh recovered sufficiently to play The Sleeping Prince with Olivier in 1953, and in 1955 they performed a season at Stratford-upon-Avon in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Macbeth and Titus Andronicus. They played to capacity houses and attracted generally good reviews, Leigh's health seemingly stable. Noël Coward was enjoying success with the play South Sea Bubble, premiered in its final form during April 1956, with Leigh in the lead role, but she became pregnant and withdrew from the production. Several weeks later, she miscarried and entered a period of depression which lasted for months. She joined Olivier for a European tour with Titus Andronicus, but the tour was marred by Leigh's frequent outbursts against Olivier and other members of the company. After their return to London, her former husband Leigh Holman, who continued to exert a strong influence over her, stayed with the Oliviers and helped calm her. Meanwhile, Olivier had failed to find financial backers for his much cherished Macbeth film project, again with himself and Leigh in the lead roles.

During the 1950s, Olivier had affairs with other actresses, including Claire Bloom, who was his co-star in Richard III.[48]

In 1958, considering her marriage to be over, Leigh began a relationship with actor Jack Merivale, who knew of her medical condition and assured Olivier that he would care for her. She achieved a success in 1959 with the Noël Coward comedy Look After Lulu, with The Times critic describing her as "beautiful, delectably cool and matter-of-fact, she is mistress of every situation."[49]

In his autobiography he discussed the years of problems they had experienced because of Leigh's illness, writing, "Throughout her possession by that uncannily evil monster, manic depression, with its deadly ever-tightening spirals, she retained her own individual canniness – an ability to disguise her true mental condition from almost all except me, for whom she could hardly be expected to take the trouble."[50]

In The Prince and the Showgirl (1957)
As Crassus in Spartacus (1960)

After the Second World War, Olivier made only sporadic film appearances. In 1957, he directed and acted in The Prince and the Showgirl with the female lead being taken by Marilyn Monroe. During the production of the film, Olivier, Leigh, Monroe and her husband, American playwright Arthur Miller, went to see the English Stage Company production of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court. Olivier disliked the play, but an enthusiastic Miller was able to talk him round to the extent that Olivier effectively commissioned Osborne to write a play for him. The result was The Entertainer, which opened at the Royal Court on 10 April 1957. It centres 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, who took over the role of Jean Rice from Dorothy Tutin when Tony Richardson's Royal Court production transferred to the Palace Theatre in September 1957.[51] Later, in 1960, Tony Richardson also directed the screen version with Olivier and Plowright repeating their stage roles. Olivier received his fifth Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for The Entertainer.

In December 1960 Leigh and Olivier divorced, enabling Olivier to marry Joan Plowright on 17 March 1961.

National Theatre

Olivier was one of the founders, and the inaugural director, of the National Theatre Company, while it was based at the Old Vic. During his directorship he appeared in twelve plays (taking over roles in three) and directed nine productions.

Early roles at the National

The opening production was The Recruiting Officer.

For his performance in the lead role of Othello, Olivier underwent a transformation, requiring extensive study and heavy weightlifting, to get the physique needed to play the Moor of Venice for John Dexter's production. The production was well received by most of the critics. Franco Zeffirelli said of Olivier's acting: "It's an anthology of everything that has been discovered about acting in the past three centuries." Even so, it has not gone without criticism: director Jonathan Miller has called it "a condescending view of an Afro Caribbean person".[52] John Dexter's 1964 stage production of the play was filmed in 1965, securing Olivier his sixth Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

Later roles at the National

Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov was directed by Olivier himself in a 1967 National Theatre production. It was, in Olivier's opinion, his best work as director. It formed the basis of Olivier's final film as a film director when adapted as a film version which was co-directed by John Sichel and released in 1970.[18] Strindberg's The Dance of Death (1967, film 1969) Shylock in Jonathan Miller's 1970 revival of The Merchant of Venice, and his portrayal of James Tyrone in O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night (1971), in a production by Michael Blakemore were other successes from this period.[53] These last two were later videotaped for television, and telecast both in England and in the United States.[54]

Olivier played a supporting role as the ancient Antonio in Franco Zeffirelli's 1973 production of Eduardo De Filippo's Saturday, Sunday, Monday, with his wife Joan Plowright in the starring role of Rosa. His final stage appearance, on 21 March 1974, was as the fiery Glaswegian, John Tagg, in John Dexter's production of Trevor Griffiths's The Party. The only appearance he made on the stage of the new Olivier Theatre was at the royal opening of the new National Theatre building on 25 October 1976.

Experience as artistic director

As literary manager Olivier had chosen Kenneth Tynan, the most prominent theatre critic of the time, but his backing of Tynan's proposal to stage Rolf Hochhuth's Soldiers did not prevent the vetoing of the intended production by the National's board. Olivier himself, a great admirer of Winston Churchill (who essentially is accused of assassinating Polish Prime Minister General Władysław Sikorski by Hochhuth), did not particularly like the play or its depiction of Churchill (whom Tynan wanted him to play). There was a potential problem with the Lord Chamberlain, who might not have licensed the play due to its controversy. The chairman of the National's board, Lord Chandos, a member of Churchill's wartime cabinet, damned the play as "grotesque and grievous libel".[55]

The stymying of the production was a watershed event at the National, leading to the eventual ouster of Tynan. When the board subsequently vetoed a proposed production of Guys and Dolls (a cherished project of Olivier who longed to play Nathan Detroit) after a postponement due to his poor health, it was apparent that he was on shaky ground. He tried to interest Richard Burton and Albert Finney in replacing him. Neither was interested. Burton, commenting in his diaries, balked at the proposition for many reasons, but mentioned the mistreatment of Olivier by the board. If the great Olivier, the first actor to be made a peer—a man who had given up a fortune in earnings in the West End and in films to nurture the National could be frustrated when it came to putting on controversial and even non-controversial projects by bureaucrats—what chance did Burton have?

Olivier never was able to choose his successor. His career at the National ended, in his view, in betrayal when the theatre's governorship decided to replace him with Peter Hall in 1973 without consulting him on the choice and not informing him of the decision until several months after it had been made.[3] Reportedly, some felt that his tenure as director of the NT was marred by his jealousy towards other performers when he manoeuvred to block famous names like John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson from appearing there,[56] although young actors like Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi and Anthony Hopkins (both of whom understudied Olivier) made their names there during the period.

Screen career from 1966

In Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)

In 1966, Olivier portrayed the Gordon, in the film Khartoum.

In 1967, he underwent radiation treatment for prostate cancer and was also hospitalised with pneumonia. During the remainder of his life, he would suffer from many different health problems, including bronchitis, amnesia and pleurisy. In 1974, at age 67, he was found to have dermatomyositis, a degenerative muscle disorder, and nearly died the following year, but he battled through the next decade.

As his stage career ended, after he was forced out of his role as director of the National Theatre, Olivier began appearing more frequently in films. Worrying that his family would not be sufficiently provided for in the event of his death, many of his later television-special and film appearances on a "pay cheque" basis, admitting that he was not proud of most of these credits. In particular, he despised Inchon (1981), the film in which he portrayed General Douglas MacArthur.[51] His roles were now usually character parts rather than the leading romantic roles of his early career, One role which would not have been was the role of Don Corleone in The Godfather, Olivier was Francis Ford Coppola's first choice, but in the end Marlon Brando was cast instead.[57] For Sleuth (1972), Marathon Man (1976; Supporting Actor) and The Boys from Brazil (1978), he received Academy Award nominations.

Laurence Olivier in 1972, during the production of Sleuth

The 1970s and 1980s were a productive and award-laden period for Olivier in television. From October 1973 in the UK, Thames Television began to transmit The World at War, a 26-part documentary on the Second World War, which he had narrated. In 1975, he appeared as an ageing British barrister, opposite Katharine Hepburn in Love Among the Ruins, a made-for-television film that was filmed in England, but made for the American Broadcasting Company network. In 1981, he appeared in Brideshead Revisited, the final episode of which revolved entirely around Olivier's character Lord Marchmain, patriarch of the Flyte family, as he came home to die.

The next year Olivier was cast in the much-praised television adaptation of John Mortimer's stage play A Voyage Round My Father, in the role of Clifford Mortimer, the author's blind father. Finally, in 1983 Olivier played his last Shakespearean role, King Lear, for Granada Television. He had played it previously at the Old Vic, in 1946, with little success, but received an Emmy Award for his television portrayal. For Voyage, Olivier received a BAFTA nomination, but for Love Among The Ruins and King Lear he won Outstanding Lead Actor Emmys, and for the final episode of Brideshead Revisited and a cameo in one episode of J. B. Priestley's Lost Empires (1986), he won the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor, in their respective categories.

In 1984 Olivier was cast as Admiral Hood, in "The Bounty", with Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson. "The Bounty" was a retelling of the HMS Bounty mutiny that was more truthful than anything before it..

One of Olivier's last feature films was Wild Geese II (1985), in which, aged 77, he played Rudolf Hess in the sequel to The Wild Geese (1978). According to the biography Olivier by Francis Beckett (Haus Publishing, 2005), Hess's son Wolf Rüdiger Hess said Olivier's portrayal of his father was "uncannily accurate".

In 1986, Olivier appeared as the pre-filmed holographic narrator of the West End production of the multimedia Dave Clark rock musical Time. In the same year, he appeared in two television serials, Lost Empires opposite Colin Firth, a successful TV show where he once again garnered much critical acclaim, and was nominated for a major award in Best Supporting Actor at the Emmys, and Peter the Great with Maximilian Schell.

On 31 May 1987, the National Theatre put on an 80th birthday-tribute pageant, with Olivier and his family in attendance.[58] It was held in the National's Olivier Theatre with Alec McCowen as Richard Burbage, Edward Petherbridge as David Garrick, Ben Kingsley as Edmund Kean and Antony Sher as Henry Irving. Peter Hall as Shakespeare, Peggy Ashcroft as Lillian Baylis,[59] Maureen Lipman, Albert Finney, Julia McKenzie and Imelda Staunton.[60]

In 1988, Olivier gave his final performance, aged 81, as a wheelchair-bound old soldier in Derek Jarman's film War Requiem (1989).

Family and death

Olivier died at his home in Ashurst, West Sussex, England, from renal failure on 11 July 1989.[61] He was survived by his son Tarquin from his marriage to Jill Esmond, as well as his wife Joan Plowright and their three children: Richard Kerr (b. 1961), Tamsin Agnes Margaret (b. 1963), and Julie-Kate (b. 1966).

He was cremated and his ashes interred in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, London. Olivier is one of only a few actors, along with David Garrick, Henry Irving,[62] and Sybil Thorndike[63] to have been accorded this honour. Olivier is buried alongside some of the people he portrayed in theatre and film, including King Henry V, General John Burgoyne, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding and William III of England and II of Scotland.

Fifteen years after his death, Olivier once again received star billing in a film. 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.


Since Olivier's death, many biographies have been written about him, several of which include claims that Olivier was [66]

In her 2001 autobiography, Joan Plowright wrote, "Larry tended to shower almost everyone he knew with endearments and demonstrative terms of address. In the same way as the macho Sean Kenny had to put up with 'Shawnie, darling', and our son Richard had to endure 'Dickie-Wickie' for a short time, there is a published letter addressing his supposed arch-enemy, Peter Hall, as 'My dear Peterkins'. And Larry could say, 'I adored Danny Kaye', in exactly the same way as he said, 'I adored old Ralphie', without anyone suspecting Ralph Richardson of harbouring carnal desires for his own sex. — No man, alive or dead, has ever claimed to have slept with Larry, though the kiss-and-tell merchants of the female sex have tumbled over themselves to boast of a night or two, here or there."[67]

In August 2006, on the radio programme Desert Island Discs, Plowright responded to the allegations of Olivier's mistresses and homosexual affairs, stating:

"I don't think there is any need to defend his memory. His performances, his greatness as an artist are there."[68][69]
And then, referring separately to Olivier's battle with his "demons" which reached a peak in the long years of illness leading up to his death, Plowright stated that:
"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."[68]


Olivier was created a The Society of London Theatre, were renamed in his honour in 1984.

Though he was a knight, a life-peer and one of the most respected personalities in the industry, Olivier insisted that he be addressed as "Larry", which he made clear he preferred to "Sir Laurence" or "Lord Olivier".[3]

Olivier is also a member of the American Theater Hall of Fame. He was inducted in 1979.[78]


In September 2007, the National Theatre marked the centenary of his birth with a Centenary Celebration. This told the story of Olivier's working life through film and stage extracts, letters, reminiscence and readings; the participants included Olivier's widow, Dame Joan Plowright, along with leading actors across the generations.[79] Prior to the evening celebration, a new statue of Olivier as Hamlet, created by the sculptor Angela Conner and funded by private subscription, was unveiled on the South Bank, next to the National's Theatre Square.

Awards and nominations

Theatre credits and filmography

See also


  1. ^ Brunskill, Ian (ed.) (2007) Great Lives: A Century in Obituaries, Times Books, p. 435.
  2. ^ "Olivier Theatre". National Theatre. Retrieved 25 September 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Coleman, Terry (2005). Olivier. New York: Henry Holt and Co.  
  4. ^ Tracy quoted in By Myself and Then Some by Lauren Bacall. Harper Paperbacks: 2006. pp. 214–15.
  5. ^ Gottfried, Martin (2003). Arthur Miller: His Life and Work. South Boston, MA: DaCapo Press. p. 275.  
  6. ^ Kustow, Michael (2005). Peter Brook: A Biography. New York, NY: St, Martin's Press. p. 74.  
  7. ^ Vermilye, Jerry (2000). The Complete Films of Laurence Olivier. New York, NY: Citadel. p. 271.  
  8. ^ Drayton, Joanne (2008). Ngaio Marsh Her Life in Crime. Harper.  
  9. ^ Roy Plomley (25 August 1979). "Desert Island Discs".  
  10. ^ Walker, Andrew (22 May 2007). "The great pretender". BBC. Retrieved 21 January 2011. 
  11. ^ a b "Picks and Pans: Pages; Midnight Sweets". People Magazine. Retrieved 25 April 2012. 
  12. ^ Olivier, Laurence (1985). Confessions of an Actor: An Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster.  
  13. ^ Coleman, Olivier, p. 13
  14. ^
  15. ^ "All Saints Margaret Street: Music". London: All Saints Church. Retrieved 26 January 2010. 
  16. ^ a b  
  17. ^  
  18. ^ a b Coleman, Olivier, p. 21.
  19. ^ a b c Agee, James. "Masterpiece". James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism New York: Library of America, 2005; ISBN 1-931082-82-0. pp 412– 20. A review of Henry V, first published in Time (8 April 1946) and from there reprinted within Agee on Film, which is reprinted in toto within the newer book. The second part of this article is reproduced as Laurence Olivier Biography.
  20. ^ Coleman, Olivier, pp. 64, 65
  21. ^ Olivier, Laurence (1986). On Acting. New York: Simon and Schuster.  
  22. ^ Croall, Jonathan (2002). Gielgud: A Theatrical Life 1904–2000. Continuum.  
  23. ^ Tad Mosel, "Leading Lady: The World and Theatre of Katharine Cornell," Little, Brown & Co., Boston (1978)
  24. ^ Coleman, pp. 76–77, 90, 94–95.
  25. ^ Coleman, pp. 97–98.
  26. ^ Holden pp 162–163
  27. ^ Coleman, Olivier, p. 133
  28. ^ Edwards, p 127
  29. ^ Holden, pp 189–190.
  30. ^ Brian McFarlane (ed.) The Encyclopedia of British Film, London: BFI/Methuen, 2003, p.370
  31. ^ (1941) – Original Print Information"That Hamilton Woman'',
  32. ^ Janet Moat (1941)"That Hamilton Woman", BFI screenonline
  33. ^ The London Gazette: no. 35254. p. 4863. 22 August 1941. Retrieved 25 March 2008.
  34. ^ Chapman, James. reconsidered."The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp". The Powell & Pressburger Pages. Retrieved 4 February 2012. 
  35. ^ Holden, pp. 221–222.
  36. ^ Payn, Graham (1982). The Noel Coward Diaries. Boston, MA: Little Brown & Co. p. 24.  
  37. ^  
  38. ^ Munn, Michael (2007). Lord Larry: the secret life of Laurence Olivier. London: Anova Books. p. 115.  
  39. ^ Hastings, Chris (15 July 2007). "Laurence Olivier, Secret Agent". The Daily Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Limited. Retrieved 14 December 2008. 
  40. ^ Holden, p. 295
  41. ^ Richard Brooks (7 August 2005). "Olivier Worn Out by Love and Lust of Vivien Leigh".  
  42. ^ Coleman, pp. 227–231
  43. ^ Edwards, pp. 196–197
  44. ^ Coleman, pp. 254–263.
  45. ^ a b Frank Miller (1944)"Henry V", Turner Classic Movies
  46. ^ Coleman, Olivier, 169
  47. ^ Coleman, pp. 266–267.
  48. ^ Thornton, Michael. "She's seduced a galaxy of stars, now she has an out-of-this-world role ... as Doctor Who's mum". Daily Mail. Retrieved 15 March 2012. 
  49. ^ Edwards, pp 219–234 and 239
  50. ^ Olivier, Laurence (1982). Confessions of an Actor. Simon and Schuster. p. 174.  
  51. ^ a b Laurence Olivier profile at
  52. ^  
  53. ^ "Past Events". National Theatre. Retrieved 5 March 2010. 
  54. ^ For the Shakespeare see Michael Brooke (1974)"The Merchant of Venice", BFI Screenonline. This was produced by ATV in the UK, but first screened by the American Broadcasting Company in 1973. See Terry Coleman Olivier: The Authorised Biography, London, Bloomsbury, 2005, p.592. On 7 October according to IMDb. For O'Neill's play see Long Day's Journey into Night, BFI Film Forever and Coleman, p.592
  55. ^ Kastan, David Scott (2006). The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, Volume 1; "The National Theatre". New York: Oxford University Press. p. 83.  
  56. ^ Gielgud: A theatrical Life by Jonathan Croall
  57. ^ Adler, Tim (2008). Hollywood and the Mob. London: Bloomsbury. p. 190.  
  58. ^ Coleman, Olivier, 490
  59. ^ Lewis, Roger, The Real Life of Olivier, 75
  60. ^ Theatre programme for Happy Birthday, Sir Larry, dated 31 May 1987
  61. ^ Coleman, Olivier, 468.
  62. ^  
  63. ^ Stanton, Sarah; Banham, Martin (1996). Cambridge paperback guide to theatre. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 273.  
  64. ^ Spoto, Donald (1992). Laurence Olivier. Scranton, PA: Harper Collins.  
  65. ^ Christiansen, Rupert (13 October 2001). "Tending the sacred flame".  
  66. ^ My Father Laurence review of Tarquin Olivier's book,
  67. ^ Plowright, p. 130
  68. ^ a b Hastings, Chris (27 August 2006). "'If a man is touched by genius, he doesn't lead an ordinary life'". The Daily Telegraph. UK. Retrieved 17 July 2011. 
  69. ^ Sue Lawley (27 August 2006). "Desert Island Discs".  
  70. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37977. pp. 2571–2572. 6 June 1947. Retrieved 18 December 2007.
  71. ^ The London Gazette: no. 38013. p. 3206. 11 July 1947.
  72. ^ Leventhal, Fred M. (2002). Twentieth-Century Britain. Peter Lang Publishing. p. 416.  
  73. ^ Cottrell, John (1975). Laurence Olivier. New York: Prentice-Hall. p. 397.  
  74. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 45117. p. 6365. 5 June 1970. Retrieved 18 December 2007.
  75. ^ The London Gazette: no. 45319. p. 2001. 9 March 1971. Retrieved 23 September 2011.
  76. ^ The London Gazette: no. 48524. p. 2145. 13 February 1981. Retrieved 18 December 2007.
  77. ^ Coleman, Terry (2005). Olivier. Bloomsbury. p. 457. 
  78. ^ "Theater Hall of Fame Enshrines 51 Artists". New York Times. 
  79. ^ Laurence Oliver Celebratory Performance Programme, National Theatre (Sunday, 23 September 2007)

Works cited

Further reading

  • Hall, Lyn, editor (1989). Olivier at Work: The National Years. Nick Hern Books/National Theatre. ISBN 1-85459-037-5

External links

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