Skip to main content
Select Source:

Olivier, (Lord) Laurence

OLIVIER, (Lord) Laurence


Nationality: British. Born: Laurence Kerr Olivier in Dorking, Surrey, 22 May 1907. Education: Attended Church of All Saints Choir School, London; St. Edward's School, Oxford, 1921–24; Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art, London. Family: Married 1) the actress Jill Esmond, 1930 (divorced 1940), son: Tarquin; 2) the actress Vivien Leigh, 1940 (divorced 1960); 3) the actress Joan Plowright, 1961, son: Richard, daughters: Tamsin and Julie. Career: 1925—assistant stage manager and understudy, St. Christopher Theatre, Letchworth; stage debut in Macbeth; 1926–28—member of Birmingham Repertory Company; 1930—film debut in Too Many Crooks; 1941–44—served in the Fleet Air Arm, mainly in entertainment capacity; 1944–49—director of the Old Vic company; 1945—directed first film, Henry V; 1951—co-starred with Vivien Leigh in Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra on alternate nights, in London and New York; 1961—in TV mini-series The Power and the Glory; 1962–65—director of Chichester Festival Theatre; 1965–73—director of the emerging National Theatre (one of the auditoria in the new building is named the Olivier Theatre); 1976—produced a series of plays for Granada Television; in TV mini-series Jesus of Nazareth, 1977, BridesheadRevisited, 1981, The Last Days of Pompeii, 1984, Peter the Great, 1986. Awards: Special Academy Award, and Best Actor, New York Film Critics, for Henry V, 1946; Best Actor Academy Award, and Best Actor, New York Film Critics, for Hamlet, 1948; Best British Actor, British Academy, for Richard III, 1955; Best Supporting Actor, British Academy, for Oh! What a Lovely War, 1969; Best Actor, New York Film Critics, for Sleuth, 1972; Special Academy Award, "for the full body of his work, for the unique achievements of his entire career and his lifetime contribution to the art of film," 1978. Knighted, 1947; made Baron Olivier of Brighton (the first actor to be given this distinction), 1970; Honorary Doctorates from Universities of Oxford, 1957, Edinburgh, 1964, London, 1968, Manchester, 1969, and Sussex, 1978. Died: In Steyning, Sussex, England, 11 July 1989.

Films as Actor:

1930

Too Many Crooks (G. King) (as the Man); The Temporary Widow (Murder for Sale) (Ucicky) (as Peter Billie)

1931

Friends and Lovers (Schertzinger) (as Lt. Nichols); Potiphar's Wife (Her Strange Desire) (Elvey) (as Straker); The Yellow Ticket (The Yellow Passport) (Walsh) (as Julian Rolphe)

1932

Westward Passage (Milton) (as Nick Allen)

1933

No Funny Business (Stafford) (as Clive Dering); Perfect Understanding (Gardner) (as Nicholas Randall)

1935

Moscow Nights (I Stand Condemned) (Asquith) (as Captain Ignatoff)

1936

As You Like It (Czinner) (as Orlando); Conquest of the Air (Korda) (as Vincent Lunardi); Fire over England (William K. Howard) (as Michael Ingolby)

1937

21 Days (Twenty-One Days Together; The First and the Last) (Dean) (as Larry Durant)

1938

The Divorce of Lady X (Whelan) (as Logan)

1939

Wuthering Heights (Wyler) (as Heathcliff); Q Planes (Clouds over Europe) (Wheelan) (as Tony McVane)

1940

Pride and Prejudice (Leonard) (as Mr. Darcy); Rebecca (Hitchcock) (as Maxim de Winter)

1941

That Hamilton Woman (Lady Hamilton) (Korda) (as Admiral Lord Nelson); 49th Parallel (The Invaders) (Powell) (as Johnnie); Words for Battle (Jennings) (as commentator)

1943

The Demi-Paradise (Adventure for Two) (Asquith) (as Ivan Kouznetsoff)

1944

The Volunteer (Powell and Pressburger—doc)

1951

The Magic Box (Boulting) (as PC 94 B); Carrie (Wyler) (as George Hurstwood)

1959

The Devil's Disciple (Hamilton) (as General "Gentleman Johnnie" Burgoyne)

1960

Spartacus (Kubrick) (as Crassus); The Entertainer (Richardson) (as Archie Rice)

1962

Term of Trial (Glenville) (as Graham Weir)

1965

Bunny Lake Is Missing (Preminger) (as Supt. Newhouse)

1966

Othello (Burge) (title role); Khartoum (Dearden) (as the Mahdi)

1968

The Shoes of the Fisherman (Anderson) (as Premier Kamenev); Romeo and Juliet (Zeffirelli) (as speaker of the Prologue and the Epilogue)

1969

The Dance of Death (Giles) (as army captain); Battle of Britain (Hamilton) (as Sir Hugh Dowding); Oh! What a Lovely War (Attenborough) (as Sir John French)

1970

David Copperfield (Delbert Mann—for TV) (as Mr. Creakle)

1971

Nicholas and Alexandra (Schaffner) (as Prime Minister Witte)

1972

Sleuth (Mankiewicz) (as Andrew Wyke)

1973

Lady Caroline Lamb (Bolt) (as Duke of Wellington); Long Day's Journey into Night (Blakemore and Wood—for TV) (as James Tyrone); The Merchant of Venice (Miller and Sichel—for TV) (as Shylock)

1975

Love among the Ruins (Cukor—for TV) (as Sir Arthur Granville-Jones)

1976

Marathon Man (Schlesinger) (as Szell); The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (Ross) (as Professor Moriarty); Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Moore—for TV) (as Big Daddy)

1977

Come Back, Little Sheba (Narizzano—for TV) (as Doc); A Bridge Too Far (Attenborough) (as Dr. Spaander)

1978

The Betsy (Petrie) (as Loren Hardeman Sr.); The Boys from Brazil (Schaffner) (as Ezra Lieberman)

1979

A Little Romance (Hill) (as Julius); Dracula (Badham) (as Van Helsing)

1980

The Jazz Singer (Fleischer) (as Cantor Rabinovitch)

1981

Inchon (Terence Young) (as Gen. MacArthur); Clash of the Titans (Desmond Davis) (as Zeus)

1982

A Voyage Round My Father (Rakoff—for TV) (as Father)

1983

Wagner (Palmer—for TV) (as Pfeufer); A Talent for Murder (Rakoff—for TV); Mister Halpren and Mister Johnson (Rakoff—for TV) (as Mr. Halpren); King Lear (Elliott—for TV) (title role)

1984

The Jigsaw Man (Terence Young) (as Adm. Sir Gerald Scaith); The Bounty (Donaldson) (as Adm. Hood); Ebony Tower (Knights—for TV)

1985

Wild Geese II (Hunt) (as Rudolf Hess)

1986

Lost Empires (Grine—for TV); Directed by William Wyler (Slesin—doc) (as himself)

1989

War Requiem (Jarman) (as Old Soldier)

Films as Actor and Director:

1945

Henry V (title role, + pr)

1948

Hamlet (title role, + pr)

1953

The Beggar's Opera (as MacHeath, pr only)

1955

Richard III (title role, + pr)

1957

The Prince and the Showgirl (as Grand Duke Charles, + pr)

1970

The Three Sisters (released in U.S. in 1974) (as Dr. Chebutikin)

Publications


By OLIVIER: books—

Five Seasons of the Old Vic Theatre Company, with Michel Saint-Denis, London, 1950.

Confessions of an Actor, London, 1982.

On Acting, London, 1986.


By OLIVIER: article—

"The Entertainer," in American Film (New York), November 1986.

On OLIVIER: books—

Barker, Felix, The Oliviers, Philadelphia, 1953.

Lunari, Gigi, Laurence Olivier, Bologna, 1959.

Whitehead, Peter, and Robin Bean, Olivier—Shakespeare, London, 1966.

Darlington, W. A., Laurence Olivier, London, 1968.

Fairweather, Virginia, Cry God for Larry, London, 1969.

Memo from: David O. Selznick, edited by Rudy Behlmer, New York, 1972.

Laurence Olivier, edited by Logan Gourlay, London, 1973.

Cottrell, John, Laurence Olivier, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1975.

Lasky, Jesse Jr., with Pat Silver, Love Scene: The Story of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, New York, 1978.

Olivier: The Films and Faces of Laurence Olivier, edited by Margaret Morley, Godalming, 1978.

Hirsch, Foster, Laurence Olivier, Boston, 1979; as Laurence Olivier on Screen, New York, 1984.

Daniels, Robert, Laurence Olivier: Theatre and Cinema, London, 1980.

Kiernan, Thomas, Sir Larry: The Life of Laurence Olivier, New York, 1981.

Lefevre, Raymond, Laurence Olivier, Paris, 1981.

Barker, Felix, Laurence Olivier: A Critical Study, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, 1984.

Bragg, Melvyn, Laurence Olivier, London, 1984; rev. ed., 1989.

O'Connor, Garry, Darlings of the Gods: One Year in the Lives of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, London, 1984.

Silviria, Dale, Laurence Olivier and the Art of Filmmaking, Rutherford, New Jersey, 1985.

Tanitch, Robert, Olivier: The Complete Career, London, 1985.

Holden, Anthony, Olivier, London, 1988.

Spoto, Donald, Laurence Olivier: A Biography, New York, 1991.

Olivier, Tarquin, My Father Laurence Olivier, London, 1992.

Vermilye, Jerry, The Complete Films of Laurence Oliver, 1992.

Olivier, Richard, Melting the Stone: A Journey Around My Father, Woodstock, 1995.

Granger, Derek, Laurence Olivier: The Life of an Actor: The Authorized Biography, New York, 1999.

Lewis, Roger, The Real Life of Laurence Olivier, New York, 1999.


On OLIVIER: articles—

McVay, Douglas, "Hamlet to Clown," in Films and Filming (London), April 1962.

Brown, Constance, "Olivier's Richard III: A Reevaluation," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1967.

Hart, Henry, "Laurence Olivier," in Films in Review (New York), December 1967.

Coleman, Terry, "Olivier Now," in Show (Hollywood), June 1970.

Eyles, Allen, "Sir Laurence Olivier," in Focus on Film (London), Spring 1973.

Keleher, L., "Laurence Olivier: Getting on with It," in Take One (Montreal), July 1978.

Current Biography 1979, New York, 1979.

Bodeen, DeWitt, "Laurence Olivier: The Man and His Times," in Films in Review (New York), December 1979.

McDonald, N., "The Relationship Between Shakespeare's Stagecraft and Modern Film Technique (with Special Reference to the Films of Laurence Olivier)," in Australian Journal of Screen Theory (Kensington, New South Wales), no. 7, 1980.

Drew, Bernard, "Laurence Olivier," in The Movie Star, edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.

Thomson, David, "Our Lord of Danger," in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1983.

Taylor, John Russell, "Olivier at Eighty," in Films and Filming (London), May 1987.

Donaldson, P., "Olivier, Hamlet and Freud," in Cinema Journal (Champaign, Illinois), Summer 1987.

Obituary in Variety (New York), 12 July 1989.

Schickel, Richard, obituary in Film Comment (New York), September/October 1989.

Edwards, Anne, "Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier: Gone With the Wind and Wuthering Heights Stars in England," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), April 1992.

Norman, Barry, in Radio Times (London), 16 January 1993.

Film Dope (Nottingham), June 1993.

Landrot, Marine, "Sir Hamlet," in Télérama (Paris), 9 March 1994.

Cardiff, J., "Magic Marilyn," in Eyepiece (Greenford), no. 4, 1997.


* * *

"I had the voice" said John Gielgud morosely, "but Larry had the legs." And Olivier knew it. The most starstruck and showy of the theatrical knights, he always flirted with the movies both as performer and director. Olivier the actor/producer who relished creating wild leaps and intricate fights for his plays, and took a Lon Chaney delight in mime, accent, and character makeup, was made for films. But the more thoughtful performer, such as his James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night, saw the threat of popular success. He admits in his autobiography that, unlike stage work, "films and television do not usually tax one's energies beyond their normal capacities," yet it is evident that Olivier gave to most of them the benefit of a meticulous technique.

Hollywood offered him stardom in his days as a jeune premier, Goldwyn casting him as a lumpen Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and MGM planning an appearance opposite Garbo in Queen Christina. This might have tipped Olivier inescapably toward a movie career, but Garbo rejected him in favor of old lover and slipping star John Gilbert, and thereafter, perhaps pettishly, he elected for character roles. His languid Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Maxim de Winter in Rebecca, Nelson in Korda's American-made That Hamilton Woman and Hurstwood, the hotel manager ruined by love in Carrie are performances by an actor, not the appearances of a star.

That Olivier took film playing less seriously after his Hollywood days is evident in two wartime propagandist roles, a Russian in The Demi-Paradise and a French-Canadian trapper in 49th Parallel. Both embarrassingly dated now, they show a boyish glee in accent and disguise at the expense of character.

Touring with Vivien Leigh as an actor/manager in the 1930s and 1940s encouraged Olivier to embark on his first films as director/star. Henry V (made at government request to bolster morale), Hamlet, and Richard III are inspired popularizations, using only half the text but conveying the essence of Shakespeare with a combination of film production values and visual flair.

Olivier's adaptation of Henry V is highly praised by Andre Bazin. He describes its success in solving the dialectic between cinematic realism and theatrical convention: "The beginning traveling shot is to plunge us into the theater, to the courtyard of an Elizabethan inn. . . . [It] is not with the play Henry V that the film is immediately and directly concerned, but with the performance of Henry V."

As an accomplished stage actor, his endeavor in film can thus be seen as one that pertains to a language specific to cinema as well as the immediacy of theatricality.

Richard III is Olivier's triumph as director/star, a performance straight out of Lon Chaney's The Penalty, dignified by language and stagecraft. Olivier had discovered in his famous stage Coriolanus that sexual magnetism could make even evil glamorous, and his Richard explored that insight in rich detail. The realization seemed to alarm him. It was years before he dared play another outright monster.

His films of the 1950s and 1960s mostly recreated his stage hits The Entertainer, Othello, The Three Sisters, and The Dance of Death, thought he did direct and star opposite Marilyn Monroe in the unsuccessful The Prince and the Showgirl, and appeared in some cameos chosen from the range of international film and television productions that could always use an imposing figure with a commanding voice. His Mahdi in Khartoum used the makeup and mime from Othello, and while the generals, air vice marshals, Russian counts, and epicene Roman commanders he played in everything from Spartacus to The Battle of Britain occasionally seemed taken off the peg at some theatrical supplier, they are never less than memorable.

He returned to more abrasive material as declining health accentuated his hawkish profile and raised his voice to a grating rasp. A querulous Moriarty in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman in The Boys from Brazil, and the monster of Marathon Man are all effective creations by a man who had little interest in the cinema, but who used it, like the piano learned in childhood, to pick out a few tunes when the mood took him. The craftsmanship, professionalism, practical intelligence and the highest seriousness that Richard Schickel profoundly admires and fondly remembers can be best summed up by the advice Olivier offered Dustin Hoffman during the making of Marathon Man:

"Hoffman kept himself awake for two days so that he could look—and above all, feel—properly haggard for one of his scenes with Olivier. 'You should learn to act, my dear boy,' his Lordship murmured. 'Then you wouldn't have to put yourself through this sort of thing."'

—John Baxter, updated by Guo-Juin Hong

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Olivier, (Lord) Laurence." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Olivier, (Lord) Laurence." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/olivier-lord-laurence

"Olivier, (Lord) Laurence." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/olivier-lord-laurence

Laurence Olivier

Laurence Olivier

Internationally acclaimed for his acting and directing, Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) was often regarded as the supreme actor of his generation.

The son of a clergyman, Laurence Olivier was born in Dorking, Surrey, England. His first appearances on the stage were in schoolboy productions of Shakespeare. He was even invited to present a special matinee of The Taming of the Shrew at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1922. Olivier was cast as Katharina.

In preparation for a professional career in acting, Olivier studied at the Central School in London. He found his first paying jobs in the theater during term holidays, working as an assistant stage manager and playing small roles. After a year of experience at various theaters, Olivier joined the Birmingham Repertory Company in 1926, appearing in several parts which included Tony Lumpkin in Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer (1927) and Malcolm in a modern dress production of Macbeth (1928). At the age of 20 he also played the title role in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya (1927).

He was the first to play Captain Stanhope in R. C. Sherriff's Journey's End when it tried out in 1928. To this day Journey's Endis hailed as one of the greatest plays about the horrors of war. The following year he made his New York debut in Frank Vosper's Murder on the Second Floor and appeared in his first film, The Temporary Widow. Playing Victor in Noel Coward's Private Lives (1930) brought Olivier his first real taste of commercial success, and soon after he made his Hollywood screen debut. However, his early film career was fraught with disappointments, culminating in Greta Garbo's refusal to accept him as her leading man in Queen Christina.

Back in England in 1934 Olivier received positive notices for his portrayals of Bothwell in Gordon Daviot's Queen of Scots and of Anthony Cavendish in George S. Kaufman's Theatre Royal. He next tackled his first major Shakespearean roles on the professional stage, alternating Romeo and Mercutio with John Gielgud at the New Theatre (1935). The following year Olivier starred in his first Shakespearean film as Orlando in As You Like It. Although disappointed with the film, he used the actors and composer William Walton for future Shakespeare productions. In 1937 he joined London's Old Vic Company for a season, playing the title roles in Hamlet (a production later presented at Elsinore), Henry V, and Macbeth, and Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night. The following season he returned to play Iago opposite Ralph Richardson's Othello and Caius Marcius in Coriolanus. Having demonstrated his range, versatility, and interpretative intelligence in Shakespeare's repertoire, Olivier was now recognized as a stage actor of the first rank. Three major screen roles, in Wuthering Heights (1939, for which he received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor)) and in Rebecca (1940, and a second Academy Award nomination) and Pride and Prejudice (also 1940), subsequently established his film career. 1940 also saw social successes for Olivier as he and Academy Award-winner, Vivien Leigh, exchanged wedding vows. In 1941 Olivier and Leigh played the tragic lovers in Alexander Korda's That Hamilton Woman, regarded as one of the great romantic films of the era.

During World War II Olivier served with the Fleet Air Arm and was released twice to act in British war films. In 1943-1944 he made a film adaptation of Henry V, initially conceived as a propaganda project for the war effort. He won a special Academy Award for his triple triumph as director, producer, and star of the film.

Olivier was discharged from the armed service to join the Old Vic's artistic management in rebuilding the company's reputation and solvency after the lean war years. He remained with the company until 1949. Some of his most memorable roles during this time were Sergius in Shaw's Arms and the Man (1944), Astrov in Uncle Vanya (1945), and the title roles in Richard III (1945) and King Lear (1946), the latter of which he also directed. Perhaps his most demanding performance was for the double bill in which he appeared in the title role of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and as Mr. Puff in Sheridan's The Critic (1945). Returning to film direction in 1948 with his famous black-and-white Hamlet, Olivier garnered an Oscar for his portrayal of the title role and the film won the best picture Academy Award. It also earned Olivier a knighthood from King George VI, of England.

In 1951, in London and New York, he appeared opposite Vivien Leigh in Antony and Cleopatra and Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, playing the male title role in both productions. Subsequent stage roles included the Grand Duke in Terence Rattigan's The Sleeping Prince (1955), the title roles in Macbeth and Titus Andronicus during the 1954-1955 season at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, and the title role in Coriolanus (1959), again at Stratford. He scored his first outstanding success in a modern role as the second-rate music hall comedian Archie Rice in John Osborne's The Entertainer (1957), repeating the part in the 1959 film version. He also directed and starred in films of Richard III (1955) and The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), the latter opposite Marilyn Monroe. He played Berenger in Ionesco's Rhinoceros (1960) in London, and in New York played first the title role (1960) and then Henry II (1961) in Anouilh's Becket. Later that same year he was appointed the first director of the Chichester Festival Theatre. Uncle Vanya, with Olivier as Astrov and his third wife Joan Plowright as Sonya, proved to be a huge success for the company's opening 1962 season.

Olivier was named the first director of the state-subsidized National Theatre. He held the position until 1973. For the National's opening 1963-1964 season Olivier directed Hamlet and appeared as Astrov in Uncle Vanya (which he also directed) and as Brazen in Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer. He also offered a controversial but memorable interpretation of Othello. Among his important roles in later seasons were Tattle in Congreve's Love for Love (1965), Edgar in Strindberg's The Dance of Death (1967), Shylock in a Victorian production of The Merchant of Venice (1970), and James Tyrone in O'Neill's A Long Day's Journey into Night (1971). His most significant production as director was Chekhov's The Three Sisters in 1968. For the 1970 film of the production he again directed and also played Chebutikin. In 1970 Olivier was elevated to the peerage as Lord Olivier of Brighton—becoming the first actor to achieve such a status. During his National tenure he appeared in several other filmed stage productions, and his commercial films included Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) and Sleuth (1972). After leaving the National, Olivier concentrated on screen work. His films of this later period included Marathon Man (1976), A Bridge Too Far (1977), A Little Romance (1979), and The Jazz Singer (1981).

Until 1987 Olivier was prominent as a film and television virtuoso, making 29 movies in 13 years. During this span he received two more Academy Award nominations, becoming the most nominated actor in history. He also won an Emmy for Brideshead Revisited. In 1982 he wrote his autobiography Confessions of an Actor and another book, On Acting in 1986. In 1987, on his eightieth birthday, he announced to the world his retirement from motion pictures, but promised to remain active in television. On July 11, 1989, Olivier succumbed to complications from a muscle disorder.

Further Reading

Olivier's autobiography is entitled Confessions of an Actor (1982). His On Acting (1986) provides a tour through his many starring roles. A biography of Olivier's career and life with Vivien Leigh is Felix Barker's The Oliviers (1953). Another biography is Foster Hirsch, Laurence Olivier (1979), which places particular emphasis on Olivier's early film roles. His involvement with the creation of the Chichester Festival Theatre and with the inception of the National Theatre is charted in Virginia Fairweather, Olivier: An Informal Portrait (1969). Interviews with actors, directors, and playwrights who have worked with Olivier are collected in Logan Gourlay, editor, Olivier (1973). John Cotrell's Laurence Olivier (1975) is another exceptional biography of the actor. Hamlet, by Margaret Morley, details Olivier's role in the award-winning production, while Anne Edwards' Vivien Leigh provides an excellent biography of the well-known actress, and gives some indication as to what it was like to be a part of Olivier's life. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Laurence Olivier." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Laurence Olivier." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/laurence-olivier

"Laurence Olivier." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/laurence-olivier

Olivier, Laurence

Laurence Olivier

Born: May 22, 1907
Dorking, England
Died: July 11, 1989
Amhurst, England

English actor and director

Laurence Olivier, internationally popular for his acting and directing, was often regarded as one of the supreme actors of his generation.

Early start at performing

Laurence Olivier was born on May 22, 1907, in Dorking, Surrey, England, the third child of Gerard Kerr Olivier, a minister, and Agnes Crookenden. As a child Olivier imitated the forceful sermons he saw his father give. His mother, whom he was close to, encouraged him to learn and recite dramatic speeches from plays instead. His first appearances on the stage were in schoolboy productions of plays by William Shakespeare (15641616). Olivier was crushed by the sudden death of his mother in 1920, and he used acting to help deal with his pain. When his school, St. Edward's in Oxford, England, was invited to put on a performance of The Taming of the Shrew at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, in 1922, Olivier's performance as Katharina attracted considerable attention.

To prepare for a career in acting, Olivier studied at the Central School in London, England. He found his first paying jobs in the theater during term holidays, working as an assistant stage manager and playing small roles. After a year of experience at various theaters, Olivier joined the Birmingham Repertory Company in 1926, appearing in She Stoops to Conquer (1927) and a modern dress production of Macbeth (1928). At the age of twenty he also played the title role in Anton Chekhov's (18601904) Uncle Vanya (1927).

First commercial success

In 1928 Olivier had a part in the first production of Journey's End, considered one of the greatest plays ever about the horrors of war. In 1929 he made his first New York City appearance in Murder on the Second Floor and also worked in his first film, The Temporary Widow. His role in Private Lives (1930) brought him his first real commercial success, and soon after he made his first appearance in a movie made in Hollywood, California. However, his early film career was filled with disappointments, including Greta Garbo's (19051990) refusal to accept him as her leading man in Queen Christina.

Back in England in 1934 Olivier received positive reviews for his performances in Queen of Scots and Theatre Royal. He next tackled his first major Shakespearean roles on the professional stage, alternating the parts of Romeo and Mercutio with John Gielgud (19042000) at the New Theatre (1935). The following year Olivier starred in his first Shakespearean film, As You Like It. Although disappointed with the film, he used the actors and composer William Walton for future Shakespeare productions. In 1937 he joined London's Old Vic Company for a season, playing in Hamlet, Henry V, Macbeth, and Twelfth Night. Having demonstrated his range and skill in interpreting Shakespeare's works, Olivier was now recognized as a top-notch stage actor.

Film triumphs

Three major screen roles, in Wuthering Heights (1939, for which he was nominated, or put forward for consideration, for an Academy Award for Best Actor), Rebecca (1940, a second Academy Award nomination), and Pride and Prejudice (also 1940), firmly established Olivier's film career. Also in 1940 Olivier and Academy Award winner Vivien Leigh (19131967) were married. In 1941 Olivier and Leigh played the tragic lovers in That Hamilton Woman, regarded as one of the great romantic films of the era.

During World War II (193945; a war fought between the Axis powers: Germany, Italy, and Japanand the Allies: England, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States) Olivier served with the Fleet Air Arm and was released twice to act in British war films. In 1943 and 1944 he appeared in a film version of Henry V, originally planned as a propaganda project (the spreading of ideas or information to help a cause) for the British war effort. He won a special Academy Award for his triple triumph as director, producer, and star of the film.

Postwar work

Olivier was discharged from the service to join the Old Vic's management in rebuilding the company after the difficult war years. He remained with the company until 1949. Some of his most memorable roles during this time were in Arms and the Man (1944) and Uncle Vanya (1945); he also played the title roles in Richard III (1945) and King Lear (1946), the latter of which he also directed. Perhaps his most demanding performance was for the double bill in which he appeared in Oedipus Rex and The Critic (1945). Returning to film direction in 1948 with his famous black-and-white version of Hamlet, Olivier won an Academy Award for best actor, and the film won the award for best picture. Olivier was also knighted by King George VI (18951952) of England.

In 1951 Olivier appeared in Antony and Cleopatra and Caesar and Cleopatra in both London and New York City. He also performed in The Sleeping Prince (1955), Macbeth, and Titus Andronicus during the 1954 and 1955 seasons at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, and in Coriolanus (1959), again at Stratford. He scored his first success in a modern role as the music hall comedian Archie Rice in The Entertainer (1957), repeating the part in the 1959 film version. He also directed and starred in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) opposite Marilyn Monroe (19261962). In 1961 he was appointed the first director of the Chichester Festival Theatre. Uncle Vanya, starring Olivier and his third wife Joan Plowright (1929), proved to be a huge success for the company's opening 1962 season.

Later years

Olivier was then named the first director of the state-supported National Theatre, a position he held until 1973. For the National's opening 196364 season Olivier directed Hamlet and appeared in Uncle Vanya (which he also directed) and The Recruiting Officer. In later seasons he appeared in Love for Love (1965), The Dance of Death (1967), The Merchant of Venice (1970), and A Long Day's Journey into Night (1971). His most significant production as director was Chekhov's The Three Sisters in 1968. He also directed the 1970 film of the production. In 1970 Olivier was given the title Lord Olivier of Brightonbecoming the first actor to achieve such a rank. During his National years he appeared in several other filmed stage productions, and his commercial films included Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) and Sleuth (1972).

After leaving the National, Olivier appeared in twenty-nine films in thirteen years, including Marathon Man (1976), A Bridge Too Far (1977), A Little Romance (1979), and The Jazz Singer (1981). During this span he received two more Academy Award nominations, becoming the most nominated actor in history. In 1982 Olivier wrote his autobiography (the story of his own life) Confessions of an Actor; another book, On Acting, was published in 1986. In 1987 he announced to the world his retirement from motion pictures, but he promised to remain active in television. On July 11, 1989, Olivier died in Amhurst, England, of complications from a muscle disorder.

For More Information

Hirsch, Foster. Laurence Olivier. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979.

Holden, Anthony. Laurence Olivier. New York: Atheneum, 1988.

Lewis, Roger. The Real Life of Laurence Olivier. New York: Applause, 1997.

Olivier, Laurence. Confessions of an Actor: An Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.

Spoto, Donald. Laurence Olivier. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Olivier, Laurence." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Olivier, Laurence." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/olivier-laurence

"Olivier, Laurence." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/olivier-laurence

Olivier, Laurence Kerr, Baron Olivier of Brighton

Olivier, Laurence Kerr, Baron Olivier of Brighton (1907–89) English actor and director, the outstanding Shakespearean interpreter of his generation. He made his film debut in 1930, and established himself in films such as Wuthering Heights (1939) and Pride and Prejudice (1940). In 1944, Olivier and Ralph Richardson became directors of the Old Vic. He won a special Academy Award for his directorial debut, Henry V (1944). Olivier's second film, Hamlet (1948), earned him Oscars for best actor and best picture. He was director (1963–73) of the National Theatre of Great Britain. Olivier was the first actor to be made a life peer (1970). He was married to Jill Esmond (1930–40), Vivien Leigh (1940–61), and Joan Plowright (1961 until his death).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Olivier, Laurence Kerr, Baron Olivier of Brighton." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Olivier, Laurence Kerr, Baron Olivier of Brighton." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/olivier-laurence-kerr-baron-olivier-brighton

"Olivier, Laurence Kerr, Baron Olivier of Brighton." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/olivier-laurence-kerr-baron-olivier-brighton