Olivier, Laurence (1907-1989)

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Olivier, Laurence (1907-1989)

Hailed as the greatest actor of his time, Laurence Olivier reflected the twentieth century definition of the consummate actor. He starred in hundreds of roles on stage and on screen, was fundamental in establishing Great Britain's Royal National Theatre, and wrote one of acting's seminal texts On Acting. In addition, Olivier was a successful director, writer, and producer, credited as the first to bring Shakespeare to the silver screen. Olivier's persona on and off the stage led to his widespread acceptance as one of the finest actors and most popular personalities the world has known.

Laurence Kerr Olivier was born to a family of churchmen and schoolmasters in the town of Dorking, Surrey, England, his father being a parson. Much of his life would be shaped by the death of his mother, Agnes Louise Crookenden, who died of cancer in 1920. Olivier would later write of his mother, "I've been looking for her ever since." His father encouraged him to be an actor and by age 9 he was playing Brutus in Julius Caesar and Julia in Twelfth Night at All Saints School. He attended the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art in 1924. It was there that he began his passion for creating roles through the use of makeup. Olivier refuted method-acting techniques and preferred a character-driven acting style. "I discovered the protective shelter of nose-putty and enjoyed a pleasurable sense of relief and relaxation when some character part called for a sculptural addition to my face," he wrote in Confessions of an Actor, "affording me the relief of an alien character and enabling me to avoid anything so embarrassing as self-representation."

Olivier's professional stage acting career spanned 48 years, beginning with the Lena Ashwell Players in 1925 and concluding in 1973 at the Royal National Theatre. During that time he acted and directed many of the classics of the theatre. He was a member of Lena Ashwell Players (1925-26), Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company (1926-27), Old Vic Company (1937-49), and Director of the National Theatre Company (1962-73). His most memorable stage performance was in the National Theatre Company's 1964 production of Shakespeare's Othello. In his text, On Acting, he would write "I am Othello…. He belongs to no one else, he belongs to me. When I sigh, he sighs. When I laugh, he laughs. When I cry, he cries."

Olivier's first foray into film came in 1930, but his first major success was in William Wyler's Wuthering Heights in 1939. Despite his roles in popular films of the time, his greatest success was his film adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry V (1946) in which he was producer, director, and star. The success of the picture led to his Academy Award winning film Hamlet (1948) and Richard III (1955). As the first director/producer to successfully bring Shakespeare to the screen, Olivier re-introduced mainstream culture to the works of Shakespeare and led to a revitalization of the classics in the modern age. Olivier would act many more Shakespearean roles in film and television including Othello (1966) and King Lear (1983).

Olivier married three times: to actress Jill Esmond in 1930; to actress Vivien Leigh in 1940; and to actress Joan Plowright in 1961. He fathered two sons and two daughters. He would later say that Plowright filled the place left so long empty by the death of his mother. During the last years of his life Olivier would play roles that were considered beneath him and he was plagued by a series of painful illnesses. His health forced his retirement in 1986, yet he wrote two revealing books before his death: Confessions of an Actor (1982) and On Acting (1986). Olivier was buried in Westminster Abbey beside the Shakespeare Memorial and the graves of King Henry V and Henry Irving.

Few personalities have made an impression on the world as did that of Sir Laurence Olivier. He left an indelible mark on the world of theatre, film, and television to which many aspire. His legacy has inspired directors such as Franco Zefferelli and Kenneth Branagh to bring Shakespeare's plays to contemporary audiences. Perhaps Director Richard Eyre put it best when he said "we shall never see his like again."

—Michael Najjar

Further Reading:

Holden, Anthony. Olivier. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988.

Lewis, Roger. The Real Life of Laurence Olivier. London, Century, 1996.

Olivier, Laurence. Confessions of an Actor. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982.

——. On Acting. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986.

Olivier, Richard. Melting the Stone: A Journey Around My Father. Woodstock, Connecticut, Spring Publications, 1996.

Olivier, Richard, and Joan Olivier. Olivier at Work: The National Years. Edited by Lyn Haill. London, Nick Hern Books, 1989.

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Olivier, Laurence (1907-1989)

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