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 on Laurence Olivier
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.