Sir Laurence Olivier, Stage and Screen Actor

Considered by many to be the greatest actor of the 20th century, Laurence Olivier changed the landscape of theater and film in his time, making Shakespeare exciting and accessible and bringing an array of memorable screen personas to life.

Laurence Olivier’s Early Days

Laurence Kerr Olivier was born May 22, 1907, in Dorking, England, the youngest of three children in a strict religious household run by his Anglican priest father, Gerard. Kim, as his family called him, showed a precocious performing ability early on in school productions, but was devastated by his mother Agnes’s death when he was 12. It was his father who ultimately insisted he pursue a career in acting.

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Olivier’s Stage and Film Career

Olivier became a professional stage actor in the mid-1920s and soon made a name for himself as a gifted Shakespearean actor. He began appearing in films in the 1930s, and established himself as an international heartthrob in as romantic antihero Heathcliff in 1939’s “Wuthering Heights.”

However, Olivier felt that cinema was beneath him and turned down several offers to direct and star in Shakespearean films; it wasn’t until 1944 that he made his directorial debut in “Henry V.”

The film “defied expectations both in terms of what could be done with Shakespeare translated into cinematic form, and its box office appeal, in the process creating a film that epitomised Britain at the end of World War II,” writes Michael Brooke of the British Film Institute.

Four years later, Olivier directed and starred in what is likely his most memorable film, “Hamlet.” The film won the Academy Award for best picture and Olivier himself was named best actor. He would direct one other Shakespearean film, “Richard III,” in 1955; the trio of films established Olivier as “cinema’s first great Shakespearean artist,” writes Brooke.

Olivier’s cinematic popularity faded beginning in the 1950s as “Marlon Brando’s new, more natural style made Olivier and his ‘craft’ seem old-fashioned,” writes NPR. Nevertheless, Olivier produced memorable performances, starring as failing Vaudeville actor Archie Rice in 1960’s “The Entertainer” and playing small character roles in films such as “Sleuth” and “Marathon Man.”

Olivier dedicated his life to the stage, operating St. James’ Theatre from 1950 to 1957, and becoming the first artistic director of the National Theatre company in 1962. At London’s Old Vic theater, where he had spent his early years as an actor, Oliver directed and starred in many of the National Theatre’s most successful plays.

Offstage, he was married three times: to Jill Esmond, Vivien Leigh and Jill Plowman.

The Man and His Work

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Olivier received many honors in his lifetime; in addition to Oscars, Golden Globes and a host of other awards, Olivier was knighted in 1947 and made baron in 1970.

In 1971, he took his seat for the first time in the House of Lords to address the founding of the National Theatre. He declared, “I believe in the theatre: I believe in it as the first glamourizer of thought. It restores dramatic dynamics and their relationships to life size. I believe that in a great city, or even in a small city or a village, a great theatre is the outward and visible sign of an inward and probable culture.”

When he died on July 11, 1989, in West Sussex, England, surrounded by his children and actress wife Joan Plowright, many felt that the 20th century’s leading acting light had gone out.

Writing on the 100th anniversary of his birth, Michael Billington of The Guardian pronounced, “In some ways, Olivier belongs to a distant age: a time when one actor could be seen as head of the profession and when acting itself was a form of Protean disguise…But Olivier was infinitely more than a throwback to a lost time. I’d say that he revolutionised the art of acting, and that today’s performers are his legatees.”