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Laurence Olivier, Blessed by the Acting Gods

Updated on June 15, 2014

Genius of the Spoken Word

Laurence Olivier is an acting hero of mine, as you may guess from the title of this lens, and that is putting it mildly. It would be more accurate to say I am in awe of the man and of what he achieved. He was an English stage and movie actor, director, and producer, widely regarded as the greatest English-speaking actor of the twentieth century. In his his long and varied career he played over 120 stage roles and appeared in nearly sixty films. In addition, in the latter part of his career he transferred his talents to television, appearing in numerous successful TV movies and series.

Although based mainly in England he made numerous Hollywood films and was nominated for Academy Awards in the capacity of actor, producer or director, twelve times, winning twice, while also being honored with two special Oscars. In 1948, in 'Hamlet' he became the first person to direct himself to a Best Actor Oscar. In 1999, he was ranked by the American Film Institute as number fourteen in their list of the Greatest Male Stars of All Time. He was also awarded five Emmy awards from the nine nominations he received and he was a three-times Golden Globe and BAFTA winner.

After being knighted in 1947 he was made Baron Olivier in 1970, which allowed him to sit in the House of the Lords. In America, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed its own version of a knighthood by awarding him a special Oscar "for the full body of his work, the unique achievement of his entire career and his lifetime of contribution to the art of film."

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Early Days

Laurence Olivier was born Laurence Kerr Olivier on 22 May 1907 in Dorking, Surrey, in the south of England.

Aged 8

His father, Henry Arnold Olivier, was an Anglican cleric and Laurence and his elder brother and sister were raised in a strictly religious household. His mother died of a brain tumour aged 48 when he was 12, and it was his father, an enthusiastic theatre goer, who encouraged Laurence in his acting ambitions.

His first school was the choir school of All Saints', Margaret Street, London, where at the age of 9, he began a lifelong love of Shakespeare when he played Brutus in the school production of 'Julius Caesar'.

Aged 12, as a matador

He continued his education at St Edward's School, Oxford where he again played Shakespearean roles in school productions. So good was his portrayal of Puck in 'A Midsummer's Night Dream' that he in 1924, aged 17, he took his father's advice to enrol at the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Arts in London.

Whilst studying there Olivier made his professional acting debut in 1924 in 'The Suliot Officer', and as a stage manager and understudy in "Through the Crack". After graduating in 1926 he joined the Birmingham Repertory Company and within a year, at the age of 20, he was playing leads.

1930, Marrige to Jill Esmond

He began to make a name for himself as a handsome leading man in a string of London successes, such as "Journey's End," "The Last Enemy" and "Private Lives," but he struggled for recognition as a top actor.

In 1930 he married actress Jill Esmond and when 'Private Lives' opened on Broadway he moved with her to America where RKO signed him up in 1931. Over the next few years he made several movies such as 'Potiphar's Wife' in 1931 and 'Perfect Understanding' in 1933 but with little success. In 1933 at Greta Garbo's insistence, he lost out to John Gilbert for a role in 'Queen Christina' and he became even more disenchanted with the movie business, preferring to work in theater.

Back in London he made his breakthrough into national stardom when he was chosen by John Gielgud for his stage production of 'Romeo and Juliet', alternating the roles of Romeo and Mercutio with Gielgud. the production was a major success and resulted in an invitation to be the leading man at the Old Vic in 1937/38.

At the Old Vic he gave performances in many Shakespeare plays including 'Hamlet', 'Othello', 'Henry V', 'Coriolanus', and 'Twelfth Night' and by the end of 1938 he was regarded as one of the foremost Shakespearean actors in England. He made his first attempt at a Shakespeare film, playing Orlando in 'As You Like It', in 1936, with Paul Czinner. He also became a popular leading man in movies for Alexander Korda, such as 'Fire Over England' in 1937, '21 Days'and 'The Divorce of Lady X' in 1938, and 'Q Planes' in 1939.

1937, 'Fire Over England' with Vivien Leigh

First Hollywood Success

Laurence met the young actress, Vivien Leigh, in 1936 and after working together in the film 'Fire Over England', they began an affair. When Olivier turned once more to Hollywood in 1939, this time with considerably more success, as a simmering and dangerous Heathclifff in the

The Golden Couple

classic 'Wuthering Heights', Vivien followed him and was chosen to play Scarlet O'Hara in 'Gone With The Wind' in the same year.

Olivier received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his performance and Leigh won the Academy Award for Best Actress for 'Gone with the Wind', and suddenly they became a golden couple, major celebrities throughout the world.

When they each divorced their current partner, they were finally able to marry in August, 1940. Olivier was now established as a big screen lead and his American film career continued to flourish. He became more accepting and apreciative of film and began to moderate his performance to fit the more intimate medium. He gave highly regarded performances in 1940 in 'Rebecca' and 'Pride and Prejudice'.

After starring with Vivien in a commercially unsuccessful stage production of 'Romeo and Juliet' in New York, the couple filmed 'That Hamilton Woman' in 1941 with Olivier as Horatio Nelson and Leigh as Emma Hamilton.

Creative Triumph

After starring with Vivien in a commercially unsuccessful stage production of 'Romeo and Juliet' in New York, the couple filmed 'That Hamilton Woman' in 1941 with Olivier as Horatio Nelson and Leigh as Emma Hamilton.

The Oliviers returned to England in 1942 and Laurence joined the Royal Navy, rising to the rank of Lieutenant, as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm. He was also able to serve as co-director (with Ralph Richardson) of the Old Vic Theater and he began, on both stage and screen, both as director and actor, the most productive and creative period of his life.

1944, as Henry V

In 1944, Olivier produced, directed and starred in 'Henry V', a gloriously patriotic story of an English victory which was viewed as a major psychological contribution to the British war effort. Then came 'Hamlet' in 1948 one of his greatest accomplishments, which he starred in, adapted, and directed himself to win two Academy Awards for Best actor and Best Picture, and an Oscar nomination for Best Director.

Olivier's 'Hamlet' - Olivier's electrifying portrait of the doomed prince.

Considered by many to be the best of all Shakespeare film adaptations -- it certainly bears the indelible stamp of its director/star's personality. The Academy certainly thought so, rewarding it with Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Costume Design.

Hamlet (The Criterion Collection)
Hamlet (The Criterion Collection)

Olivier's take on Shakespeare's story of madness and murder most foul is unmistakably cinematic -- he takes full advantage of the medium, avoiding the trap of merely filming a play as some Shakespeare adaptations do. If you haven't seen it you're missing a rare treat.


After 1950 Olivier made less movies and concentrated his talents on his stage work. In the few movies he made at this time he sought out challenging roles for himself such as Captain MacHeath, his first movie singing role in 'The Beggar's Opera' in 1953, and, Prince Regent of Carpathia in 'The Prince and the Showgirl' with Marilyn Monroe in 1957.

After 'Henry V' and 'Hamlet' his third major Shakespeare project as both director and star was 'Richard III' in 1955, thought by many critics to be his greatest screen performance.

1955, Richard III, regarded as the greatest Shakespeare movie ever made - The most sheerly enjoyable performance any actor gave on film.

Olivier portrays the monster king with such aplomb that he brings the audience onto his side. This is true even as Richard engineers plots to murder his brother Clarence (John Gielgud), betray his cousin Buckingham (Ralph Richardson), and seduce his niece Lady Anne (Claire Bloom).

Essential Art House: Richard III
Essential Art House: Richard III

From the play's famous opening lines ("Now is the winter of our discontent"), Olivier delivers every speech with truly Machiavellian splendor, and his superb staging of the climactic battle rivals his work on Henry V.


Laurence Olivier Academy Awards

1940 Nominated for Best Actor (as Heathcliffe in 'Wuthering Heights', 1939)

1941 Nominated for Best Actor ( as Maxim de Winter in 'Rebecca', 1940)

1946 Nominated for Best Actor (as Henry V in 'Henry V', 1944)

1949 Won for Best Actor (as Hamlet in 'Hamlet', 1948)

Won for Best Picture ('Hamlet', 1948)

Nominated for Best Director ('Hamlet', 1948)

1956 Nominated for Best Actor (as Richard III in Richard III, 1955)

1961 Nominated for Best Actor (as Archie Rice in 'The Entertainer', 1960)

1966 Nominated for Best Actor (as Othello in 'Othello'. 1965)

1973 Nominated for Best Actor (as Andrew Wyke in 'Sleuth', 1972)

1977 Nominated for Best Supporting Actor (as Szell in 'Marathon Man', 1976)

1979 Nominated for Best Actor (as Ezra Lieberman in 'The Boys from Brazil', 1978)

In addition he was awarded honorary awards in 1946 and 1979

1960, as Archie Rice, The Entertainer

In 1956, Olivier took another challenging role on stage, as the seedy vaudevillian, Archie Rice in the original stage production of John Osborne's 'The Entertainer'. It was a resounding success for Olivier, both on-stage and later in the 1960 film version directed by Tony Richardson. Soon after the film's release Olivier married Joan Plowright who was also in the film. After the vicissitudes of his marriage to the manic depressive Vivien Leigh, Joan brought some much needed stability to his life. They had a son and two daughters.

Olivier never neglected his first love, the stage. In 1962 he was one of the founders, and the first director, of the National Theatre of Great Britain, inaugurating it with his production of Hamlet in October 1963. During his ten year directorship he appeared in twelve plays and directed nine, enjoying particularly remarkable personal successes for his performances in 'Othello' in 1964, 'The Dance of Death' in 1967 and 'Long Day's Journey into Night' in 1971.

Olivier continued to work in movies, often for purely financial reasons, and his work in 'Spartacus', in 1960, 'Uncle Vanya' in 1963, 'Othello' in 1965 and 'Battle of Britain' in 1969 gradually saw him fade from constant leading man to supporting actor, although some of his more memorable movie roles still lay ahead: in 'Sleuth' in 1972, 'Marathon Man' in 1976, 'A Bridge Too far' in 1977 and 'The Boys from Brazil' in 1978.

Last Years

Olivier's health began to decline in the mid 1960s when he underwent radiation treatment for prostate cancer and he suffered many different health problems during the remainder of his life, including pneumonia, bronchitis, pleurisy and dermatomyositis, a degenerative muscle disorder.

1983, King Lear

His acting skills did not desert him and he gave many outstanding performances in the new medium of television including 'Love Among the Ruins' with Katharine Hepburn in 1975, 'Brideshead Revisited' in 1981, John Mortimer's 'A Voyage Round My Father' the following year and in 1983 gave his last great Shakespearean performance in 'King Lear'.

His last performance was in 1988, when, aged 81, he played a wheelchair-bound old soldier in Derek Jarman's film 'War Requiem'.

Laurence Olivier died at the age of 82, on 11 July 1989 at his home in Steyning, West Sussex, England, from renal failure. He was cremated and his ashes interred in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, London.

Books about Laurence Olivier

Amazon Spotlight Personal Review


Just Visiting? - I'd love to hear your opinion about Olivier, the man and Olivier, the actor.

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      6 years ago

      Olivier was indeed a great actor. I remember watching the documentary World At War which he narrated. Even though he wasn't acting, using just his voice he was able to convey a deeper, emotional message that wouldn't have come across if it were done by another actor in my opinion. I enjoyed your lens.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      He's one of the greatest ever actors.


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