Considered by many to be the greatest actor of modern times, Laurence Olivier enjoyed a 60-year career in which he touched greatness, as both actor and director, in a dizzying array of plays and films. His breadth of appeal was such that he was simultaneously a leading film matinee idol and the definitive classical actor of his generation. As he entered middle age, Olivier went on to establish himself as the eminence grisé of British theatre and was the obvious choice as the first director of the National Theatre in 1963. Laurence Olivier’s name is attached to the West End’s most prestigious theatre awards and also to the main stage at the National Theatre.
Born in Dorking, Surrey, in 1907, the young Olivier’s first recorded appearance on stage came when he played Katharina in The Taming Of The Shrew while at St Edward’s School in Oxford. Sybil Thorndike described his performance as “the best Kate I ever saw”. Olivier went on to train at the Central School Of Dramatic Art before beginning his career with the Birmingham Repertory Company.
Olivier’s first taste of West End success came when he appeared in Noël Coward’s Private Lives in 1930. Within five years he was starring in what is still generally considered to be the greatest Shakespearean production ever, Romeo And Juliet at the New theatre. This groundbreaking play saw Olivier and John Gielgud sharing the roles of Romeo and Mercutio, with Olivier’s Romeo being said to be the more daring, if less consummately honed, of the two
In 1939 Olivier made his first sortie to Hollywood and earned international renown through appearances in films such as Wuthering Heights and Lady Hamilton. Olivier’s fame rose further when he married Vivien Leigh, who was then probably the world’s most desirable woman after her appearance in Gone With The Wind.
Despite enlisting in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, Olivier never saw active service during the Second World War. Instead he undertook a morale-boosting role and appeared in patriotic films such as The Demi-Paradise and Henry V. It has recently emerged that Olivier also undertook work for MI5, using his considerable influence to help cajole America into joining the War.
One of Olivier’s most notable post-war performances came in 1957 when he appeared in John Osborne’s The Entertainer, thus aligning himself with the new wave of British theatre. Olivier was also developing his reputation as a director and took the helm of the newly formed National Theatre Company at The Old Vic in 1963. By this time, Olivier’s health had begun to falter, but the company flourished nonetheless.
In 1970 Olivier was created a Life Peer but continued to insist that everybody called him Larry. Although his time as Director of the National ended – he felt, in betrayal – Olivier’s abilities as an actor never dimmed and he conjured several seminal performances, particularly in television films, during the 1970s and 80s.
Laurence Olivier died of cancer in Steyning, West Sussex, England, in 1989 at the age of 82.