Bios

Laurence Olivier

An English actor, director and producer who became one of the most revered of his generation. He was described as being able to speak Shakespeare's lines as if he was thinking them.

Laurence Kerr Olivier was born on 22 May 1907 in Dorking into a severe, religious household; his father was a cleric who moved his family often.

Young Laurence loved acting, and was so successful that even his pious father encouraged him to apply to London's Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Arts.

Upon graduation, Olivier became a member of Sir Barry Vincent Jackson's Birmingham Repertory Company. He landed his first leading role, in 'Harold', at the age of twenty.

In 1927, he was already playing 'Macbeth' and 'Hamlet' on the stage and English playwright Charles C Bennett stated that Olivier spoke William Shakespeare's lines as naturally as if he was thinking of them himself.

He married his first wife Jill Esmond, a rising young actress on 25 July 1930 but despite being married ten years and fathering a son, the actor was unhappy in his first marriage.

At first, Olivier's looks typecast him as a young innocent hero. Although he appeared in a spate of successes, he still struggled for serious recognition. His early film work was unimpressive, and he was open about his dislike of the form.

In 1935, Gielgud chose Olivier to play Romeo in 'Romeo and Juliet'. The play was a huge hit. In 1937, he was offered the role of Hamlet. Olivier became fascinated with the idea of adapting Freudian psychology to his character. He invented a new acting style, to reflect the psychological torment of the character, and audiences responded enthusiastically to his performance. He won a Best Actor Oscar for his efforts in 1948 when he directed himself in a film adaptation of the play.

This was when he met his second wife, Vivien Leigh, who was playing Ophelia to his Hamlet. The couple wed in 1940 and appeared in several films together including 'Fire over England' (1937), '21 days' (1940), and 'That Hamilton Woman' in 1941.

Olivier would bring this psychological intensity to bear upon his next important film performance, 'Wuthering Heights', in 1939, and Olivier played Heathcliff with a smouldering, dangerous undercurrent.

In 1947, Olivier was knighted followed by being made a life peer in 1970 and being awarded the Order of the Merit in 1981. Despite all these titles he wouldn't talk to anyone who didn't call him 'Larry'.

As a director, Olivier adapted this duality of artifice and immediacy to cinematic techniques, creating some imaginative uses of setting and monologue. He directed 'Hamlet', 'Henry V' and 'Richard III'

From the end of WWII to the early 1970s, Olivier made sporadic film appearances, but with the film 'The Entertainer', in 1960, he made a smooth transition to character actor roles, giving some stand out performances in films such as 'Marathon Man'.

Olivier became the first Artistic Director of the National Theatre in when it was formed in 1963. It was based at the Old Vic Theatre in Waterloo until the new building on the South Bank was completed seven years later. The main auditorium of the NT is named after Lord Olivier.

Olivier was married to actress Vivien Leigh from 1940 to 1960, and to Joan Plowright, with whom he had three children, until his death in 1989. He died of renal failure in his family home.

He was cremated and his ashes were interred at Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey - a rare honour for an actor.

In 2001, he was ranked tenth in the Orange Film survey of greatest British actors and Entertainment Weekly recently named him the greatest actor in the 20th century.