Nationality: British. Born: Laurence Kerr Olivier in Dorking, Surrey, 22 May 1907. Education: Attended Church of All Saints Choir School, London; St. Edward's School, Oxford, 1921–24; Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art, London. Family: Married 1) the actress Jill Esmond, 1930 (divorced 1940), son: Tarquin; 2) the actress Vivien Leigh, 1940 (divorced 1960); 3) the actress Joan Plowright, 1961, son: Richard, daughters: Tamsin and Julie. Career: 1925—assistant stage manager and understudy, St. Christopher Theatre, Letchworth; stage debut in Macbeth ; 1926–28—member of Birmingham Repertory Company; 1930—film debut in Too Many Crooks ; 1941–44—served in the Fleet Air Arm, mainly in entertainment capacity; 1944–49—director of the Old Vic company; 1945—directed first film, Henry V ; 1951—co-starred with Vivien Leigh in Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra on alternate nights, in London and New York; 1961—in TV mini-series The Power and the Glory ; 1962–65—director of Chichester Festival Theatre; 1965–73—director of the emerging National Theatre (one of the auditoria in the new building is named the Olivier Theatre); 1976—produced a series of plays for Granada Television; in TV mini-series Jesus of Nazareth , 1977, Brideshead
Too Many Crooks (G. King) (as the Man); The Temporary Widow ( Murder for Sale ) (Ucicky) (as Peter Billie)
Friends and Lovers (Schertzinger) (as Lt. Nichols); Potiphar's Wife ( Her Strange Desire ) (Elvey) (as Straker); The Yellow Ticket ( The Yellow Passport ) (Walsh) (as Julian Rolphe)
Westward Passage (Milton) (as Nick Allen)
No Funny Business (Stafford) (as Clive Dering); Perfect Understanding (Gardner) (as Nicholas Randall)
Moscow Nights ( I Stand Condemned ) (Asquith) (as Captain Ignatoff)
As You Like It (Czinner) (as Orlando); Conquest of the Air (Korda) (as Vincent Lunardi); Fire over England (William K. Howard) (as Michael Ingolby)
21 Days ( Twenty-One Days Together ; The First and the Last ) (Dean) (as Larry Durant)
The Divorce of Lady X (Whelan) (as Logan)
Wuthering Heights (Wyler) (as Heathcliff); Q Planes ( Clouds over Europe ) (Wheelan) (as Tony McVane)
Pride and Prejudice (Leonard) (as Mr. Darcy); Rebecca (Hitchcock) (as Maxim de Winter)
That Hamilton Woman ( Lady Hamilton ) (Korda) (as Admiral Lord Nelson); 49th Parallel ( The Invaders ) (Powell) (as Johnnie); Words for Battle (Jennings) (as commentator)
The Demi-Paradise ( Adventure for Two ) (Asquith) (as Ivan Kouznetsoff)
The Volunteer (Powell and Pressburger—doc)
The Magic Box (Boulting) (as PC 94 B); Carrie (Wyler) (as George Hurstwood)
The Devil's Disciple (Hamilton) (as General "Gentleman Johnnie" Burgoyne)
Spartacus (Kubrick) (as Crassus); The Entertainer (Richardson) (as Archie Rice)
Term of Trial (Glenville) (as Graham Weir)
Bunny Lake Is Missing (Preminger) (as Supt. Newhouse)
Othello (Burge) (title role); Khartoum (Dearden) (as the Mahdi)
The Shoes of the Fisherman (Anderson) (as Premier Kamenev); Romeo and Juliet (Zeffirelli) (as speaker of the Prologue and the Epilogue)
The Dance of Death (Giles) (as army captain); Battle of Britain (Hamilton) (as Sir Hugh Dowding); Oh! What a Lovely War (Attenborough) (as Sir John French)
David Copperfield (Delbert Mann—for TV) (as Mr. Creakle)
Nicholas and Alexandra (Schaffner) (as Prime Minister Witte)
Sleuth (Mankiewicz) (as Andrew Wyke)
Lady Caroline Lamb (Bolt) (as Duke of Wellington); Long Day's Journey into Night (Blakemore and Wood—for TV) (as James Tyrone); The Merchant of Venice (Miller and Sichel—for TV) (as Shylock)
Love among the Ruins (Cukor—for TV) (as Sir Arthur Granville-Jones)
Marathon Man (Schlesinger) (as Szell); The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (Ross) (as Professor Moriarty); Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Moore—for TV) (as Big Daddy)
Come Back, Little Sheba (Narizzano—for TV) (as Doc); A Bridge Too Far (Attenborough) (as Dr. Spaander)
The Betsy (Petrie) (as Loren Hardeman Sr.); The Boys from Brazil (Schaffner) (as Ezra Lieberman)
A Little Romance (Hill) (as Julius); Dracula (Badham) (as Van Helsing)
The Jazz Singer (Fleischer) (as Cantor Rabinovitch)
Inchon (Terence Young) (as Gen. MacArthur); Clash of the Titans (Desmond Davis) (as Zeus)
A Voyage Round My Father (Rakoff—for TV) (as Father)
Wagner (Palmer—for TV) (as Pfeufer); A Talent for Murder (Rakoff—for TV); Mister Halpren and Mister Johnson (Rakoff—for TV) (as Mr. Halpren); King Lear (Elliott—for TV) (title role)
The Jigsaw Man (Terence Young) (as Adm. Sir Gerald Scaith); The Bounty (Donaldson) (as Adm. Hood); Ebony Tower (Knights—for TV)
Wild Geese II (Hunt) (as Rudolf Hess)
Lost Empires (Grine—for TV); Directed by William Wyler (Slesin—doc) (as himself)
War Requiem (Jarman) (as Old Soldier)
Henry V (title role, + pr)
Hamlet (title role, + pr)
The Beggar's Opera (as MacHeath, pr only)
Richard III (title role, + pr)
The Prince and the Showgirl (as Grand Duke Charles, + pr)
The Three Sisters (released in U.S. in 1974) (as Dr. Chebutikin)
Five Seasons of the Old Vic Theatre Company , with Michel Saint-Denis, London, 1950.
Confessions of an Actor , London, 1982.
On Acting , London, 1986.
"The Entertainer," in American Film (New York), November 1986.
Barker, Felix, The Oliviers , Philadelphia, 1953.
Lunari, Gigi, Laurence Olivier , Bologna, 1959.
Whitehead, Peter, and Robin Bean, Olivier—Shakespeare , London, 1966.
Darlington, W. A., Laurence Olivier , London, 1968.
Fairweather, Virginia, Cry God for Larry , London, 1969.
Memo from: David O. Selznick , edited by Rudy Behlmer, New York, 1972.
Laurence Olivier , edited by Logan Gourlay, London, 1973.
Cottrell, John, Laurence Olivier , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1975.
Lasky, Jesse Jr., with Pat Silver, Love Scene: The Story of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh , New York, 1978.
Olivier: The Films and Faces of Laurence Olivier , edited by Margaret Morley, Godalming, 1978.
Hirsch, Foster, Laurence Olivier , Boston, 1979; as Laurence Olivier on Screen , New York, 1984.
Daniels, Robert, Laurence Olivier: Theatre and Cinema , London, 1980.
Kiernan, Thomas, Sir Larry: The Life of Laurence Olivier , New York, 1981.
Lefevre, Raymond, Laurence Olivier , Paris, 1981.
Barker, Felix, Laurence Olivier: A Critical Study , Tunbridge Wells, Kent, 1984.
Bragg, Melvyn, Laurence Olivier , London, 1984; rev. ed., 1989.
O'Connor, Garry, Darlings of the Gods: One Year in the Lives of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh , London, 1984.
Silviria, Dale, Laurence Olivier and the Art of Filmmaking , Rutherford, New Jersey, 1985.
Tanitch, Robert, Olivier: The Complete Career , London, 1985.
Holden, Anthony, Olivier , London, 1988.
Spoto, Donald, Laurence Olivier: A Biography , New York, 1991.
Olivier, Tarquin, My Father Laurence Olivier , London, 1992.
Vermilye, Jerry, The Complete Films of Laurence Oliver , 1992.
Olivier, Richard, Melting the Stone: A Journey Around My Father , Woodstock, 1995.
Granger, Derek, Laurence Olivier: The Life of an Actor: The Authorized Biography , New York, 1999.
Lewis, Roger, The Real Life of Laurence Olivier , New York, 1999.
McVay, Douglas, "Hamlet to Clown," in Films and Filming (London), April 1962.
Brown, Constance, "Olivier's Richard III : A Reevaluation," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1967.
Hart, Henry, "Laurence Olivier," in Films in Review (New York), December 1967.
Coleman, Terry, "Olivier Now," in Show (Hollywood), June 1970.
Eyles, Allen, "Sir Laurence Olivier," in Focus on Film (London), Spring 1973.
Keleher, L., "Laurence Olivier: Getting on with It," in Take One (Montreal), July 1978.
Current Biography 1979 , New York, 1979.
Bodeen, DeWitt, "Laurence Olivier: The Man and His Times," in Films in Review (New York), December 1979.
McDonald, N., "The Relationship Between Shakespeare's Stagecraft and Modern Film Technique (with Special Reference to the Films of Laurence Olivier)," in Australian Journal of Screen Theory (Kensington, New South Wales), no. 7, 1980.
Drew, Bernard, "Laurence Olivier," in The Movie Star , edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.
Thomson, David, "Our Lord of Danger," in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1983.
Taylor, John Russell, "Olivier at Eighty," in Films and Filming (London), May 1987.
Donaldson, P., "Olivier, Hamlet and Freud," in Cinema Journal (Champaign, Illinois), Summer 1987.
Obituary in Variety (New York), 12 July 1989.
Schickel, Richard, obituary in Film Comment (New York), September/October 1989.
Edwards, Anne, "Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier: Gone With the Wind and Wuthering Heights Stars in England," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), April 1992.
Norman, Barry, in Radio Times (London), 16 January 1993.
Film Dope (Nottingham), June 1993.
Landrot, Marine, "Sir Hamlet," in Télérama (Paris), 9 March 1994.
Cardiff, J., "Magic Marilyn," in Eyepiece (Greenford), no. 4, 1997.
* * *
"I had the voice" said John Gielgud morosely, "but Larry had the legs." And Olivier knew it. The most starstruck and showy of the theatrical knights, he always flirted with the movies both as performer and director. Olivier the actor/producer who relished creating wild leaps and intricate fights for his plays, and took a Lon Chaney delight in mime, accent, and character makeup, was made for films. But the more thoughtful performer, such as his James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night , saw the threat of popular success. He admits in his autobiography that, unlike stage work, "films and television do not usually tax one's energies beyond their normal capacities," yet it is evident that Olivier gave to most of them the benefit of a meticulous technique.
Hollywood offered him stardom in his days as a jeune premier , Goldwyn casting him as a lumpen Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and MGM planning an appearance opposite Garbo in Queen Christina . This might have tipped Olivier inescapably toward a movie career, but Garbo rejected him in favor of old lover and slipping star John Gilbert, and thereafter, perhaps pettishly, he elected for character roles. His languid Darcy in Pride and Prejudice , Maxim de Winter in Rebecca , Nelson in Korda's American-made That Hamilton Woman and Hurstwood, the hotel manager ruined by love in Carrie are performances by an actor, not the appearances of a star.
That Olivier took film playing less seriously after his Hollywood days is evident in two wartime propagandist roles, a Russian in The Demi-Paradise and a French-Canadian trapper in 49th Parallel . Both embarrassingly dated now, they show a boyish glee in accent and disguise at the expense of character.
Touring with Vivien Leigh as an actor/manager in the 1930s and 1940s encouraged Olivier to embark on his first films as director/star. Henry V (made at government request to bolster morale), Hamlet , and Richard III are inspired popularizations, using only half the text but conveying the essence of Shakespeare with a combination of film production values and visual flair.
Olivier's adaptation of Henry V is highly praised by Andre Bazin. He describes its success in solving the dialectic between cinematic realism and theatrical convention: "The beginning traveling shot is to plunge us into the theater, to the courtyard of an Elizabethan inn. . . . [It] is not with the play Henry V that the film is immediately and directly concerned, but with the performance of Henry V ."
As an accomplished stage actor, his endeavor in film can thus be seen as one that pertains to a language specific to cinema as well as the immediacy of theatricality.
Richard III is Olivier's triumph as director/star, a performance straight out of Lon Chaney's The Penalty , dignified by language and stagecraft. Olivier had discovered in his famous stage Coriolanus that sexual magnetism could make even evil glamorous, and his Richard explored that insight in rich detail. The realization seemed to alarm him. It was years before he dared play another outright monster.
His films of the 1950s and 1960s mostly recreated his stage hits The Entertainer , Othello , The Three Sisters , and The Dance of Death , thought he did direct and star opposite Marilyn Monroe in the unsuccessful The Prince and the Showgirl , and appeared in some cameos chosen from the range of international film and television productions that could always use an imposing figure with a commanding voice. His Mahdi in Khartoum used the makeup and mime from Othello , and while the generals, air vice marshals, Russian counts, and epicene Roman commanders he played in everything from Spartacus to The Battle of Britain occasionally seemed taken off the peg at some theatrical supplier, they are never less than memorable.
He returned to more abrasive material as declining health accentuated his hawkish profile and raised his voice to a grating rasp. A querulous Moriarty in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution , Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman in The Boys from Brazil , and the monster of Marathon Man are all effective creations by a man who had little interest in the cinema, but who used it, like the piano learned in childhood, to pick out a few tunes when the mood took him. The craftsmanship, professionalism, practical intelligence and the highest seriousness that Richard Schickel profoundly admires and fondly remembers can be best summed up by the advice Olivier offered Dustin Hoffman during the making of Marathon Man :
"Hoffman kept himself awake for two days so that he could look—and above all, feel—properly haggard for one of his scenes with Olivier. 'You should learn to act, my dear boy,' his Lordship murmured. 'Then you wouldn't have to put yourself through this sort of thing."'
—John Baxter, updated by Guo-Juin Hong