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Sir Laurence Olivier
1907 - 1989

Internationally acclaimed for his acting and directing, Laurence Olivier was often regarded as the supreme actor of his generation.


The son of a clergyman, Laurence Olivier was born in Dorking, Surrey, England. His first appearances on the stage were in schoolboy productions of Shakespeare. He was even invited to present a special matinee of The Taming of the Shrew at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1922. Olivier was cast as Katharina.

In preparation for a professional career in acting, Olivier studied at the Central School in London. He found his first paying jobs in the theater during term holidays, working as an assistant stage manager and playing small roles. After a year of experience at various theaters, Olivier joined the Birmingham Repertory Company in 1926, appearing in several parts which included Tony Lumpkin in Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer (1927) and Malcolm in a modern dress production of Macbeth (1928). At the age of 20 he also played the title role in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya (1927).

He was the first to play Captain Stanhope in R. C. Sherriff's Journey's End when it tried out in 1928. To this day Journey's Endis hailed as one of the greatest plays about the horrors of war. The following year he made his New York debut in Frank Vosper's Murder on the Second Floor and appeared in his first film, The Temporary Widow. Playing Victor in Noel Coward's Private Lives (1930) brought Olivier his first real taste of commercial success, and soon after he made his Hollywood screen debut. However, his early film career was fraught with disappointments, culminating in Greta Garbo's refusal to accept him as her leading man in Queen Christina.

Back in England in 1934 Olivier received positive notices for his portrayals of Bothwell in Gordon Daviot's Queen of Scots and of Anthony Cavendish in George S. Kaufman's Theatre Royal. He next tackled his first major Shakespearean roles on the professional stage, alternating Romeo and Mercutio with John Gielgud at the New Theatre (1935). The following year Olivier starred in his first Shakespearean film as Orlando in As You Like It. Although disappointed with the film, he used the actors and composer William Walton for future Shakespeare productions. In 1937 he joined London's Old Vic Company for a season, playing the title roles in Hamlet (a production later presented at Elsinore), Henry V, and Macbeth, and Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night. The following season he returned to play Iago opposite Ralph Richardson's Othello and Caius Marcius in Coriolanus. Having demonstrated his range, versatility, and interpretative intelligence in Shakespeare's repertoire, Olivier was now recognized as a stage actor of the first rank. Three major screen roles, in Wuthering Heights (1939, for which he received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor)) and in Rebecca (1940, and a second Academy Award nomination) and Pride and Prejudice (also 1940), subsequently established his film career. 1940 also saw social successes for Olivier as he and Academy Award-winner, Vivien Leigh, exchanged wedding vows. In 1941 Olivier and Leigh played the tragic lovers in Alexander Korda's That Hamilton Woman, regarded as one of the great romantic films of the era.

During World War II Olivier served with the Fleet Air Arm and was released twice to act in British war films. In 1943-1944 he made a film adaptation of Henry V, initially conceived as a propaganda project for the war effort. He won a special Academy Award for his triple triumph as director, producer, and star of the film.

Olivier was discharged from the armed service to join the Old Vic's artistic management in rebuilding the company's reputation and solvency after the lean war years. He remained with the company until 1949. Some of his most memorable roles during this time were Sergius in Shaw's Arms and the Man (1944), Astrov in Uncle Vanya (1945), and the title roles in Richard III (1945) and King Lear (1946), the latter of which he also directed. Perhaps his most demanding performance was for the double bill in which he appeared in the title role of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and as Mr. Puff in Sheridan's The Critic (1945). Returning to film direction in 1948 with his famous black-and-white Hamlet, Olivier garnered an Oscar for his portrayal of the title role and the film won the best picture Academy Award. It also earned Olivier a knighthood from King George VI, of England.

In 1951, in London and New York, he appeared opposite Vivien Leigh in Antony and Cleopatra and Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, playing the male title role in both productions. Subsequent stage roles included the Grand Duke in Terence Rattigan's The Sleeping Prince (1955), the title roles in Macbeth and Titus Andronicus during the 1954-1955 season at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, and the title role in Coriolanus (1959), again at Stratford. He scored his first outstanding success in a modern role as the second-rate music hall comedian Archie Rice in John Osborne's The Entertainer (1957), repeating the part in the 1959 film version. He also directed and starred in films of Richard III (1955) and The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), the latter opposite Marilyn Monroe. He played Berenger in Ionesco's Rhinoceros (1960) in London, and in New York played first the title role (1960) and then Henry II (1961) in Anouilh's Becket. Later that same year he was appointed the first director of the Chichester Festival Theatre. Uncle Vanya, with Olivier as Astrov and his third wife Joan Plowright as Sonya, proved to be a huge success for the company's opening 1962 season.

Olivier was named the first director of the state-subsidized National Theatre. He held the position until 1973. For the National's opening 1963-1964 season Olivier directed Hamlet and appeared as Astrov in Uncle Vanya (which he also directed) and as Brazen in Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer. He also offered a controversial but memorable interpretation of Othello. Among his important roles in later seasons were Tattle in Congreve's Love for Love (1965), Edgar in Strindberg's The Dance of Death (1967), Shylock in a Victorian production of The Merchant of Venice (1970), and James Tyrone in O'Neill's A Long Day's Journey into Night (1971). His most significant production as director was Chekhov's The Three Sisters in 1968. For the 1970 film of the production he again directed and also played Chebutikin. In 1970 Olivier was elevated to the peerage as Lord Olivier of Brighton - becoming the first actor to achieve such a status. During his National tenure he appeared in several other filmed stage productions, and his commercial films included Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) and Sleuth (1972). After leaving the National, Olivier concentrated on screen work. His films of this later period included Marathon Man (1976), A Bridge Too Far (1977), A Little Romance (1979), and The Jazz Singer (1981).

Until 1987 Olivier was prominent as a film and television virtuoso, making 29 movies in 13 years. During this span he received two more Academy Award nominations, becoming the most nominated actor in history. He also won an Emmy for Brideshead Revisited. In 1982 he wrote his autobiography Confessions of an Actor and another book, On Acting in 1986. In 1987, on his eightieth birthday, he announced to the world his retirement from motion pictures, but promised to remain active in television. On July 11, 1989, Olivier succumbed to complications from a muscle disorder.


Sir Laurence after 1947, Lord Laurence after 1970 -- has been variously lauded as the greatest Shakespearean interpreter of the 20th century, the greatest classical actor of the era, and the greatest actor of his generation. Although his career took a rather desperate turn toward the end when he seemed willing to appear in almost anything, the bulk of Olivier's 60-year career stands as a sterling example of extraordinary craftsmanship.

Olivier was the son of an Anglican minister, who, despite his well-documented severity, was an unabashed theater lover, enthusiastically encouraging young Olivier to give acting a try. The boy made his first public appearance at age nine, playing Brutus in an All Saint's production of Julius Caesar. No member of the audience was more impressed than actress Dame Sybil Thorndike, who knew then and there that Olivier had what it took. Much has been made of the fact that the 15-year-old Olivier played Katherine in a St. Edward's School production of The Taming of the Shrew; there was, however, nothing unusual at the time for males to play females in all-boy schools. (For that matter, the original Shakespeare productions in the 16th and 17th centuries were strictly stag.) Besides, Olivier was already well versed in playing female roles, having previously played Maria in Twelfth Night. Two years after The Taming of the Shrew, he enrolled at the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art, where one of his instructors was Claude Rains.

Olivier made his professional London debut the same year in The Suliot Officer, and joined the Birmingham Repertory in 1926; by the time Olivier was 20, he was playing leads. His subsequent West End stage triumphs included Journey's End and Private Lives. In 1929, he made his film debut in the German-produced A Temporary Widow. He married actress Jill Esmond in 1930, and moved with her to America when Private Lives opened on Broadway. Signed to a Hollywood contract by RKO in 1931, Olivier was promoted as "the new Ronald Colman," but he failed to make much of an impression onscreen. By the time Greta Garbo insisted that he be replaced by John Gilbert in her upcoming Queen Christina (1933), Olivier was disenchanted with the movies and vowed to remain on-stage. He graduated to full-fledged stardom in 1935, when he was cast as Romeo in John Gielgud's London production of Romeo and Juliet. (He also played Mercutio on the nights Gielgud assumed the leading role himself.) It was around this time that Olivier reportedly became fascinated with the works of Sigmund Freud, which led to his applying a "psychological" approach to all future stage and screen characters. Whatever the reason, Olivier's already superb performances improved dramatically, and, before long, he was being judged on his own merits by London critics, and not merely compared (often disparagingly) to Gielgud or Ralph Richardson.

It was in collaboration with his friend Richardson that Olivier directed his first play in 1936, which was also the year he made his first Shakespearean film, playing Orlando in Paul Czinner's production of As You Like It. Now a popular movie leading man, Olivier starred in such pictures as Fire Over England (1937), 21 Days (1938), The Divorce of Lady X (1938), and Q Planes (1939). He returned to Hollywood in 1939 to star as Heathcliff in Samuel Goldwyn's glossy (and financially successful) production of Wuthering Heights, earning the first of 11 Oscar nominations. He followed this with leading roles in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), MGM's Pride and Prejudice (1940), and Alexander Korda's That Hamilton Woman (1941), co-starring in the latter with his second wife, Vivien Leigh. Returning to England during World War II, Olivier served as a parachute officer in the Royal Navy. Since he was stationed at home, so to speak, he was also able to serve as co-director (with Ralph Richardson) of the Old Vic. His most conspicuous contribution to the war effort was his joyously jingoistic film production of Henry V (1944), for which he served as producer, director, and star. Like all his future film directorial efforts, Henry V pulled off the difficult trick of retaining its theatricality without ever sacrificing its cinematic values. Henry V won Olivier an honorary Oscar, not to mention major prizes from several other corners of the world. Knighthood was bestowed upon him in 1947, and he served up another celluloid Shakespeare the same year, producing, directing and starring in Hamlet. This time he won two Oscars: one for his performance, the other for the film itself.

The '50s was a transitional decade for Olivier: While he had his share of successes -- his movie singing debut in The Beggar's Opera (1953), his 1955 adaptation of Richard III -- he also suffered a great many setbacks, both personal (his disintegrating relationship with Vivien Leigh) and professional (1957's The Prince and the Showgirl, which failed despite the seemingly unbeatable combination of Olivier's directing and Marilyn Monroe's star performance). In 1956, Olivier boldly reinvented himself as the seedy, pathetically out-of-step music hall comic Archie Rice in the original stage production of John Osborne's The Entertainer. It was a resounding success, both on-stage and on film, and Olivier reprised his role in a 1960 film version directed by Tony Richardson. Thereafter, Olivier deliberately sought out such challenging, image-busting roles as the ruthless, bisexual Crassus in Spartacus (1960) and the fanatical Mahdi in Khartoum (1965). He also achieved a measure of stability in his private life in 1961 when he married actress Joan Plowright. In 1962, he was named the artistic director of Britain's National Theatre, a post he held for ten years. To periodically replenish the National's threadbare bank account, Olivier began accepting roles that were beneath him artistically, but which paid handsomely; in the early '70s, he even hawked Polaroid cameras on television. During this period, he was far more comfortable before the cameras than in the theatre, suffering as he was from a mysterious bout of stage fright. He also committed two more directorial efforts to film, Othello (1965) and Dance of Death (1968), both of which were disappointingly stage-bound. In 1970, he became Lord Olivier and assumed a seat in the House of Lords the following year. Four years later, suffering from a life-threatening illness, he made his last stage appearance. From 1974 until his death in 1989, he seemingly took whatever film job was offered him, ostensibly to provide an income for his family, should the worst happen. Some colleagues, like director John Schlesinger, were disillusioned by Olivier's mercenary approach to his work. Others, like Entertainer director Tony Richardson, felt that Olivier was not really a sellout as much as he was what the French call a cabotin -- not exactly a ham: a performer, a vulgarian, someone who lives and dies for acting.

Amidst such foredoomed projects as The Jazz Singer (1980) and Inchon (1981), Olivier was still capable of great things, as shown by his work in such TV productions as 1983's Mister Halpern and Mister Johnson and, in 1984, King Lear and Voyage Round My Father. In 1979, he was once more honoured at Academy Awards time, receiving an honorary Oscar "for the full body of his work." His last appearance was in the 1988 film War Requiem. With so many books on Laurence Olivier available, it is hard to recommend any one as the definitive portrait of the man. His two autobiographical works, however, 1984's Confessions of an Actor and 1986's On Acting, would be an excellent place to start.


Laurence Kerr Olivier, Baron Olivier, OM (22 May 1907 – 11 July 1989) was an English actor, director, and producer and the recipient of scores of awards. He is one of the most famous and revered actors of the 20th century, along with his contemporaries John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft and Ralph Richardson. Olivier played a wide variety of roles on stage and screen from Greek tragedy, Shakespeare and Restoration comedy to modern American and British drama. He was the first artistic director of the National Theatre of Great Britain and its main stage is named in his honour. He is generally regarded to be the greatest actor of the 20th century, in the same category as David Garrick, Richard Burbage, Edmund Kean and Henry Irving in their own centuries. Olivier's Academy acknowledgments are considerable—fourteen Oscar nominations, with two wins for Best Actor and Best Picture for the 1948 film Hamlet, and two honorary awards including a statuette and certificate. He was also awarded five Emmy awards from the nine nominations he received. Additionally, he was a three-time Golden Globe and BAFTA winner.

Olivier's career as a stage and film actor spanned more than six decades and included a wide variety of roles, from Shakespeare's Othello and Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night to the sadistic Nazi dentist Christian Szell in Marathon Man and the kindly but determined Nazi-hunter in The Boys from Brazil. A High Church clergyman's son who found fame on the West End stage, Olivier became determined early on to master Shakespeare, and eventually came to be regarded as one of the foremost Shakespeare interpreters of the 20th century. He continued to act until his death in 1989. Olivier played more than 120 stage roles: Richard III, Macbeth, Romeo, Hamlet, Othello, Uncle Vanya, and Archie Rice in The Entertainer. He appeared in nearly sixty films, including William Wyler's Wuthering Heights, Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake is Missing, Richard Attenborough's Oh! What a Lovely War, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Sleuth, John Schlesinger's Marathon Man, Daniel Petrie's The Betsy, Desmond Davis' Clash of the Titans, and his own Henry V, Hamlet, and Richard III. He also preserved his Othello on film, with its stage cast virtually intact. For television, he starred in The Moon and Sixpence, John Gabriel Borkman, Long Day's Journey into Night, Brideshead Revisited, The Merchant of Venice, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and King Lear, among others.

In 1999, the American Film Institute named Olivier among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time, at fourteen on the list.

Early life

Olivier was born in 1907 in Dorking, Surrey, England. He was raised in a severe, strict, and religious household, ruled over by his father, Gerard Kerr Olivier (1869–1939), a High Anglican priest whose father was Henry Arnold Olivier, a rector. Young Laurence took solace in the care of his mother, Agnes Louise (née Crookenden; 1871–1920), and was grief-stricken when she died (at 48) when he was only 12. Richard "Dickie" (1904 – 1958) and Sybille (1901 – 1989) were his two older siblings.

In 1918 his father became the new church minister at St. Mary's Church, Letchworth, Hertfordshire and the family lived at the Old Rectory, now part of St Christopher School.

He performed at the St Christopher School Theatre, in December 1924 in Through the Crack (unknown author) as understudy and assistant stage manager, and in April 1925 he played Lennox in Shakespeare's Macbeth and was assistant stage manager.

He was educated at St Edward's School, Oxford, and, at 15, played Katherine in his school's production of The Taming of the Shrew, to rave reviews. After his brother, Richard, left for India, it was his father who decided that Laurence — or "Kim", as the family called him — would become an actor.

Early career

Olivier then attended the Central School of Dramatic Art at the age of 17. In 1926, he joined The Birmingham Repertory Company. At first he was given only paltry tasks at the theatre, such as being the bell-ringer; however, his roles eventually became more significant, and in 1927 he was playing roles such as Hamlet and Macbeth. Throughout his career he insisted that his acting was pure technique, and he was contemptuous of contemporaries who adopted method acting popularized by Lee Strasberg. Olivier met and married Jill Esmond, a rising young actress, on 25 July, 1930 and had one son, Tarquin, 21 August 1936.

Olivier was not happy in his first marriage from the beginning, however. Repressed, as he came to see it, by his religious upbringing, Olivier recounted in his autobiography the disappointments of his wedding night, culminating in his failure to perform sexually. He renounced religion forever and soon came to resent his wife, though the marriage would last for ten years.

He made his film debut in The Temporary Widow, and played his first leading role on film in The Yellow Ticket; however, he held the film in little regard. His stage breakthroughs were in Noel Coward's Private Lives in 1930, and in Romeo and Juliet in 1935, alternating the roles of Romeo and Mercutio with John Gielgud. Olivier did not agree with Gielgud's style of acting Shakespeare and was irritated by the fact that Gielgud was getting better reviews than he was. His tension towards Gielgud came to a head in 1940, when Olivier approached London impresario Binkie Beaumont about financing him in a repertory of the four great Shakespearean tragedies of Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear. However, Beaumont would only agree to the plan if Olivier and Gielgud alternated in the roles of Hamlet/Laertes, Othello/Iago, Macbeth/Macduff, and Lear/Gloucester and that Gielgud direct at least one of the productions, a proposition Olivier bluntly declined.

The engagement as Romeo resulted in an invitation by Lilian Baylis to be the star at the Old Vic Theatre in 1937/38. Olivier's tenure had mixed artistic results, with his performances as Hamlet and Iago drawing a negative response from critics and his first attempt at Macbeth receiving mixed reviews. But his appearances as Henry V, Coriolanus, and Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night were triumphs, and his popularity with Old Vic audiences left Olivier as one of the major Shakespearean actors in England by the season's end.

Olivier continued to hold his scorn for film, and though he constantly worked for Alexander Korda, he still felt most at home on the stage. He made his first Shakespeare film, As You Like It, with Paul Czinner, however, Olivier disliked it, thinking that Shakespeare did not work well on film.

Laurence Olivier saw Vivien Leigh in The Mask of Virtue in 1936, and a friendship developed after he congratulated her on her performance. While playing lovers in the film Fire Over England (1937), Olivier and Leigh developed a strong attraction, and after filming was completed, they began an affair.]

Leigh played Ophelia to Olivier's Hamlet in an Old Vic Theatre production, and Olivier later recalled an incident during which her mood rapidly changed as she was quietly preparing to go onstage. Without apparent provocation, she began screaming at him, before suddenly becoming silent and staring into space. She was able to perform without mishap, and by the following day, she had returned to normal with no recollection of the event. It was the first time Olivier witnessed such behaviour from her.

Olivier travelled to Hollywood to begin filming Wuthering Heights as Heathcliff. Leigh followed soon after, partly to be with him, but also to pursue her dream of playing Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939). Olivier found the filming of Wuthering Heights to be difficult but it proved to be a turning point for him, both in his success in the United States, which had eluded him until then, but also in his attitude to film, which he had regarded as an inferior medium to theatre. The film's producer, Samuel Goldwyn was highly dissatisfied with Olivier's overstated performance after several weeks of filming and threatened to dismiss him. Olivier had grown to regard the film's female lead, Merle Oberon, as an amateur; however, when he stated his opinion to Goldwyn, he was reminded that Oberon was the star of the film and already a well-known name in American cinema. Olivier was told that he was dispensable and that he was required to be more tolerant of Oberon. Olivier recalled that he took Goldwyn's words to heart, but after some consideration realized that he was correct; he began to moderate his performance to fit the more intimate film medium and began to appreciate the possibilities it offered.

The film was a hit and Olivier was praised for his performance, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. Leigh won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Gone with the Wind, and the couple suddenly found themselves to be major celebrities throughout the world. They wanted to marry, but at first both Leigh's husband and Olivier's wife at the time, Jill Esmond, refused to divorce them. Finally divorced, they were married on 31 August 1940.
in Pride and Prejudice (1940)

Olivier's American film career flourished with highly regarded performances in Rebecca (1940) and Pride and Prejudice (1940).

Olivier and Leigh starred in a theatre production of Romeo and Juliet in New York City. It was an extravagant production, but a commercial failure. Brooks Atkinson for The New York Times wrote, "Although Miss Leigh and Mr Olivier are handsome young people they hardly act their parts at all." The couple had invested almost their entire savings into the project, and its failure was a financial disaster for them.

They filmed That Hamilton Woman (1941) with Olivier as Horatio Nelson and Leigh as Emma Hamilton. With Britain engaged in World War II, the Oliviers returned to England, and in 1944 Leigh was diagnosed as having tuberculosis in her left lung, but after spending several weeks in hospital, she appeared to be cured. In spring she was filming Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) when she discovered she was pregnant, but suffered a miscarriage. She fell into a deep depression which reached its nadir when she turned on Olivier, verbally and physically attacking him until she fell to the floor sobbing. This was the first of many major breakdowns related to manic-depression, or bipolar mood disorder. Olivier came to recognise the symptoms of an impending episode – several days of hyperactivity followed by a period of depression and an explosive breakdown, after which Leigh would have no memory of the event, but would be acutely embarrassed and remorseful.
Olivier and Leigh arriving in Brisbane, Australia, June 1948

In 1947 Olivier was knighted as a Knight Bachelor and by 1948 he was on the Board of Directors for the Old Vic Theatre, and he and Leigh embarked on a tour of Australia and New Zealand to raise funds for the theatre. During their six-month tour, Olivier performed Richard III and also performed with Leigh in The School for Scandal and The Skin of Our Teeth. The tour was an outstanding success, and although Leigh was plagued with insomnia and allowed her understudy to replace her for a week while she was ill, she generally withstood the demands placed upon her, with Olivier noting her ability to "charm the press". Members of the company later recalled several quarrels between the couple, with the most dramatic of these occurring in Christchurch when Leigh refused to go on stage. Olivier slapped her face, and Leigh slapped him in return and swore at him before she made her way to the stage. By the end of the tour, both were exhausted and ill, and Olivier told a journalist, "You may not know it, but you are talking to a couple of walking corpses." Later he would comment that he "lost Vivien" in Australia.

The success of the tour encouraged the Oliviers to make their first West End appearance together, performing the same works with one addition, Antigone, included at Leigh's insistence because she wished to play a role in a tragedy.

Leigh next sought the role of Blanche DuBois in the West End stage production of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, and was cast after Williams and the play's producer Irene Mayer Selznick saw her in the The School for Scandal and Antigone, and Olivier was contracted to direct.

In 1951, Leigh and Olivier performed two plays about Cleopatra, William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, alternating the play each night and winning good reviews. They took the productions to New York, where they performed a season at the Ziegfeld Theatre into 1952. The reviews there were also mostly positive, but the critic Kenneth Tynan angered them when he suggested that Leigh's was a mediocre talent which forced Olivier to compromise his own. Tynan's diatribe almost precipitated another collapse; Leigh, terrified of failure and intent on achieving greatness, dwelt on his comments, while ignoring the positive reviews of other critics.

In January 1953 Leigh travelled to Ceylon to film Elephant Walk with Peter Finch. Shortly after filming commenced, she suffered a breakdown, and Paramount Pictures replaced her with Elizabeth Taylor. Olivier returned her to their home in England, where between periods of incoherence, Leigh told him that she was in love with Finch, and had been having an affair with him. She gradually recovered over a period of several months. As a result of this episode, many of the Oliviers' friends learnt of her problems. David Niven said she had been "quite, quite mad", and in his diary Noël Coward expressed surprise that "things had been bad and getting worse since 1948 or thereabouts."

Leigh recovered sufficiently to play The Sleeping Prince with Olivier in 1953, and in 1955 they performed a season at Stratford-upon-Avon in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Macbeth and Titus Andronicus. They played to capacity houses and attracted generally good reviews, Leigh's health seemingly stable. Noël Coward was enjoying success with the play South Sea Bubble, with Leigh in the lead role, but she became pregnant and withdrew from the production. Several weeks later, she miscarried and entered a period of depression that lasted for months. She joined Olivier for a European tour with Titus Andronicus, but the tour was marred by Leigh's frequent outbursts against Olivier and other members of the company. After their return to London, her former husband Leigh Holman, who continued to exert a strong influence over her, stayed with the Oliviers and helped calm her.

In 1958, considering her marriage to be over, Leigh began a relationship with the actor Jack Merivale, who knew of Leigh's medical condition and assured Olivier he would care for her. She achieved a success in 1959 with the Noël Coward comedy Look After Lulu, with The Times critic describing her as "beautiful, delectably cool and matter of fact, she is mistress of every situation."

In December 1960 she and Olivier divorced, and Olivier married the actress Joan Plowright, with whom he later had three children: Richard Kerr (b. 1961), Tamsin Agnes Margaret (b. 1963), and Julie-Kate (b. 1966).

In his autobiography he discussed the years of problems they had experienced because of Leigh's illness, writing, "Throughout her possession by that uncannily evil monster, manic depression, with its deadly ever-tightening spirals, she retained her own individual canniness – an ability to disguise her true mental condition from almost all except me, for whom she could hardly be expected to take the trouble."


When World War II broke out, Olivier intended to join the Royal Air Force, but was still contractually obliged to other parties. He apparently disliked actors such as Charles Laughton and Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who would hold charity cricket matches to help the war effort. Olivier took flying lessons, and racked up over 200 hours. After two years of service, he rose to the rank Lieutenant Olivier RNVR, as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm but was never called to see action.

In 1944 he and fellow actor Ralph Richardson were released from their naval commitments to form a new Old Vic Theatre Company at the New Theatre (later the Albery, now the Noel Coward Theatre) with a nightly repertory of three plays, initially Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt, Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man and Shakespeare's Richard III (which would become Olivier's signature role), rehearsed over 10 weeks to the accompaniment of German V1 ‘doodlebugs’. The enterprise, with John Burrell as manager, eventually extended to five acclaimed seasons ending in 1949, after a prestigious 1948 tour of Australia and New Zealand, which included Vivien Leigh in productions of Richard III, Richard Brinsley Sheridan's School for Scandal, and Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth.

The second New Theatre season opened with Olivier playing both Harry Hotspur and Justice Shallow to Richardson's Falstaff in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, in what is now seen as a high point of English classical theatre. The magic continued with one of Olivier's most famous endeavours, the double bill of Sophocles' Oedipus and Sheridan's The Critic, with Olivier's transition from Greek tragedy to high comedy in a single evening becoming a thing of legend. He followed this triumph with one of his favorite roles, Astrov in Uncle Vanya. Kenneth Tynan was to write (in He Who Plays the King, 1950): ‘The Old Vic was now at its height: the watershed had been reached and one of those rare moments in the theatre had arrived when drama paused, took stock of all that it had learnt since Irving, and then produced a monument in celebration. It is surprising when one considers it, that English acting should have reached up and seized a laurel crown in the middle of a war.’

In 1945 Olivier and Richardson were made honorary Lieutenants with ENSA, and did a six-week tour of Europe for the army, performing Arms and the Man, Peer Gynt and Richard III for the troops, followed by a visit to the Comédie-Française in Paris, the first time a foreign company had been invited to play on its famous stage. When Olivier returned to London the populace noticed a change in him. Olivier's only explanation was: "Maybe it's just that I've got older."

A 2007 biography of Olivier, Lord Larry: The Secret Life of Laurence Olivier by Michael Munn, claims that Olivier was recruited to be an undercover agent inside the United States for the British government by film producer and MI5 operative Alexander Korda on the instructions of Winston Churchill.

According to an article in The Telegraph, David Niven, a good friend of Olivier's, is said to have told Michael Munn, "What was dangerous for his country was that (Olivier) could have been accused of being an agent. So this was a danger for Larry because he could have been arrested. And what was worse, if German agents had realised what Larry was doing, they would, I am sure, have gone after him."

Later career

Famous throughout his career for his commitment to his art, Olivier immersed himself even more completely in his work during his later years, reportedly as a way of distracting himself from the guilt he felt at having left his second wife Vivien Leigh. He began appearing more frequently in films, usually in character parts rather than the leading romantic roles of his early career, and received Academy Award nominations for Sleuth (1972), Marathon Man (1976) and The Boys from Brazil (1978). Having been recently forced out of his role as director of the Royal National Theatre, he worried that his family would not be sufficiently provided for in the event of his death, and consequently chose to do many of his later TV special and film appearances on a "pay cheque" basis. He later freely admitted that he was not proud of most of these credits, and noted that he particularly despised the 1982 film Inchon, in which he played the role of General Douglas McArthur.

In 1967 Olivier underwent radiation treatment for prostate cancer, and was also hospitalised with pneumonia. For the remainder of his life, he would suffer from many different health problems, including bronchitis, amnesia and pleurisy. In 1974 aged 67, he was diagnosed with dermatomyositis - a degenerative muscle disorder, and nearly died the following year, but he battled through the next decade.

One of Olivier's enduring achievements involved neither stage nor screentime. In 1974, UK Thames Television released The World at War, an extensive 26-part documentary on the Second World War which Olivier narrated.

His last decade did contain three great roles for the television medium. In 1981 he appeared in Brideshead Revisited, the final episode of which revolved entirely around Olivier's character Lord Marchmain, patriarch of the Flyte family, as he came to his deathbed. Brideshead Revisited was credited with having been adapted for the screen by John Mortimer, and in the year following Brideshead, Olivier was cast in the much-praised television adaptation of Mortimer's own stage play A Voyage Round My Father, in the role of Clifford Mortimer, the author's blind father. Finally, in 1983 Olivier played his last great Shakespearian role, which inevitably was King Lear, for Granada Television. For the Voyage Olivier received a BAFTA nomination, but for the final episode of Brideshead Revisited and for the King Lear he won Emmys in the Best Supporting Actor and Best Actor categories, respectively.

When presenting the Best Picture Oscar in 1985, he absent-mindedly presented it by simply stepping up to the microphone and saying "Amadeus". He had grown forgetful, and had forgotten to read out the nominees first.

In 1986, Olivier appeared as the pre-filmed holographic narrator of the West End production of the multi-media Dave Clark rock musical Time.

One of Olivier's last feature films was Wild Geese II (1985), in which, aged 77, he played Rudolf Hess in the sequel to The Wild Geese (1978). According to the biography Olivier by Francis Becket (Haus Publishing, 2005), Hess's son Wolf Rudiger Hess said Olivier's portrayal of his father was, 'uncannily accurate'.

In 1988 Olivier gave his final performance, aged 81, as a wheelchair-bound old soldier in Derek Jarman's film War Requiem (1989).


He died at his home in Steyning, West Sussex, England, from the effects of dermato-poly-myositis, a rare degenerative muscle disorder, in 1989 at the age of 82. He left his son from his first marriage, as well as his wife and their three children. Lord Olivier's body was cremated, his ashes interred in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, London. Olivier is one of only four actors to have been accorded this honour.

Interestingly, Olivier is buried alongside some of the people he has portrayed in theatre and film, for example King Henry V, General John Burgoyne and Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding.

Fifteen years after his death, Olivier once again received star billing in a film. Through the use of computer graphics, footage of him as a young man was integrated into the 2004 film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow in which Olivier "played" the villain.

Bisexual claim

Since Olivier's death, multiple biographers have produced books about him, several of which include the claim that Olivier was bisexual. Joan Plowright has said,

I have always resented the comments that it was I who was the homewrecker of Larry's marriage to Vivien Leigh. Danny Kaye was attached to Larry far earlier than I.

Biographer Donald Spoto also stated that Kaye and Olivier were lovers. According to Sir Noel Coward, sexually speaking, Olivier had "a puppy-like acquiescence to all experiences", as quoted by friend the late Michael Thornton. Terry Coleman's authorised biography of Olivier suggests a relationship between Olivier and an older actor, Henry Ainley, based on correspondence from Ainley to Olivier although the book disputes that there is any evidence linking Olivier sexually to Kaye. Olivier's son Tarquin disputed these rumours as 'unforgivable garbage' and sought to suppress them, leading Dame Joan Plowright to privately state that "a man who had been to Eton and in the Guards might be expected to be a little more broad-minded".

Also, during the filming of A Streetcar Named Desire, which featured Olivier's wife Vivien Leigh, David Niven discovered Leigh's co-star Marlon Brando and Olivier—in Hollywood to star in William Wyler's film Carrie—kissing in the swimming pool.

I turned my back to them and went back inside to join Vivien. I'm sure she knew what was going on, but she made no mention of it. Nor did I. One must be sophisticated about such matters in life.

In August 2006, on the radio program Desert Island Discs, Plowright responded to the question of Olivier's alleged bisexuality by stating:

If a man is touched by genius, he is not an ordinary person. He doesn't lead an ordinary life. He has extremes of behaviour which you understand and you just find a way not to be swept overboard by his demons. You kind of stand apart. You continue your own work and your absorption in the family. And those other things finally don't matter.


Olivier was created a Knight Bachelor on 12 June 1947 (in the King's Birthday Honours, and created a life peer on 13 June 1970 (in the Queen's Birthday Honours) as Baron Olivier, of Brighton in the County of Sussex, the first actor to be accorded this distinction. He was admitted to the Order of Merit in 1981. The Laurence Olivier Awards, organised by The Society of London Theatre, were renamed in his honour in 1984.

Though he was a knight, a life peer, and one of the most respected personalities in the industry, Olivier insisted that one should address him as "Larry", and he simply would not listen to anyone addressing him with honorifics such as "Sir" or "Lord".











This web page was last updated on: 13 December, 2008