Laurence Olivier Dies : Triple Oscar Winner Was Era’s Foremost Shakespearean Actor : Quiet End for Life of High Drama
Laurence Olivier, acclaimed as the greatest actor of his generation and the 20th-Century giant of the Shakespearean theater, died today. He was 82.
The triple Oscar winner died “peacefully in his sleep,” surrounded by friends and relatives at his home south of London, said his agent, Laurence Evans. The cause of death was not given.
“His last few days were very peaceful,” said Richard Olivier, the actor’s 27-year-old son. “He died in his sleep at noon.”
The son spoke from the family home near the village of Ashurst, 50 miles south of London. He said a private funeral is planned, followed by a public memorial service in London.
Both Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent condolences to Olivier’s family, praising his “extraordinary talents.”
‘It’s hard to think of a world without Laurence Olivier, and now it’s happened, and it’s hard to believe,” said Rosemary Harris, who appeared with Olivier in the National Theater production of “Hamlet” in 1963 and in the film “The Boys from Brazil.”
“He was the greatest actor of this century,” said actor Anthony Hopkins, who worked with Olivier in two films, “A Bridge Too Far” and “The Bounty.”
“He would hurl himself into the role, and that can be quite dangerous to limb and body. He had tremendous athletic daring,” said Hopkins.
Charlton Heston, a friend of Olivier who worked with him in the 1966 film “Khartoum,” said from his Los Angeles home that Olivier “dared to go where few others venture.”
Flags at the National Theater were lowered to half-staff and West End theaters ordered their lights doused for an hour but did not shut down. “That would have been the last thing he would have wanted,” said a theater spokesman.
Olivier’s last professional appearance was in the 1988 movie “War Requiem,” based on the oratorio by composer Benjamin Britten.
Knighted, ennobled and revered by the film and theater world, he was Lord Olivier when he died, one of the very few Britons to be given a seat in the House of Lords for his acting prowess.
Olivier’s first Academy Award was a special Oscar in 1946 for “Henry V,” awarded “for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director,” and the second was for his starring role in “Hamlet” in 1948.
Entire Career Remembered
In 1979 he was given an honorary Oscar “for the full body of his work, for the unique achievements of his entire career and his lifetime of contribution to the art of film.”
Olivier was nominated for Oscars for numerous other films including “Wuthering Heights” in 1939, “Rebecca” in 1940, “Richard III” in 1956, “The Entertainer” in 1960, “Othello” in 1965 and “Sleuth” in 1972.
With ferocious will, Olivier fought cancer, pleurisy and a muscular disease that made even handshakes agony. He endured two miserable marriages and years of paralyzing stage fright, contemplated murder and suicide and battled his own rages, guilts and drinking.
On his 80th birthday, tributes flowed during a ceremony at the National Theater, which he founded in 1963.
“Awe and wonder, you gave us awe and wonder,” actress Dame Peggy Ashcroft told him at the time. Director Peter Hall called him “the genius performer.”
For Olivier, life and acting were inseparable. “I have to act to breathe,” he said.
By turns, he loved and hated his craft--but never would contemplate retiring from it. Acting simply consumed him.
Quest for Perfection
He was forever searching for new ways to broaden his range and reach the hearts of his audience. For instance, seeking to conjure up Oedipus’ abject cry of despair, he would imagine the cry of the arctic ermine when it licks the salt laid down by its hunters and its tongue sticks to the ice.
Whatever sex drive he had, Olivier wrote in his 1982 autobiography “Confessions of an Actor,” went into his acting. “You can’t be more than one kind of athlete at a time. A sexual athlete is not likely to find sufficient energy for work of another athletic kind.”
Born May 22, 1907, in the town of Dorking southwest of London, Laurence Kerr Olivier was the third child of an Anglican clergyman who encouraged him to try acting.
At age 10, he was Brutus in a school performance. At 15, he donned women’s clothes to play Katherine in a Stratford Festival boys’ production of “The Taming of the Shrew.”
After studying acting in Birmingham, his first professional role was in 1922 in a sketch in a small touring company. In his first London role, in Alice Law’s 1924 “Byron,” he tripped over a doorsill and fell on his face.
Alternates With Gielgud
His first marriage, to actress Jill Esmond in 1930, produced a son but ended in divorce. Meanwhile, his career was soaring through Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” in London and New York, and Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” in which he and John Gielgud alternated playing Romeo and Mercutio.
With Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, fellow knights-to-be, he formed a partnership that re-made English theater.
Olivier played a dazzling succession of Shakespearean triumphs--"Hamlet,” “Henry V,” “Macbeth.” Movie stardom came in 1939 when he moved to Hollywood and made “Wuthering Heights.”
In that same year, Olivier appeared with Vivien Leigh in a New York production of “Romeo and Juliet.” After nearly two years of clandestine love, he obtained a divorce and the two were wed.
That marriage, glamorous in public, was another debacle. Leigh soon fell out of love, had a series of affairs and descended into manic depression that tormented Olivier. He had crippling bouts of stage fright and contemplated suicide.
They were divorced in 1961, and Olivier wed actress Joan Plowright, with whom he finally found happiness. They had a son, Richard, and two daughters, Tamsin and Julie-Kate. All three are either studying or working in the theater.
During World War II, he made the three films that sealed his reputation as the finest Shakespearean actor in film: “Henry V,” “Hamlet,” for which he won a best-actor Oscar in 1949, and “Richard III.”
Played Fading Comic
In the 1960s and 1970s he had scores of memorable roles, from the fading comic Archie Rice in John Osborne’s “The Entertainer” to Astrov in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” to the Nazi who tortures Dustin Hoffman in the film “Marathon Man.”
Olivier was proudest of his founding of Britain’s National Theater. “Only a man of his titanic standing and relentless energy could have brought the project to fruition,” wrote Alan Hamilton in The Times.
He was among a group of actors knighted for their work, but in 1971 was elevated to a peerage as Baron Olivier of Brighton.
His last public performance was a tape-recorded speech with extracts from “Henry V,” his contribution to a campaign to prevent developers covering up the ruins of the Rose Theater in London, where Shakespeare is thought to have acted.