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Lord Olivier: To ‘Sir’ With Love : Despite Triumphs and Titles, Always the Working Actor

Times Arts Editor

He was first knighted to Sir Laurence and then elevated to a life peerage as Baron Olivier of Brighton, complete with ermine robe (which I believe he rented for his investiture). But Laurence Olivier, who died Tuesday at the age of 82 after a long and courageous battle with crippling illness, thought of himself always and above all else as a working actor.

Once, at a small dinner party with Dustin Hoffman and others after the completion of “Marathon Man,” Olivier was being jovially toasted as His Lordship. He leaned toward me and said under his breath, “I’ve also answered to ‘Hey, schmuck.’ ”

Yet he was beyond serious question the preeminent actor of the English stage in his time, the most charismatic and the most effective, thanks to his dual roles as actor and as the driving force first of the Old Vic and then of the National Theatre.

There have been three dozen fine Hamlets, or more, in this century. But Olivier’s reading, in the dazzling film he also produced and directed, will, I think, remain the one by which the others are measured. His stirring interpretation of “Henry V” must forever carry English hearts back to the glory days, before the winds of change began to blow.

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Yet Olivier’s portrayal of a failed and embittered song-and-dance comic in “The Entertainer” became one of his most vivid performances on stage and screen. He was himself neither failed nor embittered, yet it seemed evident that Olivier identified in the depths of his soul with the idea of the trouper, and the trouper’s ever-tenuous relationship with fickle audiences.

He had a glorious townhouse in the Royal Crescent above the sea in Brighton (thus the Baron Olivier of Brighton), where he lived with his wife, Joan Plowright, and their children. But his stage career hadn’t earned him much of an estate. His first savings were blown in a disastrous Broadway “Romeo and Juliet” that he and then-wife Vivien Leigh produced. He was paid only about 400 a week as head of the National Theatre.

Anxious to provide an inheritance for his young family, he undertook film roles, often of a preposterous villainy, as in “Marathon Man,” that were a very far cry from Richard III and Othello. But he did them with characteristic flair and conviction.

He continued to work when he could rise from a chair only with great difficulty. In an ironic and almost miraculous way, Olivier in his last outings could somehow act better health than he possessed. While the cameras turned, he could stride and parry; when they stopped, he was again ailing and infirm. In the end, Olivier was his own greatest performance.

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In the early ‘60s, Richard Meryman of Life magazine did a two-part profile of Olivier, who had asked the right to review the copy. I carried the copy to him, first to Birmingham where he was playing “Othello” out of town, and then to Brighton, where he was resting up before the London opening at the National. He didn’t change a word, but you can’t be too careful.

At Brighton, over a whiskey, he reminisced about his early visits to Los Angeles, when he and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Robert Montgomery were young tigers together and he stayed at an apartment above the Sunset Strip, from which, one of them said, you could see all of Marion Davies.

The line reminded Olivier of a trip he and his first wife, Jill Esmond, had made to San Simeon for one of William Randolph Hearst’s legendary weekend gatherings. They drove up late Friday, not stopping to eat, in the expectation of grand food when they arrived. Instead they were shown directly to their guest room. Starved, Olivier prowled the halls and stairways until he finally roused a footman who thought he could rustle up ham sandwiches and glasses of warm milk.

“Wuthering Heights” remains the high point of his Hollywood years, its soaringly romantic tone ideally suited to the dark good looks and the darkly melodious voice of the young Olivier. But the stage was first and last his real home. Often on film he seems the actor acting, the marvelous technique and the impeccable accents to be noted as technique and accomplishment.

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On stage, the technique could be seen and thrilled-over as the masterful achievement it was. As Othello, Olivier became the Moor, the walk, the voice, the features, the very aspect of Laurence Olivier submerged and lost within the passionate warrior. And when he came to throttle Maggie Smith as his Desdemona, one feared ever so slightly for her safety, so deep did Othello’s raging despair seem to run.

On one of Olivier’s last visits to Los Angeles, I went to talk with him about his autobiography, just published. He was staying at his son Richard’s rather untidy undergraduate apartment near UCLA. Olivier had to step carefully and with some amusement over a pile of undergraduate clothes to reach a chair.

It was not a profoundly confessional autobiography, although it talked candidly of a career that very nearly foundered at the start, when his style was decried as a skein of supercilious mannerisms. He learned, and grew, but I suspect it is not quite correct to say he never looked back.

My guess is that he never stopped thinking of himself as a working actor rather than as a peer or a legend--an actor aware that failure and rejection lurk on every side and that your next performance is the one that matters most crucially.

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Olivier once said that you are only as good as you dare to be bad, and in this, as well as in the physical travails of his late years, an extravagant courage defined his work.

After our conversation in Richard’s apartment, I volunteered to drive Olivier to Tony Richardson’s house above the Sunset Strip for a luncheon with some of the English contingent living in Hollywood. Too nervous with my cargo to say much, I stole a glance now and again at Baron Olivier of Brighton, who was smiling at landmarks he remembered from the days he was a young tiger, before the triumphs and the titles.


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