From the Archives: Laurence Olivier, Called Greatest Actor of His Time, Dies
Laurence Olivier, whose prowess in roles ranging from Heathcliff to King Lear brought him wide acclaim as the greatest actor of his time--and made him the first to be raised to the British peerage--died Tuesday at his home in England. He was 82.
Olivier, holder of three Academy Awards and four Emmys, had battled cancer, pleurisy and a muscle disease in recent years but did not announce his retirement until 1987. Even afterward, he continued to take on cameo roles.
There was no immediate announcement of the cause of death. “His last few days were very peaceful. He died in his sleep at noon. All the family were at his side,” said Richard Olivier, the 27-year-old son of his third marriage, to actress Joan Plowright.
In Britain, the death of a national institution was marked as theaters from the West End to Stratford dimmed their lights and lowered flags to half-staff. Queen Elizabeth II sent condolences to Olivier’s family at his home near Ashurst, a village in West Sussex about 50 miles south of London.
Across the Atlantic, Broadway theaters also dimmed their marquee lights in tribute Tuesday night.
“It isn’t too much to say that Olivier was perhaps the greatest man of the theater ever,” said Sir Peter Hall, head of the National Theater, which Olivier helped to found. “Larry Olivier’s genius shaped the last 50 years.”
A private funeral is planned, with a public memorial service in London later.
Olivier was the quintessential actor, as famous for his stage work as for his films and for the vividness of his private life. He was, by turns:
- The most pride-driven Heathcliff.
- The most tortured Hamlet.
- The most heroic Henry V.
- The most perfidious Richard III.
- The most tragically vain and foolish Lear.
He was all these and more than 100 others in the course of a career that also included successful efforts as director and producer of plays and films, the rebuilding of the Old Vic Theater Company after World War II and leadership in creating the British National Theater.
He drew a different sort of attention for his ultimately disastrous romance with actress Vivien Leigh, whom he married in 1940, shortly after she catapulted to fame as Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind.” The turbulent marriage--Olivier’s second--lasted two decades.
Olivier was the kind of performer for whom superlatives are invented . . . and discarded.
He was renowned for his daring--taking dangerous leaps about the stage and bold interpretations of character. “However many times you’d seen him, it was probably the most dangerously thrilling moment you’d seen on any stage,” actor Jeremy Brett said Tuesday.
Yet there was always at the core a sense of fun--and of proportion to Sir Laurence, Baron of Brighton.
“I’m too much of an urchin not to smile slightly at the idea of being a lord,” he said in accepting the honor. “But this peerage confers official dignity on the acting profession.”
When Michael Caine dutifully and nervously greeted him as Sir Laurence at their first meeting during the production of “Sleuth,” Olivier said, “That’s fine, and now call me Larry, please.”
Sure Sense of Worth
And while maintaining a sure sense of his own worth (“Don’t tell me whether I was good or bad in a part--I damn well know which it was, and I’ll know it before anyone else”) there was also a refusal to see himself, or his profession, as the center of the universe.
“When you think about it,” he said in a 1980 interview, “what is acting but lying? When I was small I lied all the time. . . . I like to think I was just practicing my profession. But really I was just being a bloody liar.”
It was a typical childhood memory for Olivier, who recalled that part of his life as a “mitigated horror, based mostly on being afraid of my father.”
Laurence Kerr Olivier was born May 22, 1907, in Dorking, Surrey, England. He was the third child and second son of the Rev. Gerard Kerr Olivier, an Anglo-Catholic clergyman who preached with a theatrical flair that the actor later credited with helping to decide the course of his life.
Olivier’s sister, Sybille, described the parson’s wrath as “a storming, raging tornado which he’d turn on Larry in a way he never did on our brother Dickie and me.”
But the situation was, as Olivier said, mitigated; his mother, Agnes Crookenden Olivier, became the center of his childish world. It was her sense of joy and gift of laughter that he said later enabled him to find elements of humor even in so tragic a figure as King Lear.
Though he recalled beginning his acting career on a stage he had made from a packing crate when he was 5 years old, Olivier said his first real training came at a 14-pupil choir school affiliated with the Church of All Saints in London, where he came under the influence of Geoffrey Heald, a priest devoted to the theater who directed plays as well as conducting the choir.
He played several parts in Heald’s plays, but it was his characterization of Brutus in “Julius Caesar” that caused one member of the audience--actress Ellen Terry--to write in her diary, “The small boy who played Brutus is already a great actor.”
No Serious Thought
All the same, Olivier said he gave no serious thought to an acting career. He expected his father to order him into the ministry.
But here, his father surprised him.
Confronted by young Laurence’s halfhearted plea that he be permitted to follow his brother to India, the elder Olivier drew himself up to his full height, snorted, and roared:
“Don’t be an ass! You’re going on the stage.”
Thunderstruck and overjoyed, Olivier recalled, he applied forthwith for a scholarship (“It had to be that; the Olivier family’s poverty was genteel, but very real”) to the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art.
There, he said, famed dramatic teacher Elsie Fogerty criticized his hairline, gait, eye position, nose, chin, posture, speech, gestures and intentions--but granted him, in addition to full tuition for a year, a small stipend to meet living expenses.
Between terms, he worked as a stage manager and general understudy at the St. Christopher Theater in Lechworth, where he made his professional acting debut as Lennox in “Macbeth” during Easter holidays in 1925.
On graduating, he was presented a cup as best actor in the school. But neither the cup nor the professional debut seemed to carry much weight when he emerged for his first season--and began to pay the dues the English theater traditionally exacts from beginners.
Gained Bit Parts
From walk-ons he progressed to bit parts in the provinces and then a minor role in an experimental play in London.
His performance as Malcolm in a modern-dress version of “Macbeth” earned Olivier his first real notice, and he followed with the lead in Tennyson’s verse drama “Harold” and other roles.
String of Disasters
Olivier’s first lead part in a major production was “Beau Geste.” It closed in disaster, and so did the next five plays in which he appeared.
“So you can imagine my frame of mind when a relative unknown, Noel Coward, came to me with a proposal that I join him and Gertrude Lawrence in something he’d written called ‘Private Lives.’
“I turned him down flat!”
However, Coward proved as good a salesman as he was an actor and playwright. A day of practically nonstop argument finally persuaded Olivier to change his mind. “Private Lives” opened in London to rave reviews, set box office records, and continued its winning ways when it was transplanted to New York.
More success was to come in “Rats of Norway,” “The Green Bay Tree” and “Queen of Scots,” among others.
Then, in the fall of 1935, “Romeo and Juliet” opened with Olivier in the lead and John Gielgud playing Mercutio. After seven weeks, they switched parts--and kept switching back and forth to critical hosannas for the rest of the six-month run.
“Overnight,” Olivier said, “people could remember my name. They even began to ask for my autograph. It scared me half to death.”
It also, he said later, began to change the way he viewed his chosen profession.
Decided to Restart
“I decided,” he said, “to start life all over again--and learn to act.”
He joined England’s famed Old Vic Company and began restudying the classics.
His first Old Vic role, “Hamlet” in 1937, startled critics and audiences alike with its power, and he followed with similarly effective portrayals of “Henry V” and “Macbeth” plus Sir Toby Belch in “Twelfth Night” and Iago in “Othello.”
“In Othello,” he said, “I had come to the conclusion that Iago had a homosexual attraction to Othello. It explained a lot of his motivation.
“So, to demonstrate, during a rehearsal I turned and kissed Ralph Richardson--he was playing the Moor--full on the lips. You should have seen his reaction!
“ ‘There, there, my dear boy,’ he said. ‘Steady, now. Steady!’ ”
He was, he said, well pleased with this “second start” for his life, and might very well simply have continued along the classical line on stage but for one thing.
“I discovered the movies,” he said.
Actually, he had discovered them a long time before--in 1927, when he made his film debut for Paramount in “Too Many Crooks"--but until 1939 he considered them merely a way to make enough money to live well while pursuing “important” work on stage.
“I was frightfully snobbish,” he said. “And whereas it didn’t seem to matter much in films like ‘Perfect Understanding’ and ‘No Funny Business,’ and ‘The Divorce of Lady X,’ all of which I made during the ‘30s, that attitude almost ruined me in ‘Wuthering Heights.’ ”
William Wyler, directing the film, was deeply depressed by early scenes, and there was even talk of shutting down production to recast the role.
“But Wyler took me in hand and made me look at what I was doing,” Olivier said. “I could see it, up there on the screen. I was feeling superior to the medium--and it was making me inferior.”
Olivier returned to the sound stages for retakes and began to listen to Wyler’s direction.
The result was his first nomination for an Academy Award.
“Not to mention a whole new appreciation of the possibilities of film as an art form, something I had never considered before. I began to wonder about doing Shakespeare on film. It had been tried before--with disastrous results. But still. . . .”
Other events, however, postponed Olivier’s planning.
One interruption was his first divorce.
Married to Actress
He had been married for 10 years to actress Jill Esmond; they had one son, Simon Tarquin. And now the marriage was over. Press and public made the usual noises of condolence and vague disapproval.
But the noises built to a crescendo a few days later when he was married to Leigh.
The fame of the couple (Olivier had picked up a second Oscar nomination for his performance in “Rebecca”) and their personal attractiveness were more than sufficient for millions upon millions of printed and spoken words.
“You’d have thought they had better things to write about, that year,” Olivier said.
“That year” was 1940, and one of the things Olivier, personally, was thinking about was his homeland, where World War II had taken a nearly catastrophic turn.
Goes Home to Fight
Olivier lingered in the United States long enough to appear with Katharine Cornell in the critically acclaimed “No Time for Comedy” and with his new wife in a critically deplored “Romeo and Juliet,” and then went home to fight.
Olivier was commissioned and designated a second-line pilot in the Fleet Air Arm, but he was denied any combat role--and so was amenable when it was suggested that he make radio broadcasts and films boosting morale and enlisting worldwide sympathy for the Allied cause.
And then came “Henry V.”
“We wanted,” he said “to speak of British determination and heroes. Henry V seemed the best answer. But, how to get it onto film? Shakespeare had, thus far, defied all efforts at film translation.”
The answer was a classic. Olivier’s solution to the problem of easing an audience into the rhythms of Shakespeare was to start the film on an Elizabethan stage, as though it were actually a performance at the Globe Theater--but to then move to full movie treatment and freedom for most of the play, not returning to the “reality” of the stage until the final curtain calls.
This afforded the opportunity, among other things, to show combat on horseback rather than afoot as in stage productions, and gave Olivier one of his more memorable scenes.
“Once more into the breach!” the king exhorts his men, waving his sword from the back of a gray gelding known as Blaunchkyng: “Cry, ‘God for Harry, England and St. Geo-o-o-o-rge!’ ” The slightly nasal voice slides up the scale of pitch and power as horse and man leap forward.
“A nice touch, that,” Olivier mused in later years. “All Shakespeare’s, of course; not mine. Still--I think he might have approved.”
Certainly the public did.
The film is still being shown around the world.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences liked it, too, and voted him a special Oscar for his “outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director” of the picture.
Olivier followed, in 1948, with “Hamlet,” which landed him his second Oscar as best actor. (The film, which he produced, also won an Oscar as best of the year.)
Returns to Stage
Meanwhile, he had returned to the stage. In 1944, the Old Vic Company, nearly dismantled and bankrupted by the war, had named him co-director. He got the company moving again, appearing as Button Moulder in Peer Gynt, followed by Sergius Saranoff in “Arms and the Man,” and the duke of Gloucester in “Richard III.”
He was also Astrov in “Uncle Vanya,” Hotspur in “Henry IV, Part I,” and Justice Shallow in “Henry IV, Part II,” as well as appearing in the title role of “Oedipus,” which he presented on a double bill with his portrayal of Puff in “The Critic.”
Later, in his autobiography, Olivier gave insight into his acting methods by disclosing what was on his mind while he delivered Oedipus’ terrible scream at the moment of his blinding: ermine. The trappers trick these precious animals by putting salt on the ice; the ermine lick the salt and their tongues become frozen to the ground.
It was an exhausting schedule and raised the company to a new peak of popularity and prestige, but in 1949 he moved on, leaving to stage a London production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” with Leigh in the role of Blanche du Bois.
Olivier’s long-simmering ambition to be an actor-manager in the grand tradition was fulfilled between 1950-57 by his introduction to London audiences of Christopher Fry’s elegant verse comedy, “Venus Observed,” Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera “The Consul,” and Australian playwright Ray Lawler’s drama “Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.”
Festival of Britain
He also appeared with Leigh in “Caesar and Cleopatra,” and “Antony and Cleopatra,” performing the plays on alternating nights during the Festival of Britain and later transferring both to the Ziegfeld Theater in New York, where the couple also appeared in Terence Rattigan’s “The Sleeping Prince.”
Returning to England, the Oliviers appeared in three more Shakespearean productions. But Olivier was restless and in 1957 left the classics for a time to create the tragic and self-centered character of Archie Rice in “The Entertainer,” John Osborne’s scalding repudiation of the social order. It was a daring alliance between England’s leading actor and one of the country’s new breed of “angry young men” playwrights.
Olivier remained active in films in this period--notably when he returned Shakespeare to the screen in 1956 with his sneering, malevolent--and oddly attractive--"Richard III. It was almost as well received as “Henry V” and “Hamlet.”
“The Prince and the Showgirl,” (a screen version of “Sleeping Prince,”) which paired him with Marilyn Monroe the following year, was a critical catastrophe--though Olivier always thought the reaction somewhat unjust.
“A fair person, looking at the performance and disregarding the personal lives of the players, would see it for what it was--a competent performance by professionals. The trouble was, no one looked at it that way.”
He was referring not only to Monroe’s problems, but to his own as well.
The marriage to Leigh, tempestuous from the outset, had become increasingly unsettled with the passing years, and by the late 1950s their troubles were beginning to appear in print. Leigh, tiring of the marriage, had affairs with actor Peter Finch and others and was eventually diagnosed as suffering from manic depression.
At the time, Olivier refused to comment publicly. But later, after her death, he tried to explain.
“You can reach a point,” he told an interviewer in 1979, “where it’s like a life raft that can only hold so many. You cast away the hand grasping it. You do not take it on board because otherwise, it’s both of you. Two, instead of one.”
It was, he said, “more than my life--I was afraid of killing her.”
“I nearly did, once. She was slapping me across the face with wet flannels . . . until I went into my room and closed the door. She kept beating on the door . . . until I couldn’t take it any more.
“I came out and grabbed her and threw her across the room. . . . I knew then it had ended. I had to get out.”
And so, in 1960, the Oliviers were divorced.
Tells of His Fear
His remarriage the following year--to a much younger actress, Joan Plowright, was by all accounts his happiest. The couple had three children--son Richard and daughters Tamsin and Julia Kate.
Continued to Star
On stage, he continued to play starring roles: Berenger in Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” in 1960, and both leads, at times, in Anouilh’s “Becket” in New York and on the road the same year.
On film, however, Olivier seemed to slip gradually toward the character and cameo appearance bracket with small, although highly praised, characterizations in “The Devil’s Disciple” and “Spartacus.”
A return to top billing in a film version of “The Entertainer” brought mixed reviews, and a poor box office return--and seemed to lead to a three-year hiatus, in which he abandoned films entirely.
Actually, it was more a problem of timing. “There are,” he said, “only 24 hours in most days, and I have simply got to sleep through at least five or six of them.”
Directed Three Plays
He had accepted the stewardship of the Chichester Festival Theater, England’s first arena-type auditorium, in 1961, and directed three plays for the inaugural program in the summer of 1962 (playing a major role in one) and then returned to the commercial stage for the satirical comedy “Semi-Detached” in London before accepting the managing directorship of the new National Theater of Great Britain in 1963.
Though he continued as director of the Chichester until 1965, most of his energies were absorbed by the task of creating the National Theater--acting as administrator as well as director and performer.
His efforts were, ultimately, successful; when he finally relinquished the reins of the theater in 1973, his decade of management had seen the organization firmly established--a highly respected and acclaimed national institution.
Yet there were those who shook their heads, lamenting his expenditure of time and energy in the minutiae of theatrical management.
“No one,” said director Tony Richardson, “should allow Larry to do anything but act. Few, if any, can do that so well.”
There was also a suspicion that exhaustion connected with the National Theater (he supervised, directed and appeared in such productions as “Othello,” “The Merchant of Venice,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and “The Three Sisters”) was responsible for a series of illnesses that began to plague him during the 1960s.
They included cancer of the prostate, and thrombosis that, he said, swelled his right leg until it weighed 20 pounds more than the left, and an ailment called dermo-myositis, a wasting inflammation of the muscles that also renders the skin extremely sensitive.
In his autobiography, “Confessions of an Actor,” published in 1982, Olivier revealed how he also battled overpowering stage fright in the 1960s. During a run of “Othello” he was so terrified of reciting his soliloquies that he asked another actor to stand off stage to provide reassurance.
Other Ailments, Too
He struggled through it all (“I also had appendicitis, bronchial pneumonia and a couple of other little things--enough to keep one interested”), directing and acting mainly for the National until 1974 and then simply “retired” from the theater.
He said it was a matter of physical inability.
“I can no longer be a stage actor,” he told an interviewer in 1979, “because I don’t feel I’ve got the power, the physical attributes that are absolutely necessary to be a very good, powerful, meaningful actor.
“So, we have the movies. Thank God for the movies.”
His performance as the mercurial Andrew Wyke in the hit movie “Sleuth” in 1972 had fully re-established his film career.
“Sleuth” won him another Oscar nomination as well as the New York Film Critics’ best-actor designation. Another Academy Award nomination came in 1976 for his evocation of the coldly evil dentist-torturer of “Marathon Man,” and yet another for his characterization of a relentless tracker of German war criminals in “The Boys from Brazil” in 1978.
By that time, there had been other changes in his life.
Became a Knight
He had become Sir Laurence Olivier in 1947, the youngest of his profession ever to receive such an honor. But other actors had achieved knighthood.
Olivier’s honor was unique among actors, however, when Queen Elizabeth II created him a life peer--Baron Olivier of Brighton--as a reward for his “services to the theater” in 1970.
In addition to a third Oscar (a special one, presented in 1979 for “the full body of his work”), Olivier received a gold medallion from the Swedish Academy of Literature, was an officer of the French Legion of Honor, held honorary degrees from Oxford and Edinburgh universities and three Emmy awards for television appearances in “The Moon and Sixpence,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and “Love Among the Ruins.”
More recently he played the small but powerful role of Lord Marchmain in “Brideshead Revisited,” which brought him his fourth Emmy.
There were also appearances in less laudable efforts: he was Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the disastrous “Inchon” and Van Helsing in “Dracula.”
This was balanced by his astonishing “King Lear” in which the aged actor carried off one of Shakespeare’s most physically demanding roles with flawless excellence. Another man--a lesser one, perhaps--might have called it a day then, content to exit on a rising note. But Olivier carried on: “Lear” was closely followed by “The Ebony Tower,” a television version of John Fowles’ novel filmed mainly in France.
In 1986 he had a small role in the British mini-series “Lost Empires” and published a second volume of autobiography, “On Acting.
As recently as last year, he played a wheelchair-bound general in the British film “War Requiem.” Numerous tributes marked Olivier’s 80th birthday two years ago, including a retrospective of his major films, the issuance of two birthday books, and special radio and television broadcasts.
Earlier this year, he made his last public performance, a tape-recorded appeal to preserve the remains of London’s Rose Theater, where Shakespeare is believed to have acted, which had been unearthed during construction of an office block.
In his later years, he was asked by an interviewer why, considering the precarious state of his health, he continued a strenuous work schedule. Olivier smiled wryly.
“Well, it won’t do any more to say it’s because I need the money for Joan and the kids, will it?
“I mean--they’re grown, aren’t they? The truth is, if I stopped work, I wouldn’t know what to do. Can’t imagine retiring--puttering about the garden, that sort of thing.
“No, no. I’ll tell you, I’ve always fancied making what you might call my final exit while working--at full cry. Something like a final ‘Once more into the breach . . . ' you know?
“Now, that would be fine--really fine.”
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get all the day's most vital news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.