Created | Updated Dec 31, 2012
It is likely that, if people were asked who was the best actor of the 20th Century, Olivier would come out on top. He had success on stage, the English theatre awards are named after him, and screen, a couple of Oscars and numerous nominations, in productions ranging from Shakespeare to contemporary scripts. He worked with some of the best actors and directors of his time - William Wyler, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick amongst others.
Born in a poor family in Dorking, Surrey, England in 1907, he showed great promise while young; in a school production of Julius Caesar aged ten, he was noticed by the great actress Ellen Terry, who commented, 'the small boy who played Brutus is already a great actor'. At 14, his performance as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew attracted the attention of the press.
After some strong performances in unsuccessful plays, he was given the role of Victor Prynne in Noël Coward's play Private Lives by Coward himself, in 1930. While Olivier did not do anything special, being in a Coward play was very prestigious. A call-up to Hollywood resulted, and though Olivier made no great ripples, it made him a star, and gave him influence upon his return to the London stage in 1933.
A close partnership and alternation of leading roles with Ralph Richardson at the Old Vic theatre, London in such productions as Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and Henry V established Olivier as one of the leading actors of his generation. This reputation was cemented in the 1940s with his films of Henry V, Hamlet and especially his highly acclaimed performance in Richard III and the roles of Oedipus and Mr Puff.
Olivier became the first director of the National Theatre1 in 1962. Poor health forced a relatively early retirement from stage acting in the 1970s - though a hologram of him appeared in a West End production in the 1980s, and he continued acting on British television and in films.
In On Acting, Olivier's book about his thoughts on and approaches to some of his best known roles, he admitted he had aimed, from an early stage in his career, on reaching the very top of his profession and being thought of as the best actor of his age. Success was a major concern in his life, and he could be disparaging to fellow actors and, though he aided the careers of many of the next generation - for example Derek Jacobi and Anthony Hopkins - he saw them as a threat, whenever they did well.
It has been said by many that he could be a different person from day to day. When asked how she could tell when he was acting and when not, his third wife joked, 'Oh, Larry's acting all the time'. Olivier himself noted that he was not entirely sure where the performance ended and the 'real' him began. As he wrote in his introduction to On Acting, 'Scratch an actor, and underneath you will find another actor'.
While there is no doubt that his wide range of personas on stage applied to some extent to his private life, he certainly knew his own mind. It is likely that his need to perform - which he said he felt from an early age - affected his manner toward others. Who Olivier was depended on who you were.
His best work
- Sergius Saranoff in Arms and the Man, 1944.
- Title role in Richard III, 1944.
- Title role in Oedipus Rex, 1945.
- Mr Puff in The Critic, 1945.
- Title role in Macbeth, 1954.
- Archie Rice in The Entertainer, 1957.
- Title role in Othello, 1964.
- Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, 1970.
- James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night., 1971
- Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, 1939.
- Title role in Henry V, 1944.
- Title role in Hamlet, 1947.
- Crassus in Spartacus, 1959.
- Archie Rice in The Entertainer, 1959.
- Andrew Wyke in Sleuth, 1972.
- The White Angel in Marathon Man, 1976.
Most Memorable Moments
The breakfast scene; Private Lives, 1931.
During the New York run of this Noël Coward play, Coward had been constantly ad libbing to make Olivier corpse2 in order to cure him of a strong tendency to laugh onstage. On one occasion, however, an ad lib by Olivier sent Coward into hysterics, while Olivier managed to remain straight-faced.
Act I, Scene I; Richard III, 1944.
It's the first scene of one of the most original creations of 20th Century theatre. The moment that Olivier limped onstage and spoke in a thin voice of pure evil.
Coriolanus' death; Coriolanus, 1959.
Olivier was famous for his death scenes, and this was probably his best. Pursued to the edge of a gantry and stabbed, he toppled off the edge until his ankles were caught by his killers, and hung upside down in thin air. The man had balls.
The scene with the two princes; Richard III, 1954.
In this bit (which, in the play, is Act III, Scene I), watch Olivier's reaction to the young Duke of York's reference to Richard's hunchback, 'He thinks that you should bear me on your shoulders'. Olivier is in the process of turning around, a smile on his face. At the comment, the smile becomes a murderous stare, to the accompaniment of a screech of strings on William Walton's soundtrack.
Archie Rice's world collapses; The Entertainer, 1959.
Music-hall entertainer Archie Rice lives an act, and even when he takes time off from it he has another mask underneath. In this scene, the dream Archie had been seeking for so long, which seemed to be in the bag, disastrously collapses. He's on the phone, pleading, as the cast of his failing show gather around, rejoicing in his downfall. For once, Olivier shows us the real man under all the layers, and his desperation is unparalleled, particularly in Olivier's urgent whisper, 'You must give me more time'.
The 'Is it safe?' scene; Marathon Man, 1976.
Dustin Hoffman switches from nonchalance to fear, gabbling away. Olivier says the same line over and over and over again, and steals the scene. Especially when he pretends to examine Hoffman's teeth and jabs him with a scalpel. Genius.
He was Human
Yes, Olivier was mortal, he died in 1989 - Sir John Gielgud3 is reported to have greeted him in hospital with 'Larry, you're dead! I mean, you're dying! Er...poor Larry, you don't look at all well'. And yes, he made mistakes.
- The Prince and the Showgirl, 1956.
- The Battle of Britain, 1969.
- The Seven Per Cent Solution, 1976.
- A Bridge Too Far, 1976.
- The Betsy, 1978.
- A Little Romance, 1979.
- Clash of the Titans, 1981.
The story is set in 1911 for the coronation of King George V and tells the story of how a prince (Olivier) falls in love with, funnily enough, a showgirl (Monroe). A bit bland as Olivier was not getting on at all well with Marilyn Monroe.
It's the summer of 1940 and the film tells the true story of how Britain defended herself against the German airforce. Olivier spends the whole film looking depressed, even after he's beaten the Luftwaffe. The film lost ten million pounds.
This is the story where Dr Watson lures Sherlock Holmes to Vienna in order to be cured of his complexes and cocaine addiction by Freud. He shouldn't have done it, Michael Caine can perhaps be blamed, since during the making of Sleuth in 1972 he advised Olivier to do as many films as possible so as to earn more money.
This is the story of the Allied defeat in Arnhem 19444. Olivier sported a dodgy accent which spoilt a great cameo.
This is the story of an old car manufacturer who is trying to survive in the corporate board room and home. Quite simply, he shouldn't have done it because it was an unworthy script.
This is the story of two teenagers who elope following the advice of an ageing pickpocket. The film was below his talents but he still shone in what was truly a piece of over-cooked ham.
Guilty of overacting at times in this Greek epic.
There are several very well-known episodes from Olivier's life. Here are a few of them.
- Othello, Old Vic, London, 1964.
- Marathon Man, Hollywood, 1976.
- King Lear, BBC, 1983.
His portrayal of the title character was deemed exceptional, but one night Olivier apparently outdid himself. After the show, the rest of the cast formed a tunnel, applauding him as he went back to his dressing room. But Olivier looked sulky, and shut the door on everyone. One cast member went up to the door and asked what was wrong, telling Olivier he had been brilliant. 'I know,' came the reply, 'But I don't know how I did it, so how can I do it again?'
This is probably the most famous of them all. There are two versions: co-star Dustin Hoffman had either stayed up the whole weekend to prepare for a scene where his character had done just that, or had run around the block for a scene where he was supposed to be out of breath. Olivier was amazed at this behaviour; Hoffman asked how else it could be done. Olivier's response: 'Try acting, dear boy'.
Olivier was by now 76, and the past decade had been one of several illnesses, forcing a retirement from the stage. The BBC crew in this production watched the frail old man prepare for a take in Act V, Scene III, where he had to enter carrying his dead daughter Cordelia. The actress in question was suspended on wires due to Olivier's frailty. However, upon the cry 'Action!', Olivier stood straight, his eyes lit up, and he strode on, carrying Cordelia so high that the wires went slack.
After a special screening of the production at the White House, President Reagan turned to Olivier and said, 'After that, I don't think I'll call myself an actor any more'.
The Green Umbrella Method
Most actors will say that they feel more comfortable in the role once they have their costume and/or props. Olivier's approach to acting often consisted of finding the external look, walk, speech of the character and then progressing to the inner thoughts and feelings. Famous for his make-up, especially his putty noses, as exemplified in Richard III and as Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night - he was not averse to travelling the Circle Line on the London Underground, which he averred would always yield someone who looked or moved like the character he was playing.
One day, having no idea about a particular role, he went for a walk until he spied a green umbrella in a shop window. Certain that his character would have such an implement, he bought it, and began his character development from there. From then on, he referred to his use of props to give him clues to roles as 'the green umbrella method'. On another occasion, being asked by a fellow actor for advice on playing a particular role, he replied, 'All I can tell you is he wears glasses'.
Other points of note
Knighted in 1947.
Created Baron Olivier of Brighton in 1970.
Gave introductory speech at United Nations 1st anniversary celebrations, 1949.
Married three times; to Jill Esmond (1930 - 1940), Vivien Leigh5 (1940 - 1960), Joan Plowright (1961 - 1989).