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Laurence Olivier

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The Right Honourable
The Lord Olivier

Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1939
Born Laurence Kerr Olivier
(1907-05-22)22 May 1907
Dorking, Surrey,
United Kingdom
Died 11 July 1989(1989-07-11) (aged 82)
Steyning, Sussex,
United Kingdom
Occupation Actor, director, producer, screenwriter
Years active 1926–1988
Spouse(s) Jill Esmond (1930–1940; divorced; 1 child)
Vivien Leigh (1940–1960; divorced)
Joan Plowright (1961–1989; his death; 3 children)

Laurence Kerr Olivier, Baron Olivier, OM (pronounced  /ˈlɒrəns ɵˈlɪvi.eɪ/; 22 May 1907 – 11 July 1989) was an English actor, director, and producer. He was one of the most famous and revered actors of the 20th century. He married three times, to fellow actors Jill Esmond, Vivien Leigh and Joan Plowright.

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 regarded by some 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 AMPAS 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 the title role in 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 the year before 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, and A Bridge Too Far, 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 number 14 on the list.

Early life

Olivier was born on 22 May 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. Olivier took solace in the care of his mother, Agnes Louis (née Crookenden; 1871–1920, and herself the younger sister of High Anglican vicar George Pelham Crookenden), and was grief-stricken when she died (at 48) when he was only 12. Gerard Dacres "Dickie" (1904–1958) and Sybille (1901–1989) were his two older siblings. His uncle was Sydney Olivier, 1st Baron Olivier, a career civil servant and Fabian who ended up as a Governor of Jamaica and as Secretary of State for India in the first government of Ramsay MacDonald.

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 was educated at the choir school of All Saints', Margaret Street, London. He played Brutus in his school's production of "Julius Caesar" at the age of 9, where Ellen Terry noted he was "already a great actor". At 13 he went to St Edward's School, Oxford again appearing in school drama productions: he was a "bold" Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew (selected for a schools' drama festival at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford) and Puck in Midsummer Night's Dream, played "very well, to everyone's disgust", as Olivier noted in his diary. After his brother, Dickie, 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, 17 years old, attended the Central School of Speech and Drama, tutored by Elsie Fogerty. 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 Hamlet and Macbeth. In 1928, he was cast to play Captain Stanhope in the Apollo theatre's first production of Journey's End, a play which would expand his career. He always insisted that his acting was pure technique, and he was contemptuous of contemporaries who adopted method acting popularised by Lee Strasberg.

Olivier with his future second wife, Vivien Leigh, in Fire Over England (1937)

Olivier married Jill Esmond, a rising young actress, on 25 July 1930; their only son, Simon Tarquin was born on 21 August 1936. Olivier was, however, from the beginning not happy in his first marriage. 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 temporarily renounced religion and soon came to resent his wife, though the marriage would last for ten years. Despite this supposed resentment, Olivier remained in congenial contact with Esmond until his death (as documented by their son Tarquin in his book My Father Laurence Olivier), accompanying her to Tarquin’s wedding in January 1965.

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 breakthrough was in Noël Coward's Private Lives in 1930, followed by Shakespeare's 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.

In 1939, Olivier starred in a production of No Time for Comedy, by S.N. Behrman in a Katharine Cornell with them both in leading roles. It was his first prominent role on Broadway.

The engagement as Romeo resulted in an invitation by Lilian Baylis to be the star at the Old Vic 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 on-stage. 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.

The move to Hollywood

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 realised 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, with a nomination 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 in simple ceremony on 31 August 1940 with only Katharine Hepburn and Garson Kanin as witnesses. Olivier's American film career flourished with highly regarded performances in Rebecca and Pride and Prejudice (both 1940).

in 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 tuberculosis was diagnosed in Leigh's left lung, but after spending several weeks in hospital, she appeared to be cured. In the 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.


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 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 of 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 Noël 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, 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.

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 favourite 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 1944, Olivier filmed Henry V, which—in view of the patriotic nature of the story of the English victory—was viewed as a psychological contribution to the British war effort.

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. Munn's main source was Hollywood producer Jesse Lasky, who believed that "Larry...was drumming up support, and doing it with the British Government's sanction".

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."

Post-war years

Olivier and Leigh arriving in Brisbane, Australia, June 1948

In 1947 Olivier was made 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 Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal and Thornton Wilder's 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 School for Scandal and Antigone, and Olivier was contracted to direct. Leigh would go on to star as Blanche in the 1951 film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, earning her second Academy Award for Best Actress.

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 learned 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."

Shakespeare trilogy

After gaining widespread popularity in the film medium, Olivier was approached by several investors (namely Filippo Del Giudice, Alexander Korda and J. Arthur Rank), to create several Shakespearean films, based on stage productions of each respective play. Olivier tried his hand at directing, and as a result, created three highly successful films: Henry V, Hamlet, and Richard III.

Henry V

During the Second World War, Olivier made his directorial debut with a film of Shakespeare's Henry V. At first, he did not believe he was up to the task, instead trying to offer it to William Wyler, Carol Reed, and Terence Young. The film was shot in Ireland (because it was a neutral country), with the Irish plains serving for the fields of Agincourt and the Irish army providing extras for the battle scenes. During the shooting of one of the battle scenes, a horse collided with a camera that Olivier was operating. Olivier had had his eye to the viewfinder; and, when the horse crashed into his position, the camera smashed into him, cutting his lip and leaving a scar that would be visible in later roles.

The film opened to rave reviews; it was the first widely successful Shakespeare film, and was considered a work of art. The film received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor, but the Academy, in Olivier's opinion, did not feel comfortable in giving out all of their major awards to a foreigner, so they gave him a special Honorary Award. Olivier disregarded the award as a "fob-off".


Olivier followed up on his success with an adaptation of Hamlet. He had played this role more often than he had Henry, and was more familiar with the melancholy Dane. However, Olivier was not particularly comfortable with the introverted role of Hamlet, as opposed to the extroverts that he was famous for portraying. The running time of Hamlet (1948) was not allowed to exceed 153 minutes, and as a result Olivier cut almost half of Shakespeare's text, excising Rosencrantz and Guildernstern completely. He was severely criticised for doing so by purists, most notably Ethel Barrymore; Barrymore stated that the adaptation was not nearly as faithful to the original text as her brother John's stage production from 1922. Ironically, Ethel presented the Best Picture Oscar that year—and was visibly shaken when she read,"Hamlet".

The film became another resounding critical and commercial success in Britain and abroad, winning Olivier Best Picture and Best Actor at the 1948 Academy Awards. It was the first British film to win Best Picture, and Olivier's only Best Actor win, a category for which he would be nominated five more times before his death. Olivier also became the first person to direct himself in an Oscar-winning performance, a feat not repeated until Roberto Benigni directed himself to Best Actor of 1998 for Life Is Beautiful. Also, Olivier remains the only actor to receive an Oscar for a Shakespearean role. Olivier, however, did not win the Best Director Oscar that year.

Richard III

Olivier's third major Shakespeare project as director and star was Richard III. Alexander Korda initially approached Olivier to reprise on film the role he had played to acclaim at the Old Vic in the 1940s. This role had been lauded as Olivier's greatest (rivalled only by his 1955 stage production of Macbeth and his performance as the music hall performer Archie Rice in The Entertainer), and is arguably his greatest screen performance. During the filming of the battle scenes in Spain, one of the archers actually shot Olivier in the ankle, causing him to limp. Fortunately, the limp was required for the part, so Olivier had already been limping for the parts of the film already shot.

Although the film was critically well received (Olivier would be nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for the fifth time), it was a financial failure. Korda sold the rights to the American television network NBC, and the film became the first to be aired on television and released in theatres simultaneously. Many deduce that from the enormous ratings that the NBC transmissions received, more people saw Richard III in that single showing than all the people who had seen it on stage in the play's history.

The Entertainer

After World War II, apart from his Shakespeare trilogy, Olivier had made only sporadic film appearances. In the second half of the 1950s, British theatre was changing with the rise of the " Angry Young Men". John Osborne, author of Look Back in Anger, wrote a play for Olivier entitled The Entertainer, centred on a washed-up stage comedian called Archie Rice, which opened at the Royal Court on 10 April 1957. As Olivier later stated, "I am Archie Rice. I am not Hamlet."

During rehearsals of The Entertainer, Olivier met Joan Plowright, who took over the role of Jean Rice from Dorothy Tutin when Tony Richardson's Royal Court production transferred to the Palace Theatre in September 1957. Later, in 1960, Tony Richardson also directed the screen version with Olivier and Plowright repeating their stage roles. Olivier received his fifth Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for The Entertainer.

Olivier married Plowright on St. Patrick's Day, 1961.

National Theatre

Olivier was one of the founders, and the inaugural director, of the National Theatre. He became first NT Director at the Old Vic before the South Bank building was constructed with his opening production of Hamlet in October 1963.

During his directorship he appeared in twelve plays (taking over roles in three) and directed nine, enjoying particularly remarkable personal successes for his performances in Othello (1964), The Dance of Death (1967) and Long Day's Journey into Night (1971). Reportedly, some felt that his tenure as the director of the NT was marred by his jealousy towards other performers when he manoeuvred to block famous names like John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson from appearing there, although young actors like Michael Gambon, Robert Lang, Maggie Smith, Sheila Reid, Christopher Timothy, Alan Bates, Frank Finlay and Derek Jacobi and Anthony Hopkins (both of whom understudied Olivier) made their names there during the period. Olivier's career at the National ended, in his view, in betrayal when the theatre's governorship decided to replace him with Peter Hall in 1973 without consulting him on the choice and not informing him of the decision until several months after it had been made.


Olivier underwent a transformation, requiring extensive study and heavy weightlifting, to get the physique needed for the Moor of Venice. It is said that he bellowed at a herd of cows for an hour to get the deep voice that was required. John Dexter's 1964 stage production of the play was filmed in 1965, securing Olivier his sixth Oscar nomination for Best Actor. The production was a huge public success as it also was with most of the critics. Franco Zeffirelli said of Olivier's acting: "It's an anthology of everything that has been discovered about acting in the past three centuries." Even so, it has not gone without criticism: in 1997, director Jonathan Miller called it "a condescending view of an Afro Caribbean person".

Three Sisters

Olivier's final film as director was the 1970 film Three Sisters, based on the Chekhov play of the same name, and his 1967 National Theatre production. It was, in Olivier's opinion, his best work as director. The film was co-directed by John Sichel.

In addition, his most fondly remembered National Theatre performances at the Old Vic were as Astrov in his own production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, seen first in 1962 at the Chichester Festival Theatre, of which he was the founding director; his Captain Brazen in William Gaskill's December 1963 staging of George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer; Shylock in Jonathan Miller's 1970 revival of The Merchant of Venice; and his definitive portrayal of James Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, produced in December 1971 by Michael Blakemore. These last two were later restaged for television, and telecast both in England and in the United States.

He played a droll supporting role as the ancient Antonio in Franco Zeffirelli's 1973 production of Eduardo De Filippo's Saturday, Sunday, Monday, with his wife Joan Plowright in the starring role of Rosa. His final stage appearance, on 21 March 1974, was as the fiery Glaswegian, John Tagg, in John Dexter's production of Trevor Griffiths's The Party.

The only appearance he made on the stage of the new Olivier Theatre was at the royal opening of the new National Theatre building on 25 October 1976.

Later career

Laurence Olivier in 1972, during the production of Sleuth.

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; Supporting Actor) 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 MacArthur.

In 1966, Olivier portrayed the Mahdi ( Mahommed Ahmed), opposite Charlton Heston as General Gordon in the film Khartoum. The next year, he 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, at age 67, he was found to have dermatomyositis, a degenerative muscle disorder, and nearly died the following year, but he battled through the next decade.

In 1968, he starred as Piotr Ilyich Kamenev, the Soviet Premier, in the movie version of The Shoes of the Fisherman along with Anthony Quinn, Leo McKern, John Gielgud, and Oskar Werner. The movie was nominated for two Academy awards, and was produced during the height of the Cold War.

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

His last decade did contain three notable roles for television. 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 home to die. The next year Olivier was cast in the much-praised television adaptation of John Mortimer's stage play A Voyage Round My Father, in the role of Clifford Mortimer, the author's blind father. In 1975 he appeared as an aging British barrister, opposite Katharine Hepburn, in a British TV production of Love Among the Ruins. Finally, in 1983 Olivier played his last great Shakespearean role, King Lear, for Granada Television. For Voyage, Olivier received a BAFTA nomination, but for the final episode of Brideshead Revisited and for King Lear he won Emmys in the Best Supporting Actor and Best Actor categories, respectively.

When presenting the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards for 1984 (held 25 March 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.

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 Rüdiger Hess said Olivier's portrayal of his father was "uncannily accurate". In 1986, Olivier appeared as the pre-filmed holographic narrator of the West End production of the multimedia Dave Clark rock musical Time.

On 31 May 1987 the National Theatre put on a 80th birthday tribute pageant, with Olivier, and his family in attendance. It was held in the National’s Olivier theatre with Alec McCowen as Richard Burbage, Edward Petherbridge as David Garrick, Ben Kingsley as Edmund Kean and Anthony Sher as Henry Irving. Peter Hall as Shakespeare, Peggy Ashcroft as Lillian Baylis, Maureen Lipman, Albert Finney, Julia McKenzie and Imelda Staunton.

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

Family and Death

Olivier died at his home in Steyning, West Sussex, England, from renal failure on 11 July 1989. He was survived by his son Tarquin from his first marriage, as well as his wife Joan Plowright and their three children. He was cremated and his ashes interred in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, London. Olivier is one of only a few actors, along with David Garrick, Henry Irving, Ben Jonson and Sybil Thorndike to have been accorded this honour. Olivier is buried alongside some of the people he 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.


Since Olivier's death, multiple biographers have produced books about him, several of which include the claim that Olivier was bisexual. Biographer Donald Spoto claimed that Danny Kaye and Olivier were lovers. Joan Plowright, Olivier's widow, denies the affair with Kaye in her memoir but does not deny that Olivier may have been bisexual. 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.

In her 2001 autobiography, Joan Plowright wrote, "Larry tended to shower almost everyone he knew with endearments and demonstrative terms of address. In the same way as the macho Sean Kenny had to put up with ‘Shawnie, darling’, and our son Richard had to endure 'Dickie-Wickie' for a short time, there is a published letter addressing his supposed arch-enemy, Peter Hall, as 'My dear Peterkins'. And Larry could say, 'I adored Danny Kaye', in exactly the same way as he said, 'I adored old Ralphie', without anyone suspecting Ralph Richardson of harbouring carnal desires for his own sex. — No man, alive or dead, has ever claimed to have slept with Larry, though the kiss-and-tell merchants of the female sex have tumbled over themselves to boast of a night or two, here or there."

However, 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 he be addressed as "Larry", which he made clear he preferred to "Sir Laurence" or "Lord Olivier".


On 22 May 2007, to mark centenary of Olivier's birth, Network Media and ITV released DVD libraries of his work: Network Media—The Laurence Olivier Centenary Collection (10 discs):

  • Henry V (1944)
  • Richard III (1955)
  • King Lear (1983)
  • The Ebony Tower (1984)
  • Long Day's Journey Into Night (1973)
  • The Merchant of Venice (1973)
  • Laurence Olivier Presents (complete)
  • The South Bank Show: Laurence Olivier, A Life (1982) featuring interviews with Olivier, John Gielgud and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

ITVLaurence Olivier Shakespeare Collection (7 discs):

  • King Lear (1983)
  • Henry V (1944)
  • Hamlet (1948)
  • As You Like It (1936)
  • Richard III (1955)
  • The Merchant of Venice (1973)

ITVThe Laurence Olivier "Icon" Collection (10 discs):

  • Henry V (1944)
  • Richard III (1955)
  • Hamlet (1948)
  • 21 Days (1940)
  • That Hamilton Woman (1941)
  • 49th Parallel (1941)
  • The Demi-Paradise (1943)
  • The Boys from Brazil (1978)
  • A Little Romance (1979)
  • The Jazz Singer (1980)
  • Clash of the Titans (1981 film)

Both DVD sets include a Michael Parkinson interview with Olivier from the 1970s.

In September 2007 the National Theatre marked the centenary of his birth with a Centenary Celebration. This told the story of Olivier's working life through film and stage extracts, letters, reminiscence and readings; the participants included Eileen Atkins, Claire Bloom, Anna Carteret, Derek Jacobi, Anne-Marie Duff, Lindsay Duncan, Charles Kay, Clive Merrison, Edward Petherbridge, Joan Plowright, Ronald Pickup, Michael Pennington, Rory Kinnear, Samuel West, Antony Sher, Billie Whitelaw and Richard Attenborough. It was directed by Nicholas Hytner. Prior to the evening celebration, a new statue of Olivier as Hamlet, created by the sculptor Angela Conner and funded by private subscription, was unveiled on the South Bank, next to the National's Theatre Square.

Awards and nominations

Theatre credits and filmography

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