Laurence Kerr Olivier, Baron Olivier, OM (22 May 1907 – 11 July 1989) was an English actor and director who, along with his contemporaries Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, was one of a trio of male actors who dominated the British stage of the mid-20th century. He also worked in films throughout his career, playing more than fifty cinema roles. Late in his career, he had considerable success in television roles.
His family had no theatrical connections, but Olivier's father, a clergyman, decided that his son should become an actor. After attending a drama school in London, Olivier learned his craft in a succession of acting jobs during the late 1920s. In 1930 he had his first important West End success in Noël Coward's Private Lives, and he appeared in his first film, and by the end of the decade he was an established star. In the 1940s, together with Richardson and John Burrell, Olivier was the co-director of the Old Vic, building it into a highly respected company. There his most celebrated roles included Shakespeare's Richard III and Sophocles's Oedipus. In the 1950s Olivier was an independent actor-manager, but his stage career was in the doldrums until he joined the avant garde English Stage Company in 1957 to play the title role in The Entertainer, a part he later played on film. From 1963 to 1973 he was the founding director of Britain's National Theatre, running a resident company that fostered many future stars. His own parts there included the title role in Othello (1965) and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (1970).
Among Olivier's films are Wuthering Heights (1939), Rebecca (1940), and a trilogy of Shakespeare films as actor/director: Henry V (1944), Hamlet (1948), and Richard III (1955).
Olivier's honours included a knighthood (1947), a life peerage (1970) and the Order of Merit (1981). For his on-screen work he received four Academy Awards, two British Academy Film Awards, five Emmy Awards and three Golden Globe Awards. The National Theatre's largest auditorium is named in his honour, and he is commemorated in the Laurence Olivier Awards, given annually by the Society of London Theatre. He was married three times, to the actresses Jill Esmond from 1930 to 1940, Vivien Leigh from 1940 to 1960, and Joan Plowright from 1961 until his death.
Lawrence Olivier was born in Dorking, Surrey, the youngest of the three children of the Reverend Gerard Kerr Olivier (1869–1939) and his wife Agnes Louise(1871–1920). His great-great-grandfather was of French Huguenot descent, and Olivier came from a long line of Protestant clergymen. His father Gerard Olivier liked to be addressed as "Father Olivier" which made him unacceptable to most Anglican congregations and tempory church posts offers only, and Lawrence Olivier lived a nomadic existence until age 5 when his father secured a permanent appointment as assistant rector at St Saviour's, Pimlico for six years, and a stable family life was at last possible.
In a school production of Julius Caesar in 1917, the ten-year-old Olivier's performance as Brutus impressed the audience. He later won praise in other schoolboy productions, as Maria in Twelfth Night (1918) and Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew (1922).
Olivier was enrolled in St Edward's School, Oxford, from 1920 to 1924. He made little mark until his final year, when he played Puck in the school's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream; his performance was a tour de force that won him popularity among his fellow pupils.
On leaving the school after a year, Olivier gained work with small touring companies before being taken on in 1925 by Sybil Thorndike and her husband Lewis Casson as a bit-part player, understudy and assistant stage manager for their London company.He modelled his performing style on that of Gerald du Maurier.
In 1926, on Thorndike's recommendation, Olivier joined the Birmingham Repertory Company, where he was given the chance to play a wide range of important roles in his second year, including Tony Lumpkin in She Stoops to Conquer, the title role in Uncle Vanya, and Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well.
While playing the juvenile lead in Bird in Hand at the Royalty Theatre in June 1928, Olivier began a relationship with Jill Esmond, the daughter of the actors Henry V. Esmond and Eva Moore. Olivier later recounted that he thought "she would most certainly do excellent well for a wife ... I wasn't likely to do any better at my age and with my undistinguished track-record, so I promptly fell in love with her."
In 1930, with his impending marriage in mind, Olivier earned some extra money with small roles in two films. Olivier did not enjoy working in film, which he dismissed as "this anaemic little medium which could not stand great acting", but financially it was much more rewarding than his theatre work.
Olivier and Esmond married on 25 July 1930 at All Saints, Margaret Street, although within weeks both realised they had erred.
In 1930 Noël Coward cast Olivier as Victor Prynne in his new play Private Lives, which opened at the new Phoenix Theatre in London in September. Olivier played Victor in the West End and then on Broadway. In addition to giving the 23-year-old Olivier his first successful West End role, Coward became something of a mentor.
In 1931 RKO Pictures offered Olivier a two-film contract at $1,000 a week; he discussed the possibility with Coward, who, irked, told Olivier "You've no artistic integrity, that's your trouble; this is how you cheapen yourself."He accepted and moved to Hollywood, despite some misgivings. His first film was the drama Friends and Lovers, in a supporting role, but Olivier's initial foray into American films had not provided the breakthrough he hoped for.
In 1935, John Gielgud staged Romeo and Juliet at the New Theatre, co-starring with Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans and Olivier. Gielgud had seen Olivier in Queen of Scots, spotted his potential, and now gave him a major step up in his career. For the first weeks of the run Gielgud played Mercutio and Olivier played Romeo, after which they exchanged roles.The production broke all box-office records for the play, running for 189 performances.
In 1936 Olivier accepted an invitation to join the Old Vic company. The theatre, in an unfashionable location south of the Thames, had offered inexpensive tickets for opera and drama under its proprietor Lilian Baylis since 1912. Her drama company specialised in the plays of Shakespeare, and many leading actors had taken very large cuts in their pay to develop their Shakespearean techniques there.
That same year, he met Vivien Leigh, the two fell in love and started a love affair.
In June 1937 the Old Vic company took up an invitation to perform Hamlet in the courtyard of the castle at Elsinore, Denmark where Shakespeare located the play. Olivier secured the casting of Vivien Leigh as Ophelia.
On returning from Denmark, Olivier and Leigh told their respective spouses about the affair and that their marriages were over. Later the couple moved into a property together in Iver, Buckinghamshire.
In late 1938, lured by a salary of $50,000, Lawrence Olivier travelled to Hollywood to take the part of Heathcliff in the 1939 film Wuthering Heights, alongside Merle Oberon and David Niven. In less than a month Leigh had joined him.
Olivier did not enjoy making Wuthering Heights, and his approach to film acting, combined with a dislike for Oberon, led to tensions on set. The resulting film was a commercial and critical success that earned him a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor, and created his screen reputation.
After returning to London briefly in mid-1939, the couple returned to America, Leigh to film the final takes for Gone with the Wind, and Olivier to prepare for filming of Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca.
In January 1940 Olivier and Esmond were granted their divorce. In February, following another request from Leigh, her husband also applied for their marriage to be terminated.
They were married in August 1940, at the San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara.
The war in Europe had been under way for a year and was going badly for Britain. After his wedding Olivier wanted to help the war effort and ended up making a few propaganda films for Britain, starting with That Hamilton Woman in which he played opposite his new wife Vivien Leigh.
In 1943, at the behest of the Ministry of Information, Olivier began working on Henry V. He ended up directing and producing, in addition to taking the title role.
Meanwhile, he was asked to join the Old Vic company with his peer Ralph Richardson. The two actors would re-establish the company and gained international fame for themselves in the next few years.
In January 1947 Olivier began working on his second film as a director, Hamlet (1948), in which he also took the lead role. The film became a critical and commercial success in Britain and abroad, and became the first non-American film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, while Olivier won the Award for Best Actor.
In 1948 Olivier led the Old Vic company on a six-month tour of Australia and New Zealand. He played Richard III, Sir Peter Teazle in Sheridan's The School for Scandal and Antrobus in Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, appearing alongside Leigh in the latter two plays.
By the end of the Australian tour, both Leigh and Olivier were exhausted and ill. Later he would comment that he "lost Vivien" in Australia, a reference to Leigh's affair with the Australian actor Peter Finch, whom the couple met during the tour. Shortly afterwards Finch moved to London, where Olivier auditioned him and put him under a long-term contract with Laurence Olivier Productions. Finch and Leigh's affair continued on and off for several years.
In January 1953 Leigh travelled to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to film Elephant Walk with Peter Finch. Shortly after filming started she suffered a breakdown, and returned to Britain where, between periods of incoherence, she told Olivier that she was in love with Finch, and had been having an affair with him.
The Oliviers' marriage was disintegrating during the late 1950s.
Vivien Leigh became pregnant in 1956 and withdrew from the production of Noel Coward's comedy South Sea Bubble. The day after her final performance in the play she miscarried and entered a period of depression that lasted for months. The same year Olivier decided to direct and produce a film version of The Sleeping Prince, retitled The Prince and the Showgirl. Instead of appearing with Leigh, he cast Marilyn Monroe as the showgirl. Although the filming was challenging because of Monroe's behaviour, the film was appreciated by the critics.
In May 1960 the Oliviers started divorce proceedings.
In March 1961, Lawrence Olivier married actress Joan Plowright, with whom he had three children.
In August of 1962, Olivier became National Theater's first director.
In his decade in charge of the National, Olivier acted in thirteen plays and directed eight. One of the plays, Othello, was released as a film in 1965, which earned four Academy Award nominations, including another for Best Actor for Olivier.
Vivien Leigh died in July 1967. At about this time Olivier began a long struggle against a succession of illnesses. He was treated for prostate cancer and, during rehearsals for his production of Chekhov's Three Sisters he was hospitalised with pneumonia.
Olivier spent the last 15 years of his life securing his finances and dealing with deteriorating health, which included thrombosis and dermatomyositis, a degenerative muscle disorder. Professionally, and to provide financial security, he made a series of advertisements for Polaroid cameras in 1972, although he stipulated that they must never be shown in Britain; he also took a number of cameo film roles. Olivier's move from leading parts to supporting and cameo roles came about because his poor health meant he could not get the necessary long insurance for larger parts, with only short engagements in films available.
In the mid-1970s Olivier became increasingly involved in television work, a medium of which he was initially dismissive.
In 1978 he appeared in the film The Boys from Brazil for which he received his eleventh Academy Award nomination. Although he did not win the Oscar, he was presented with an Honorary Award for his lifetime achievement.
Olivier continued working in film and television into the 1980s. In 1981 he appeared as Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited, winning another Emmy, and the following year he received his tenth and last BAFTA nomination in the television adaptation of John Mortimer's stage play A Voyage Round My Father.
Olivier's final screen appearance was as an elderly, wheelchair-bound soldier in Derek Jarman's 1989 film War Requiem.
After being ill for the last 22 years of his life, Lawrence Olivier died of kidney failure on 11 July 1989 aged 82 at his home near Steyning, West Sussex. His cremation was held three days later.