Baron Laurence (Kerr) Olivier

Definition

Theater

  • (1907 - 89) British actor, director, and manager, generally consideredthe leading classical actor of his time. The son of an Anglican clergyman, hemade his first stage appearance as Katherine in a school production of TheTaming of the Shrew (1922). Two years later he made his professional debutin Byron at the Century Theatre, London. After tasting success in thefirst run of Private Lives (1930), Olivier came to critical notice ina production of Romeo and Juliet (1935) that saw him alternating theroles of Romeo and Mercutio with John Gielgud. In the later 1930s he tookfurther Shakespearean roles, including Hamlet (1937), and became known to awider public through Hollywood films such as Wuthering Heights (1939).After war service he became a codirector of the Old Vic with RalphRichardson (1944) and gave a series of outstanding performances inplays by Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Sophocles (see Oedipus Rex).The 1950s saw Olivier managing his own company and extending his range bytaking roles in contemporary British works, notably that of Archie Rice inOsborne's The Entertainer. After a year as director of theChichester Festival, he became founding director of the NationalTheatre (see Royal National Theatre) in 1962, a post he heldfor 11 years. His film work included the Shakespearean trilogy HenryV (1944), Hamlet (1948), and Richard III (1956),each of which he directed as well as playing the leading role. Olivierwas knighted in 1947 and became the first actor to be created a lifepeer in 1970. He was married three times, his most celebrated andstormy marriage being to the actress Vivien Leigh and hislast to the actress Joan Plowright (1929 - ), whosurvives him.

    Olivier's early career was not altogether auspicious, with Sir CedricHardwicke for one remembering him as noisy and unsubtle. He was alsoprone to giggle nervously on stage, a maddening habit that cost himone job and threatened his career. Olivier credited Noël Cowardwith curing him. During Private Lives, Coward and GertrudeLawrence engaged in a deliberate policy of making Olivier corpse at everyopportunity. By the end of its seven-month run, Olivier was laughed out.

    Olivier was also notoriously accident-prone; during his career,he suffered one broken ankle, two torn cartilages, two torn calf muscles,and three ruptured Achilles tendons. Other mishaps included a 30-footfall onto the stage from a rope ladder and the occasion on which helanded "from considerable height, scrotum first, upon an acrobat'sknee." He also inflicted injuries on others. Wielding a sword duringthe fight scene in the 1935 Romeo and Juliet, he cut GeoffreyTonne's thumb so badly that the young actor had to leave the castfor four weeks.

    Olivier himself had moments of self-doubt. After one triumphantperformance of Othello, he stormed back to his dressing roomand slammed the door. The cast waited outside until one summoned upthe courage to knock and ask, "What's the matter, Larry? Itwas great!" Olivier shouted back: "I know it wasgreat, damn it, but I don't know how I did it, so how can I be sureI can do it again?"

    His name is commemorated in the Laurence Olivier Awards,given annually for the best West End productions, and in the OlivierTheatre, opened in 1976 as one of the three auditoriums of the NationalTheatre.

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