Job Actor, director, producer, screenwriter
Years active 1926-1988
Known for Regarded by many as the greatest actor of the 20th century
Top Roles Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, George Hurstwood, Archie Rice, Heathcliff, Mr. Darcy
Top GenresDrama, Romance, Comedy, War, Historical, Film Adaptation
Top TopicsBased on Play, Book-Based, Romance (Drama)
Top Collaborators (Director), , (Director),
Shares birthday with Alla Nazimova, Michael Sarrazin, Molly Lamont  see more..

Laurence Olivier Overview:

Legendary actor, Laurence Olivier, was born Laurence Kerr Olivier on May 22, 1907 in Surrey, England. Olivier appeared in over 85 film and TV roles. His best known films include Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, That Hamilton Woman, and Pride and Prejudice. Olivier also directed and starred in Hamlet -- and directed, produced and starred in Henry V, Richard III and The Prince and the Showgirl. Olivier died at the age of 82 on Jul 11, 1989 in West Sussex, England and was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey Cemetery in London, England.

Early Life

Laurence Olivier was on May 22, 1907 Dorking, Surrey England. He was born in to a fairly wealthy and incredibly religious household. His father was a High Anglican priest and his uncle, a High Church Anglican vicar. Needless to say, he grew up in a fairly strict and prudent household. When Olivier was 10, he and his family moved to Letchworth, Hertforshire where his father began work as the minister of St. Mary's Church. It was while studying at choir school of All Saints, Margaret Street in London that the young Olivier had his first stage experience playing Brutus in his school's production of Julius Caesar. He was ten years old. Two years later, Olivier's mother would pass away of a brain tumor, leaving him devastated. His father, who always had a love of the theatre, encouraged his son to continue acting. While attending St. Edwards School in Oxford, he appeared in the play Taming of the Shrew, portraying Katharina to rave reviews. Two years later, at the age of 17 he attended the Central School of Speech and Drama, learning under the tutelage of Claude Rains.

Early Career

At age 19, Olivier joined the Birmingham Repertory Company.  Although he initially started as supporting player, but less than a year the gifted young actor was starring as Hamlet and Macbeth. In 1929, he starred in lavishly and but ultimately overly ambitious stage adaptation of P.C Wren's adventure novel, Beau Geste. It ran for only five weeks.  In 1930, Olivier made his film debut in the forgettable The Temporary Widow. Olivier's acclaim only grew, starring in the West End production of Noel Coward's Private Lives, with Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, and first wife, Jill Esmond. He then ventured to Hollywood to star in the RKO production Friends of Lovers opposite Erich Von Stroheim. The film was not received well by critics or at the box-office. Olivier's next film 1932's Westward Passage opposite Ann Harding, did not fair any better. After being unceremoniously replaced by John Gilbert for the leading role in Queen Christine at the behest of Greta Garbo, Oliver temporarily abandoned film in favor of his growing stage career.

In 1932, Private Lives moved from the West End to Broadway, bringing the entire cast with it, and marking Olivier's Broadway debut. Although the move increased his popularity, it would not be until 1935 that Oliver would reach true international stardom, thanks to John Gielgud's West End Production of Romeo and Juliette. He and Gielgud rotated playing Romeo and Mercutio, demonstrating his range as tragic lead or witty and comedic.  In 1936, he portrayed Shakespeare on the silver screen for the first time playing Orlando in As You Like It. At this point in his career, Olivier had become increasing interested in the work of Sigmund Freud and began to take a more psychological approach to his characters. This approach was applied to his 1937/38 tenure at the Old Vic Theatre. Although his artistic experimentation received mixed results, he nonetheless emerged from Old Vic as one of England'spreeminent Shakespearean actors. In 1939 he traveled back to Broadway to star in the S.N Behrman play No Time For Comedy to smashing reviews.

Hollywood and WWII

In 1939 Olivier returned to Hollywood to star in the film adaption of Wuthering Heights. The experience was mixed for Olivier for although he loved working with director William Wyler, he grew to dislike producer Samuel Goldwyn and thought little of his co-star Merle Obern, whom he is quoted to have called an amateur. The film proved to be an astounding hit, both commercially and critically successful.  Oliver was praised for his turn as the tortured hero, Heathcliff, and received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Lead Actor. The film was nominated for eight awards in total. In 1940 Oliver teamed with director Alfred Hitchcock to star in silver screen adaption of the Daphne Du Maurier novel Rebecca. He was once again nominated for an Academy Award. Later that same year, Oliver starred in another adaption of a classic romance novel, this time Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. In 1942 Olivier starred with his second wife, Vivien Leigh, in Alexander Korda's That Hamilton Woman.

As World War II began to shape, Olivier expressed interest in joining the Royal Air Force but was under multiple acting contracts. This, however, did not stop him from over 200 hours flying lessons before finally enlisting in the Royal Naval Reserve. Although never seeing direct action, Oliver rose to the rank of Lieutenant in the Fleet Air Arm. His work as actor was considered a boost to home front moral with films such Michael Powell's propagandic 49th Parallel and 1943'sThe Demi-Paradise.   

Later that year, Oliver and actor Ralph Richardson became co-directors of the Old Vic Theatre. The set out on an ambitious three plays a night routine and staged highly acclaimed versions of Richard III, Oedipus, and The Critic. Later that year Olivier directed, produced, and starred in his most ambitious and most Technicolor project yet, Shakespeare's Henry V.  This patriotic, and often jingoistic, version of Henry V was Primarily funded by the British government, and intended to act as a national morale booster; a reminder that that Great Britain has always fought the brave and noble fight.  For his efforts, Oliver was reward with an Honorary Oscar for his "Outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the screen." In 1946, the company at the Old Vic went on six-week tour of European Army Bases to perform for the troops. For his wartime efforts received knighthood in 1947.

Post-War Career

After World War II, Oliver continued his work at Old Vic Theatre. In 1948 he and second Wife, Vivien Leigh, toured New Zealand and Australia with performances of Thorton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth. Later that year Olivier once again served as producer, director and actor of a Shakespeare tragedy, this time Hamlet. Although Shakespearean purists were agasp at the more psychological direction of Olivier's interpretation, the film was an international hit and was nominated for 7 awards with Oliver taking home two: one for best picture and the other for best actor. The film was won Great International Prize of Venice at the Venice film Festival and the BAFTA for Best Film from Any Source. In 1949 Oliver and Leigh made their West End appearance together in the greek classic Antigone. It was at this time their marriage began to dissipate.

The 1950's would prove a difficult decade for British actor. In 1951 Olivier teamed once again with William Wyler to star in Sister Carrie. His main motivation, however, was accompany his increasingly mentally ailing wife for the production of Street Car Named Desire. Despite rave reviews for their Broadway stint of Antony and Cleopatra, Leigh's mental health was in perpetual decline. Soon after both actors began having affairs and by the end of the decade the couple had divorced. And like his personal life, his professional one was just as tumultuous.

Career Transition

In 1953, Olivier made his signing debut in The Beggar's Opera to little fanfare. In 1955, he completed the third of his "Shakespeare Trilogy" with Richard III. Again, he would serve as producer, director, and actor. Although the film was released to less than praise than its predecessors, it still was quite acclaimed. The film was sold to NBC, thus making it he first film to be shown on television simultaneously as its theatrical run. As a result, the film would not recoup its cost until re-released in the 1960's. Although Olivier was nominated for Best Actor by the Academy, it did not receive a Best Picture nomination as its predecessors. His next film, 1957's The Prince and the Showgirl, was equally disastrous. The film was panned by critics and at the box office with Olivier publically stating his utter contempt for his co-star, Marilyn Monroe. However, he did find success in 1959 in The Devil's Disciple opposite Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.

Oliver began the 1960's with Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus. Wanting to separate himself from old image, he purposefully pursued role of the sexually ambiguous and ruthless Crassus. He also began to take note of the modern change in acting technique of method acting. For his role as a the fledging musical hall performer, Archie Rice, in the West End production of The Entertainer, classically trained Oliver stepped out of his comfort zone to take Method Acting classes with his considerably younger co-stars. The play, as well as Oliver's performance, was a hit. The play would then travel to Broadway and, in 1960, Oliver received another Academy Award nomination for his role in the play's film adaptation. He continued to explore darker and more modern films and characters, such as a lush accused of raping one of his students in 1962's Term of Trial. In 1965, he directed another Shakespeare film adaption, this time Othello. He received an academy award nomination.

In the late 1960's, Olivier's greatest works came from the stage. He gained incredible notoriety for his work at the Nation Theatre Production. He considered his direction of the Chekhov play Three Sister's to his best work. His performances as James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night and his turn in Merchant of Venice were also widely praised. After undergoing treatment for prostate cancer in the late 1960's, his strength deteriorated and by the mid-1970's, he could no longer withstand the rigorous schedule of the theatre. His last performance was on March 21, 1974 as John Tagg in Trevor Griffith's the Party  

Later Career and death

After the end of his film career, Olivier began taking more and more film roles. Although regarded as one of the best actors of any era, Oliver became less picky in his choice of roles. Fearing he would not leave his children without a proper inheritance, he chose whatever role gave him the most zeros on his paycheck. The results were mixed. Film like 1976's  Marathon Man and 1978's Boys from Brazil proved he was utterly modern in approach and both roles earned him a best supporting actor nomination. During this time he also received Lordship from the British Government, Academy Fellowship from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the Cecil B. DeMille Award from the Hollywood Foreign Press and yet another a Honorary Oscar in 1979 for "the full body of his work, for the unique achievements of his entire career and his lifetime of contributions to the art of film." His final film appearance was 1988's War Requiem. On July 11, 1989 Laurence Olivier dies of renal failure in his West Sussex home. He was 82 years old.

(Source: article by Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub).


Olivier's autobiography Confessions of an Actor: Laurence Olivier an Autobiography was published in 1982.



Laurence Olivier was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning one for Best Actor for Hamlet (as Hamlet) in 1948. He also won two Honorary Awards in 1946 and 1978 for the full body of his work, for the unique achievements of his entire career and his lifetime of contribution to the art of film .

Academy Awards

YearAwardFilm nameRoleResult
1939Best ActorWuthering Heights (1939)HeathcliffNominated
1940Best ActorRebecca (1940)Maxim de WinterNominated
1946Best ActorHenry V (1944)Henry VNominated
1948Best ActorHamlet (1948)HamletWon
1948Best DirectorHamlet (1948)N/ANominated
1956Best ActorRichard III (1955)Richard IIINominated
1960Best ActorThe Entertainer (1960)Archie RiceNominated
1965Best ActorOthello (1965)OthelloNominated
1972Best ActorSleuth (1972)Andrew WykeNominated
1976Best Supporting ActorMarathon Man (1976)SzellNominated
1978Best ActorThe Boys from Brazil (1978)Ezra LiebermanNominated

Academy Awards (Honorary Oscars)

1946Special Awardfor his outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the screen
1978Honorary Awardfor the full body of his work, for the unique achievements of his entire career and his lifetime of contribution to the art of film


He was honored with one star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the category of Motion Pictures.

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Laurence Olivier Quotes:

Heathcliff: I want to crawl to her feet, whimper to be forgiven... for loving me. For needing her more than my own life... for belonging to her more than my own soul.

Heathcliff: My tears don't love you, Cathy. They blight and curse and damn you!
Cathy: Heathcliff, don't break my heart.
Heathcliff: Oh Cathy, I never broke your heart. You broke it!

Richard III: I'll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall,I'll slay more glazers than the basilisk,I'll play the orator as well as Nestor,Deceive more slyly than Ulysses could,And, like a Sinon, take another Troy,I can add colours to the chameleon,Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,And set the murderous Machiavel to school.Can I do this,and cannot get a crown?Tut were it farther off,I'll pluck it down.

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Laurence Olivier Facts
John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson were considered equal to Olivier in the classical repertoire--and in Shakespeare. Gielgud was felt to have bested him due to his mellifluous voice, which Olivier himself said "wooed the world"--but it was widely felt that Olivier as a stage actor exceeded both of them in contemporary plays such as John Osbourne's The Entertainer (1960). He also was, by far, the better regarded movie actor, winning one Best Actor Oscar among 10 acting Academy Award acting nominations (all but one in the Best Actor category) versus one Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Gielgud (among two supporting nominations) and two Supporting Actor nods for Richardson. Olivier also was a movie star (commanding a salary of $1 million in 1979 for Inchon (1981), approximately $3 million in 2006 dollars), whereas the other theatrical knights were not.

Was named the #14 greatest actor on The 50 Greatest Screen Legends list by the American Film Institute.

In his 1983 autobiography "Confessions of an Actor," Olivier writes that upon meeting Marilyn Monroe preparatory to the commencement of production of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), he was convinced he was going to fall in love with her. During production, Olivier bore the brunt of Marilyn's famous indiscipline and wound up despising her. However, he admits that she was wonderful in the film, the best thing in it, her performance overshadowing his own, and that the final result was worth the aggravation.

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