Laurence Olivier

Laurence Olivier

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.

Richard Burton, who was appearing on Broadway in 1960 in the original production of Alan Jay Lerner's and Frederick Loewe's smash musical "Camelot", hosted a New York reception for Olivier to honor his third marriage, to Joan Plowright. Olivier himself was appearing on Broadway in "Becket", in the title role, a part Burton would play in the 1964 film version (Becket (1964)). Playing the part on film that Olivier had originated on stage brought Burton his third Academy Award nomination, his first in 11 years.

Orson Welles wrote his novel Mr. Arkadin (1955) during an extended stay with Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh. Welles was appearing at Olivier's St. James theater in London at the time in his fabled production of Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), which had been produced by Michael Todd in New York. Todd, who later made the film without Welles participation, had offered to produce a film version of "Macbeth" to be directed by and starring Olivier, but he died in 1958 before the plans could be finalized.

Alec Guinness played The Fool to his first Lear under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie in 1938 when he was 24 and Olivier was 31. Olivier was generally considered less than successful in the part due to his youth and relative lack of maturity in classical parts (though his contemporaneous Henry V was a smash and hinted at his future greatness as an interpreter of William Shakespeare). Guinness, however, received raves for his acting. Both actors would go on to knighthoods and Best Actor Oscars in their long and distinguished careers.

Alec Guinness wrote about an incident at the Old Vic when, in the company of Olivier in the basement of the theater, he asked where a certain tunnel went. Olivier didn't really know but confidently decided to take the tunnel as it must come out somewhere nearby. In reality, the tunnel went under the Thames, and they were rescued after several hours of fruitless navigation of the dark, damp corridor. Guiness remarked that Olivier's willingness to plunge into the dark and unknown was characteristic of the type of person (and actor) he was. As for himself as an actor, Guiness lamented at times that he didn't take enough chances.

Luchino Visconti wanted to cast him in the title role of the Italian prince in The Leopard (1963), but his producer overruled him. The producer insisted on a box-office star to justify the lavish production's high budget and essentially forced Visconti to accept Burt Lancaster. A decade later, the two Oscar-winning actors competed again for the role of another Italian prince, Mafia chieftain Don Corleone, in The Godfather (1972), ultimately losing out to Marlon Brando, Oliver's only rival for the title of world's greatest actor.

Truman Capote pronounced his last name "Oliver".

10/20/89: A memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey. Joan Plowright and the three children of his last marriage were the chief mourners, along with Tarquin, Hester, and Olivier's first wife, Jill Esmond, in a wheelchair. Olivier's trophies were carried in a procession: Douglas Fairbanks Jr. carried the insignia of Olivier's Order of Merit, Michael Caine bore his Oscar for lifetime achievement, Maggie Smith a silver model of the Chichester theatre, Paul Scofield a silver model of the National, Derek Jacobi the crown worn in Richard III (1955), Peter O'Toole the script used in Hamlet (1948), Ian McKellen the laurel wreath worn in the stage production of "Coriolanus," Dorothy Tutin the crown worn for King Lear (1983) (TV), and Frank Finlay the sword presented to Oliv

10/76: On the opening night of the National Theatre, he gave a speech finishing with the words, "I thank you for your kind attention, and for the glory, and the luster, of your attendance". It was tinged with much hidden meaning as the few years leading to the opening had seen Olivier decline all attempts to involve him in the process of setting up the new building after much animosity between him and those in charge. It was the only time he ever set foot on the stage of the theatre which bears his name.

10/97: Ranked #46 in Empire (UK) magazine's "The Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time" list.

1958: Was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Actor (Dramatic) for "The Entertainer," a role he recreated in an Oscar-nominated performance in the film version of the same name, The Entertainer (1960). This was his only nomination for a Tony, an award he never won.

1970: He became the first actor made a peer of the realm (the only others subsequently being Bernard Miles in 1979 and Richard Attenborough in 1993) when Harold Wilson's second Labour government secured him a life peerage to represent the interests of the theater in the House of Lords. He was elevated to the peerage as Baron Olivier of Brighton in 1970.

1973: He last appeared on the stage in Trevor Griffiths' play "The Party" at the National Theatre, a part in which he had to deliver a 20-minute soliloquy. He won rave reviews in the part.

1985: When presenting at the Oscars, he forgot to name the Best Picture nominees. He simply opened the envelope and proclaimed, "Amadeus (1984)".

2001: Ranked tenth in the Orange Film Survey of greatest British actors.

2004: His film version of Shakespeare's Hamlet (1948) is still, to date, the only film of a Shakespeare play to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and the only one to actually win an Oscar for acting (Olivier for Best Actor).

2006: His performance as Richard III in Richard III (1955) is ranked #39 on Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Performances of All Time.

4/21/58: According to "Time Magazine," as an addendum to its cover story on Alec Guinness, in 1957 Olivier turned down a Hollywood offer of $250,000 for one motion picture. Instead of making the movie and pocketing the cash (worth approximately $1.7 million in 2005 terms), Olivier preferred to take on the role of Archie Rice in John Osborne's The Entertainer (1960) (a role written specifically for him) at the princely sum of £45 per week (worth $126 in 1957 dollars at the contemporaneous exchange rate, or $856 in 2005 terms).

5/83: He flew to New York to receive an award at the Lincoln Center, where Douglas Fairbanks Jr. described him as "one hell of an actor." The next evening, Olivier and Joan Plowright went to Washington where, after a showing of King Lear (1983) (TV), President Ronald Reagan gave a small dinner party for them at the White House. In the summer of that year Olivier again suffered from pleurisy, and stayed in St. Thomas's Hospital for three weeks for the removal of a kidney.

6/67: Underwent hyperbaric radiation treatment for prostate cancer at St. Thomas' Hospital, London. On July 7 he discharged himself from the hospital, where he had been confined to bed with pneumonia as a complication of the cancer treatment, after Vivien Leigh died. In the following year he had his appendix removed.