Laurence Olivier: Complete guide to his life and career

By | Posted on 01-Oct-2020

Laurence Olivier: Complete guide to his life and career

Born in 1907, Laurence Olivier enjoyed a long career in theatre, starring the silver screen and the stage for over five decades.  Winning 28 awards throughout his career and nominated for at least 40 more, it’s no surprise that Laurence Olivier is often considered to be one of the greatest actors of the twentieth century, further commemorated in the renaming of the Olivier Awards. Find out more about Laurence Olivier with our complete guide.

All about Laurence Olivier

Early career

Laurence Olivier was born on 22nd May 1907 in Dorking, England. Born into a religious family, Olivier grew up as a son of a clergyman, regularly introduced to recite dramatic monologues by his mother, rather than imitating sermons. When performing monologues as a child, it was clear that Olivier had an extra-special talent from an early age, especially when he would perform in school productions, with a diary entry saying that he was already a “great actor”.

With his mother passing away while he was a teenager, he channelled his energy into acting, delivering an impressive performance as Katharina in The Taming of the Shrew when he was 17 years old. Noticed by influential performers at the time, Olivier was encouraged to train as an actor, later going on to study at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

After enrolling at Central in 1924, he made his professional debut in the same year in a production of Macbeth. Two years later, he joined the Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company before making his West End debut in 1928 playing the titular role in Beau Geste for a five-week run.

The years after

Laurence Olivier
Photo credit: Kate Gabrielle (Flickr) under CC 2.0

During the late 1920s and 1930s, word of Laurence Olivier’s acting prowess spread around the world, making his Broadway debut in Murder on the Second Floor in 1929. However, it wasn’t until he starred in the premiere of Private Lives by Noel Coward the year after that he found himself becoming a household name.

Now a sought after actor, Olivier would spend his time on both sides of the Atlantic. Typecast as a “young, innocent hero”, he starred in productions of Romeo and Juliet as Romeo in a cast with John Gielgud, as well as a list of Shakespeare plays including Henry V and Twelfth Night with the Old Vic Company in London.

Towards the end of the 1930s, Olivier met Vivien Leigh while they were starring in Hamlet together. Both married to other people, they split from their respective partners in 1940 and tied the knot to one another in the same year.

After the war

During World War Two, Olivier took a break from the showbiz world to serve in the Royal Navy. Even with a newly-found military career, he directed, produced and appeared in a patriotic film adaptation of Henry V in 1943, originally designed to serve as propaganda for the war effort.

The year after, he was demobilised from the war effort and began a new chapter in his theatre career, rebuilding the reputation of the Old Vic theatre company with Ralph Richardson. In the immediate post-war years, he starred and directed in King Lear and was knighted in 1947 for services to the stage and films.

The National Theatre

National Theatre
Photo credit: Elliot Brown (Flickr) under Creative Commons 2.0

Laurence Olivier was the first Artistic Director of the National Theatre, serving from 1963 to 1973. The first production he directed at the National Theatre was Hamlet, with Peter O’Toole playing the eponymous character. Based at the Old Vic for his first seven years in the role directing shows including The Three Sisters, he then became one of the first directors to work at the newly-built National Theatre from 1970.

Peter Hall took over from Laurence Olivier as Artistic Director after 10 years in the role. While his influential directorial position ended, this didn’t stop his list of on-stage credits growing. Appearing in Alexandra, Sleuth and The Jazz Singer, he became the most nominated actor across all award ceremonies in history. Learn more about the history of the National Theatre with our complete guide.

Chichester Festival

As well as being the first Artistic Director of the National Theatre, Laurence Olivier’s acting talents weren’t limited to London audiences. In the 1960s, he also served as the first Artistic Director of Chichester Festival Theatre. During his tenure, he originated the idea of a ‘festival’ of shows, where audiences could see a group of performers appear in three shows over a short time frame, allowing a company of actors to be created.

Under his directorship, 12 shows were performed at Chichester Festival Theatre, including an adapted version of Uncle Vanya, Othello, The Royal Hunt of the Sun and a swansong production of Michael Meyer’s Black Comedy/Miss Julie.

Final years

With his health deteriorating, Laurence Olivier appearing in credits of the latest production were few and far between. However, this did not stop the world championing his decades-long performing career spanning generations. Receiving a peerage in 1970, he was later anointed as Baron Olivier of Brighton and was later awarded an Order of Merit in 1981.

Recognised for his glittering career on both sides of the pond, he was the recipient of a special Oscar, celebrating his work, his career and his “lifetime of contribution to the art of film”.

Laurence Olivier passed away on 11th July 1989, having starred in over 100 productions and 60 films. His memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey and was the third actor to be buried there, with David Garrick and Henry Irving previously buried.

Olivier Awards

Laurence Olivier
Photo credit: Allan Warren (Wikipedia) under CC 3.0

In 1976, the Society of West End Theatre awards were established; a prestigious event in London’s theatre calendar celebrating the best of the West End over the 12 months. With awards handed to exemplary performers, creatives as well as best new play and best new musical, a show receiving an Olivier Award is often an indicator that a show might go on to enjoy a lengthy run in the West End.

In 1979, the Society of London Theatre Special Award was given to Laurence Olivier, for continued services to achievements in theatre across the country. Future recipients of the Special Award include his acting co-star John Gielgud, with more recent awardees including Gillian Lynne, Judi Dench and Andrew Lloyd Webber.