Best remembered for his roles in Shakespearean dramas, Sir Laurence Olivier is considered by many to be the finest actor of his generation—if not of all time. The son of a clergyman, Olivier plied his trade on the London stage before embarking on a distinguished film career which saw him earn a record nine Academy Award nominations for Best Actor. Though every bit as physical as his American peers, Olivier maintained an air of refined dignity that none could match; upon his death, one critic would remark, “With Laurence Olivier, what we have lost is glory.” Here are 42 glorious facts about the legend of the stage and screen.
Sir Laurence Olivier Facts
1. Son of a Preacherman
Laurence Olivier was born in Dorking, Surrey, England on May 22, 1907. His father, Gerard Kerr Olivier, was an Anglican priest; Olivier credited his father’s preaching as an important early influence on his acting.
2. Dear Diary
Olivier made his acting debut at age 10, when he appeared as Brutus in a school production of Julius Caesar. The audience just happened to include three legendary British actresses: Lady Tree, Sybil Thorndike, and Ellen Terry, the latter of whom wrote in her diary that night, “The small boy who played Brutus is already a great actor.”
3. Oops, There Goes Another Rubber Tree Planter
The young Olivier had no interest in going to college and made plans to join his brother in India and become a rubber planter. His father surprised him by suggesting he become an actor instead. Soon after, Olivier enrolled in the Central School of Speech Training and the Dramatic Arts.
4. Taking the Stage
After graduating from drama school, Olivier immediately found work with the Birmingham Repertory Company, landing significant roles in productions of She Stoops to Conquer, Uncle Vanya, and All’s Well That Ends Well.
5. Reel Crooks
Olivier made his onscreen debut in the 1930 British short Too Many Crooks. The film is now lost to history, and has been included on a list of the 75 “most wanted” lost British films.
After a string of successes on the London stage, Olivier accepted a contract from Hollywood film studio RKO. The contract paid him $1,000 week, but it was clear to Olivier he was being used as a cheap substitute for movie star Ronald Colman. He made three films, none of which made any creative or commercial impact, and returned to England.
7. Just a Pretty Face
In 1938, MGM Studios began production on an adaptation Emily Brontë’s classic novel Wuthering Heights. Director William Wyler was sent to England to find an actor to play Heathcliff, the novel’s brooding anti-hero. Wyler soon sent back an enthusiastic telegram: “Have found Heathcliff. Amazing young English actor.” That actor’s name was…Robert Newton. Studio executives found Newman “too ugly” to play Heathcliff, so they chose Olivier instead.
It was his first major American film and it made him an instant star.
8. Merle Trouble
Olivier had a particularly turbulent relationship with his Wuthering Heights co-star Merle Oberon. Oberon found Olivier pompous, while Olivier considered her an “amateur” and resented her for taking a role he felt should have gone to his fiancée, Vivien Leigh.
9. What’s in a Name?
When he arrived in Hollywood, studio executives urged Olivier to change his name to something a bit less…haughty. They suggested “Larry Oliver.” Olivier declined, but often wondered how it would have affected his career.
10. Rule Britannia
Olivier soon became Hollywood’s leading Englishman. He appeared in Rebecca, the American debut of British director Alfred Hitchcock, and starred as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. So many British actors were involved in the latter production that daily 4 PM teatimes were instituted on set.
Pride and Prejudice turned out to be a surprise hit, but after its release, Olivier returned to England to concentrate on theatre work and spend more time with Vivien Leigh. While he continued to make films in England, he would not return to Hollywood for another 12 years.
12. Inching Away from Stardom
Nobody’s perfect. Olivier, with all his Oscar nominations and honors, earned the 1981 Razzie Award for Worst Actor for his role in Inchon.
13. The Weirdest Gig
Inchon, which cast Olivier as American General Douglas MacArthur, was a massive flop. It lost $44 million and was never released on video. By his own admission, Olivier accepted the role for the paycheck. Funding for the movie was provided by Korean cult leader Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who wanted to make a movie—either about the Battle of Inchon in the Korean War, or a biopic of Elvis Presley.
14. Gone with the Wind
Olivier played his last Shakespearean role in 1983, appearing as the title character in a British television production of King Lear. For Olivier, it was all in a day’s work: Lear, he said, “is easy…just a stupid old fart.” Olivier must have been very convincing as a “stupid old fart,” because he earned an Emmy award for the role.
15. It’s an Honor Just to be Mentioned
Olivier made an appearance at the 1985 Academy Awards, presenting that year’s award for Best Film. His presentation became a classic Oscar moment. Olivier took the stage and, forgetting to announce the year’s nominees, immediately declared Amadeus the year’s winner.
16. Dead Poets’ Society
Olivier passed away from renal failure in 1989 after decades of illness. He was cremated, and his ashes were buried in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, alongside such legendary artists as Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, and Rudyard Kipling.
17. Curtain Call
Olivier’s final appearance was as a wheelchair-bound veteran in the 1989 film War Requiem.
18. Blondes Have More Fun
Olivier himself has been played onscreen by five different actors, most notably Kenneth Branagh. Three of those roles were in Marilyn Monroe biopics.
19. The Understudy
Sir Anthony Hopkins (who appeared alongside Olivier in 1984’s The Bounty) does an impeccable impression of the legendary thespian. Hopkins was even brought in to dub Olivier’s lines when a lost scene was added to a restored version of Spartacus.
20. But They Have His Name On Them
In 1984, the Society of West End Theatre Awards were renamed the Olivier Awards to honor the great actor. Despite his long career on stage and screen, Olivier himself had never won one of the awards.
21. Always a Bridesmaid
Olivier received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor nine times, a feat matched only by Spencer Tracy, but he only won the award once—for Hamlet in 1948.
22. Alas, Poor Olivier
Olivier directed that version of Hamlet, making him the first person to win Best Actor under self-direction. Hamlet also won Best Picture that year. Olivier was nominated for Best Director, but lost. Hey, two out of three ain’t bad!
23. Unpopular Opinion
Not everyone appreciated Olivier’s Hamlet. Ethel Barrymore was a vocal critic. The sister of Olivier’s idol, John Barrymore (best known for his performances as Hamlet), she was a Shakespeare purist. She also just happened to be the presenter for Best Picture in 1948. Audiences couldn’t help but notice that Ethel appeared visibly upset when declaring Olivier’s Hamlet the winner.
24. Three Men and a Theatre
From 1944 to 1948, Olivier shared directorship of London’s legendary Old Vic theatre. He was part of “the Triumvirate” of artistic directors, alongside fellow actor Ralph Richardson and stage director John Burrell. Although the Triumvirate guided the Old Vic to its greatest commercial and critical success, the three directors were all let go in 1948. No explanation was ever given.
25. Sir Larry
Olivier was knighted in 1947 and became Sir Laurence Olivier. In 1970, he was made a peer, granted the title of Baron Olivier of Brighton in the County of Sussex. He insisted everyone call him Larry.
26. Foreign Dignitary
“Larry” wasn’t just honored by his own homeland. He was named a Commander of the Order of Denmark, an Officer of the French Legion of Honor, a Grand Ufficiale of the Italian Order of Merit, and given the Order of the Yugoslav Flag with Golden Wreath.
27. A Little Embellishment
Olivier played Marcus Licinius Crassus in the 1960 classic Spartacus. Star and producer Kirk Douglas was worried that Olivier would not accept such a minor role, so he sent Olivier an alternative (that is, a fake) version of the script in which Crassus plays a larger role.
28. Different Times
Olivier donned blackface to play the title character in a 1965 adaptation of Othello. While the performance seems outrageous to modern audiences, contemporary critics praised the film and Olivier was nominated for another Best Actor Oscar.
29. An Offer He Couldn’t Refuse
Olivier was set to play Don Corleone in The Godfather, going so far as to perfect his Italian accent. Unfortunately, he fell ill at the last moment and had to be replaced by Marlon Brando. The role revitalized Brando’s career and earned him an Oscar in 1972. Olivier’s film career continued its steady decline.
30. Shake It Off
In 1972, a cash-strapped Olivier appeared a series of television advertisements for Polaroid. Olivier agreed to do the ads on the condition that they never—never—be aired in Great Britain.
31. A National Treasure
In 1962, Olivier helped found the National Theatre, a publicly-funded theatre venue, and served as the company’s first artistic director. The National Theatre building contains three auditoriums, the largest of which is named for Olivier.
32. A Guy’s Guy
Olivier would later resign from his post as the artistic director of the National Theatre, in no small part because he was not allowed to stage a production of Guys and Dolls. Olivier desperately wanted to play Sky Masterton.
33. Hall in Spite
Olivier resigned from the National Theatre without naming his successor. The board of governors selected Peter Hall, Olivier’s rival and former artistic director of the National’s main competitor, the Shakespeare Company. Many believe this was meant as an insult to Olivier.
34. Act Your Age!
Olivier was 41 when he played Hamlet. Eileen Herlie, who played Hamlet’s mother, was 30.
35. Pressing Eject
It’s ironic that Olivier played Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding in the 1969 film Battle of Britain, because he was a terrible pilot. Though he volunteered for service during World War II, Olivier’s attempts at becoming a fighter pilot were so hopeless (according to legend, he destroyed five different planes during his lessons), that the Navy advised him he would be of more use making films.
36. Oh Henry
Olivier obliged by directing and starring in Henry V in 1944. Olivier made the film in hopes that it would raise the spirits of British soldiers and inspire them to victory.
37. The War on Film
The war had a profound effect on the filming of Henry V. For one, stuntmen were scarce, forcing Olivier to do his own stunts. Because metal was carefully rationed and redirected toward the war effort, all chainmail in the film was in fact carefully crafted wool. But perhaps most remarkably, filming itself was frequently paused so the crew could observe the skirmishes of British and German aircraft overhead.
Plus, I don’t think the sound of fighter planes is exactly era-appropriate for Shakespeare.
38. As You Like It
The success of Henry V spurred Olivier to produce a series of film adaptations of Shakespeare’s works. He followed Henry V with Hamlet in 1948 and Richard III in 1955.
39. Such Great Heights
Olivier had a hard time adapting to American-style film acting. During filming on Wuthering Heights, director William Wyler accused Olivier of overacting. Olivier then sniffed: “I suppose this anemic little medium cannot take great acting”—which caused the crew to break into hysterical laughter. It was a humbling moment for the actor, to say the least.
40. Unhappily Ever After
Olivier also met a young actress named Jill Esmond in the Company. They married in 1930, but quickly realized they did not exactly love each other. Though they remained married for another ten years, the marriage was mutually loveless.
41. Romeo and Juliet
Olivier began an affair with Vivien Leigh in 1936, long before he and his first wife legally split. She had frequently appeared alongside him on the London stage and the Hollywood set. In 1940, Olivier finally divorced Jill Esmond and married Leigh, but the marriage would be a rocky one. Leigh’s struggles with bipolar disorder put a strain on their union, and both continued to carry out affairs.
42. Third Time’s the Charm
Olivier’s marriage to Leigh finally dissolved in 1960. He was devastated, but shortly after, he married actress Jane Plowright, to whom he remained married until his death.