Sir Laurence Olivier, English Film and Shakespearean Actor

Laurence Olivier In 'Spartacus'
Laurence Olivier with fists clenched on table in a scene from the film 'Spartacus', 1960.

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Sir Laurence Olivier (May 22, 1907—July 11, 1989) ranks as one of the top British actors of the 20th century. He is particularly well-remembered for appearing in and directing Shakespearean plays both on stage and in film. His 1948 movie Hamlet was the first non-American production to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

Fast Facts: Sir Laurence Olivier

  • Born: May 22, 1907 in Dorking, Surrey, England
  • Died: July 11, 1989 in Steyning, West Sussex, England
  • Occupation: Actor
  • Spouses: Jill Esmond, Vivien Leigh, Joan Plowright
  • Children: Tarquin, Julie Kate, Tamsin, Richard
  • Selected FilmsWuthering Heights (1939), Hamlet (1948), Sleuth (1972)
  • Key Accomplishments: U.K. knighthood (1947), Best Actor Academy Award for Hamlet (1948), and Lifetime Achievement Academy Award (1979)
  • Famous Quote: “I take a simple view of life: keep your eyes open and get on with it.”

Early Life and Career

Born in the market town of Dorking, Surrey, in southeastern England, Sir Laurence Olivier grew up the son of an Anglican priest. In 1916, at age nine, he passed a singing audition and was admitted to the choir school of All Saints, Margaret Street church in central London. Appearing in the school's production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar the following year, he drew the attention of Ellen Terry, one of the greatest British Shakespearean actors of the era.

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After a series of successes in school productions, Olivier's father encouraged him to pursue acting as a profession. In 1926, he joined the Birmingham Repertory Company, one of the top theatre companies in England. After building his reputation as a top young actor, two momentous events occurred in Olivier's life in 1930.

Early in the year, Sir Laurence Olivier traveled to Berlin to appear in two minor films. He did not enjoy working in movies, but it paid better than much of his theatre work. Later in the year, the legendary playwright Noel Coward cast Olivier in his new play Private Lives during its London debut. It was his first successful stage appearance in London's West End, and he traveled to New York to appear in the Broadway opening of the play in 1931.

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English Stage Star

After dabbling with film acting in the U.S. in the early 1930s with little success, Sir Laurence Olivier returned to England and the stage. He joined the Old Vic company in 1936. Among his colleagues at the company were acting legends Dame Edith Evans, Ruth Gordon, Alec Guinness, and Michael Redgrave. In 1937, the group performed Hamlet at Elsinore, the castle in Denmark that Shakespeare picked as the play's setting. It began a tradition of Elsinore performances that have featured such renowned actors as Richard Burton, Kenneth Branagh, and Jude Law.

The Old Vic company survived World War II by touring England with a small entourage after the German bombing of London left their theatre severely damaged. Olivier took on the duties of co-director of the company in 1944. Among his roles was the lead in Shakespeare's Richard III, widely considered one of the best acting performances of his career. The Old Vic company toured Germany in 1945 producing plays for the victorious Allied military forces stationed there. By 1949, the company was world famous, but Olivier was exhausted. By the end of the year, he left to become an independent actor-manager.

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Sir Laurence Olivier in Richard III (1955). Picture Post / Getty Images

In the 1950s, Sir Laurence Olivier found himself a star of both stage and screen. He balanced Shakespearean productions with contemporary plays. In 1957, he starred in the Wet End production of John Osborne's The Entertainer. It received tremendous acclaim, and Olivier later earned an Oscar nomination for his 1960 film version.

In 1963, with the support of the British government, the National Theatre presented its first production of Hamlet starring Peter O'Toole and Sir Laurence Olivier as the company's first director. He remained in charge of the company for a decade, directed eight plays and acted in thirteen. His first lead role at the National Theatre was a 1964 production of Othello, widely celebrated as one of his best.

Hollywood Success

Sir Laurence Olivier appeared in a series of films in both Hollywood and the U.K. in the early 1930s, but none of them brought him significant success. Offered a salary of $50,000, he agreed to travel back to Hollywood in 1939 to appear in an adaptation of the romantic novel Wuthering Heights. The result was one of his most celebrated movie performances and his first Oscar nomination for acting. His film success continued in 1940 with the starring role in Alfred Hitchcock's Best Picture-winning Rebecca.

laurence olivier wuthering heights
Sir Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights (1939). Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

World War II disrupted Olivier's film career, but he did appear in movies that helped the British propaganda effort. At the behest of the British government in 1944, Olivier directed and starred in a film production of Shakespeare's Henry V. It was a rousing critical and commercial success, earning Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor but winning neither.

Three years later, Sir Laurence Olivier achieved arguably his greatest success in film. He directed and starred in 1948's Hamlet. Shakespeare's play was trimmed to focus more on relationships than politics. Critics and audiences applauded the effort, and the movie became the first non-American production to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Olivier also won the Best Actor award.

Olivier completed two more Shakespearean film productions that earned him Oscar nominations for Best Actor. In 1954, he brought Richard III to the screen with fellow knighted actors Sir Cedrick Hardwicke, Sir John Gielgud, and Sir Ralph Richardson. The National Theatre's production of Othello appeared as a movie in 1965 and earned a total of four Oscar nominations including Best Actor.

Later Career

Two of Sir Laurence Olivier's most revered movie appearances came late in his career. In 1972, on leave from the National Theatre, he co-starred with Michael Caine in the film version of the stage play Sleuth. Both lead actors earned Oscar nominations. He took on the role of a Nazi torturer in 1976's Marathon Man. Amid strong critical reviews, he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

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Illness plagued the last two decades of Olivier's life, and in the 1970s and 1980s, acting became increasingly difficult, but he continued to work. Extending his performances to TV, he earned Emmy Awards for a 1973 production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, Love Among the Ruins, a 1975 romantic comedy with Katharine Hepburn, and 1981's Brideshead Revisited. In 1978, he earned his ninth Oscar nomination, appearing as a Nazi hunter in The Boys From Brazil.

Marriage to Vivien Leigh

In 1936, while married to his first wife, Jill Esmond, Sir Laurence Olivier met fellow actor Vivien Leigh and began an affair. She was married to Leigh Holman. They co-starred as lovers in the 1937 film Fire Over England. The pair hoped to appear together in Wuthering Heights, but Vivien Leigh was rejected. Instead, she sought out and secured the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind.

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In 1940, both Olivier and Leigh divorced their spouses and they married late in the year. In 1948, the couple embarked on a tour of Australia and New Zealand with the Old Vic company. There, Sir Laurence Olivier claims that he "lost" his wife when she began an affair with actor Peter Finch. When they returned to London, despite the affair, Olivier hired Finch, and he continued his relationship with Vivien Leigh on and off for several years.

With Vivien Leigh suffering from alcoholism and the bipolar disorder that plagued much of her life, the marriage slowly disintegrated in the late 1950s. They began divorce proceedings in 1960, and Sir Laurence Olivier married his third wife, Joan Plowright, in March 1961, three months after his divorce became final.

Sir Laurence Olivier in Hamlet (1948). John Springer Collection / Getty Images


Sir Laurence Olivier is recognized as one of the greatest performers and champions of Shakespeare's plays. He also achieved success in a wide range of additional plays and films. Historians list him alongside Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson as one of three of the greats of the British stage in the 20th century.

Olivier remains one of the most decorated actors in the history of the Academy Awards. His Oscar nominations span nearly forty years from 1939 through 1978. Olivier earned an honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1978.


  • Coleman, Terry. Olivier. Henry Holt, 2006.
  • Ziegler, Philip. Olivier. MacLehose Press, 2014.