Laurence Olivier -- Sir Laurence after 1947, Lord Laurence after 1970 -- has been variously lauded as the greatest Shakespearean interpreter of the 20th century, the greatest classical actor of the era, and the greatest actor of his generation. Although his career took a rather desperate turn toward the end when he seemed willing to appear in almost anything, the bulk of Olivier's 60-year career stands as a sterling example of extraordinary craftsmanship. Olivier was the son of an Anglican minister, who, despite his well-documented severity, was an unabashed theater lover, enthusiastically encouraging young Olivier to give acting a try. The boy made his first public appearance at age nine, playing Brutus in an All Saint's production of Julius Caesar. No member of the audience was more impressed than actress Dame Sybil Thorndike, who knew then and there that Olivier had what it took. Much has been made of the fact that the 15-year-old Olivier played Katherine in a St. Edward's School production of The Taming of the Shrew; there was, however, nothing unusual at the time for males to play females in all-boy schools. (For that matter, the original Shakespeare productions in the 16th and 17th centuries were strictly stag.) Besides, Olivier was already well versed in playing female roles, having previously played Maria in Twelfth Night. Two years after The Taming of the Shrew, he enrolled at the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art, where one of his instructors was Claude Rains.
Olivier made his professional London debut the same year in The Suliot Officer, and joined the Birmingham Repertory in 1926; by the time Olivier was 20, he was playing leads. His subsequent West End stage triumphs included Journey's End and Private Lives. In 1929, he made his film debut in the German-produced A Temporary Widow. He married actress Jill Esmond in 1930, and moved with her to America when Private Lives opened on Broadway. Signed to a Hollywood contract by RKO in 1931, Olivier was promoted as "the new Ronald Colman," but he failed to make much of an impression onscreen. By the time Greta Garbo insisted that he be replaced by John Gilbert in her upcoming Queen Christina (1933), Olivier was disenchanted with the movies and vowed to remain on-stage. He graduated to full-fledged stardom in 1935, when he was cast as Romeo in John Gielgud's London production of Romeo and Juliet. (He also played Mercutio on the nights Gielgud assumed the leading role himself.) It was around this time that Olivier reportedly became fascinated with the works of Sigmund Freud, which led to his applying a "psychological" approach to all future stage and screen characters. Whatever the reason, Olivier's already superb performances improved dramatically, and, before long, he was being judged on his own merits by London critics, and not merely compared (often disparagingly) to Gielgud or Ralph Richardson. It was in collaboration with his friend Richardson that Olivier directed his first play in 1936, which was also the year he made his first Shakespearean film, playing Orlando in Paul Czinner's production of As You Like It. Now a popular movie leading man, Olivier starred in such pictures as Fire Over England (1937), 21 Days (1938), The Divorce of Lady X (1938), and Q Planes (1939). He returned to Hollywood in 1939 to star as Heathcliff in Samuel Goldwyn's glossy (and financially successful) production of Wuthering Heights, earning the first of 11 Oscar nominations. He followed this with leading roles in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940),Pride and Prejudice (1940), and Alexander Korda's That Hamilton Woman (1941), co-starring in the latter with his second wife, Vivien Leigh. Returning to England during World War II, Olivier served as a parachute officer in the Royal Navy. Since he was stationed at home, so to speak, he was also able to serve as co-director (with Ralph Richardson) of the Old Vic. His most conspicuous contribution to the war effort was his joyously jingoistic film production of Henry V (1944), for which he served as producer, director, and star. Like all his future film directorial efforts, Henry V pulled off the difficult trick of retaining its theatricality without ever sacrificing its cinematic values. Henry V won Olivier an honorary Oscar, not to mention major prizes from several other corners of the world. Knighthood was bestowed upon him in 1947, and he served up another celluloid Shakespeare the same year, producing, directing and starring in Hamlet. This time he won two Oscars: one for his performance, the other for the film itself.
The '50s was a transitional decade for Olivier: While he had his share of successes -- his movie singing debut in The Beggar's Opera (1953), his 1955 adaptation of Richard III -- he also suffered a great many setbacks, both personal (his disintegrating relationship with Vivien Leigh) and professional (1957's The Prince and the Showgirl, which failed despite the seemingly unbeatable combination of Olivier's directing and Marilyn Monroe's star performance). In 1956, Olivier boldly reinvented himself as the seedy, pathetically out-of-step music hall comic Archie Rice in the original stage production of John Osborne's The Entertainer. It was a resounding success, both on-stage and on film, and Olivier reprised his role in a 1960 film version directed by Tony Richardson. Thereafter, Olivier deliberately sought out such challenging, image-busting roles as the ruthless, bisexual Crassus in Spartacus (1960) and the fanatical Mahdi in Khartoum (1965). He also achieved a measure of stability in his private life in 1961 when he married actress Joan Plowright. In 1962, he was named the artistic director of Britain's National Theatre, a post he held for ten years. To periodically replenish the National's threadbare bank account, Olivier began accepting roles that were beneath him artistically, but which paid handsomely; in the early '70s, he even hawked Polaroid cameras on television. During this period, he was far more comfortable before the cameras than in the theater, suffering as he was from a mysterious bout of stage fright. He also committed two more directorial efforts to film, Othello (1965) and Dance of Death (1968), both of which were disappointingly stage-bound. In 1970, he became Lord Olivier and assumed a seat in the House of Lords the following year. Four years later, suffering from a life-threatening illness, he made his last stage appearance.
From 1974 until his death in 1989, he seemingly took whatever film job was offered him, ostensibly to provide an income for his family, should the worst happen. Some colleagues, like director John Schlesinger, were disillusioned by Olivier's mercenary approach to his work. Others, like Entertainer director Tony Richardson, felt that Olivier was not really a sellout as much as he was what the French call a cabotin -- not exactly a ham: a performer, a vulgarian, someone who lives and dies for acting. Amidst such foredoomed projects as The Jazz Singer (1980) and Inchon (1981), Olivier was still capable of great things, as shown by his work in such TV productions as 1983's Mister Halpern and Mister Johnson and, in 1984, King Lear and Voyage Round My Father. In 1979, he was once more honored at Academy Awards time, receiving an honorary Oscar "for the full body of his work." His last appearance was in the 1988 film War Requiem.