Larry Olivier – the stage and screen actor who had nearly every
accolade known to man heaped upon him. Undoubtedly the best Shakespearean
interpreter of all time, perhaps the greatest classical actor of the
era and one of the finest cinematic actors of his generation.
Kerr Olivier was born into an old but modest Anglican family on March
22nd, 1907 in Dorking, Surrey, England. His father was a stern minister
with a closet fanaticism for plays and literature. So when Master Olivier
inherited his fathers mania for the stage it was heartily encouraged,
and he debuted in a parochial school production of ‘Julius Caesar’
at the age of 9. He was even invited to present a special matinee of
‘The Taming of the Shrew’ at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre
in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1922.
preparation for a professional career in acting, Olivier studied at
the Central School in London where one of his instructors was Claude
Rains. He made his professional London debut in ‘The Suliot Officer’
and joined the Birmingham Repertory in 1926; by the time Olivier was
20 he had played the title role in Chekhov's ‘Uncle Vanya’
(1927). For many years he scorned the ‘silver screen’ actually
not appearing in a film until 1930 - ‘Too many crooks’.
subsequent West End stage triumphs included Journey's End and Private
Lives. He married actress Jill Esmond in 1930, and moved with her to
America when Private Lives opened on Broadway. They were destined to
have just the one son, Tarquin, six years later.
Signed to a Hollywood contract 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.
This theatre breakthrough came 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.) He
was also becoming disenchanted with Gielguds style of acting Shakespeare
and it was around this time that Olivier reportedly became fascinated
with the works of Sigmund Freud. This 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 critics, and not merely
compared (often disparagingly) to Gielgud or Ralph Richardson.
also made several films at this time without enjoying the medium, though
he won some popularity for such films as Fire Over England (1937) and
The Divorce of Lady X (1938), but it was William Wyler, directing him
as Heathcliff in Hollywood's Wuthering Heights (1939), who taught him
how to value film.
World War II broke out, Olivier intended to join the Royal Air Force,
but was still contractually obliged to other parties. He apparently
disliked actors such as Charles Laughton and Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who
would hold charity cricket matches to help the war effort. Olivier took
flying lessons, and racked up over 200 hours. After two years of service,
he rose to the rank Lieutenant Olivier RNVR, as a pilot in the Fleet
Air Arm but was never called to see action.
new biography of Olivier written by Michael Munn (titled Lord Larry)
claims that in 1940, while still in America Olivier was recruited by
Special Operations Executive as a agent to build support in the United
States for Britian's war with Nazi Germany. According to the book Olivier
was recruited by film producer and MI5 operative Alexander Korda on
the instructions of Winston Churchill.
to an article in The Telegraph David Niven, a good friend of Olivier's,
is said to have told Michael Munn,
was dangerous for his country was that (Olivier) could have been accused
of being an agent'.
sounds ludicrous now in the light of history, but before America was
brought into the war it didn't tolerate foreign agents. Niven continues...
"So this was a danger for Larry because he could have been arrested.
And what was worse, if German agents had realised what Larry was doing,
they would, I am sure, have gone after him."