Unforgettable Laurence Olivier | Sunday Observer

Unforgettable Laurence Olivier

11 September, 2022
Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in ‘Romeo and Juliet’
Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in ‘Romeo and Juliet’

Can the son of a poor parish clergyman and an ordinary mother become the greatest actor of the 20th century? The world is a place where you can see such wonderful people.

Laurence Olivier was playing Archie Rice in ‘The Entertainer’ in Broadway in 1958 when a group of students from a drama school went to see him. Olivier invited them to the backstage. In the group was a student from Baghdad – Hind Rassam – who had acted the role of Antigone in a college production. The role was earlier played by Vivien Leigh and the play was directed by Olivier.

Rassam wanted Olivier’s advice on acting. He gave the young girl a meaningful look and said, “Love your character.” Rassam later said that it was the best advice she had received in her acting career. Eventually, Rassam played the role of Antigone so well that newspapers published rave reviews about her performance. A newspaper reporter who interviewed her went to the extent of getting married to her!

Laurence Olivier is still fresh in our memory as he had a six-decade acting career. He played diverse roles ranging from Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus,’ William Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ and Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night.’ He was widely hailed as a romantic actor who appealed mostly to young women. Offstage he married three times.

A reputed British drama critic once commented that Olivier had kept open ‘a pipeline to a childhood pain we can only guess at.’ He was born a poor boy and his mother’s untimely death made him a lonely person throughout his life. His greatness lies in the fact that he fought valiantly against the odds and became the greatest actor of his time.

Funny side

Olivier’s mother, Agnes Crookenden Olivier, used to see the funny side of everything. His father, Gerard Olivier, an Anglican clergyman, had a humble parish in Surrey when Laurence Kerr Olivier was born on May 22, 1907. Young Olivier always tried to please his father. He used to imitate his father’s dramatic sermons by dropping his voice, bellowing about hellfire, becoming sentimental, and then solemn. His mother recognised her son’s acting ability quite early in life and encouraged him to recite monologues from plays.

Young Olivier was not good at sports. As a result, he became a laughing stock in the playground. Even at home, he was humiliated as he had to bathe in water his father and brother had used. His father made such an arrangement to save money spent on water.

Years later Olivier said, “There’s something about being brought up in genteel poverty that makes you feel.” However, he was determined to get rid of poverty. He showed his skills as an actor at the tender age of ten by playing the role of Brutus in a school drama. Ellen Terry, a leading actress in Britain, wrote in her diary, “The small boy who played Brutus is already a great actor”

One day Olivier returned from school to find his mother lying paralysed in bed. Being a woman of courage, she never complained about her predicament. Instead she tried to encourage her son with humour. However, young Olivier did not realise that his mother was in grave danger. As usual, he went back to school. Two weeks later he came to know that she had died of a brain tumour.

First marriage

When his brother Dickie joined the British Civil Service and sailed off to India, Olivier also wanted to go with him. However, his father asked him not to be a fool and go on the stage. Olivier realised that he had spent much of his life on the stage. He had taken part in 46 plays and travelled all over England. In 1928, he played the role of a squire’s son in ‘Bird in Hand.’ In the play, he had to love an inkeeper’s daughter, played by Jill Esmond. She was a 20-year-old pretty girl. Olivier fell in love with her and married her in 1930. That was his first marriage.

Five years after his marriage, he got a major break to act in William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ directed by John Gielgud. While the director recited the poetry, Olivier had to act as Romeo. Drama critics slammed him by saying, “Mr Olivier was about 20 times as much in love with Juliet.” Soon everybody realised that nobody could love like Olivier.

Olivier was at the height of his fame when he led London’s Old Vic Company. He acted in many Shakespearean plays including ‘Hamlet.’ He played the role of Hamlet with Ophelia played by Vivien Leigh. She was in her 20s when she acted.

From London, Olivier and Vivien Leigh Moved to Hollywood to act in the film ‘Wuthering Heights.’ He played the role of Heathcliff. The film was a box office success. Olivier divorced Jill Esmond and Vivien Leigh left her husband. The marriage between Olivier and Vivien lasted 20 years.

Warrior king

While acting in Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’ Olivier played the role of the warrior king. In the course of his acting, he sprained his ankle, bruised his shins, jolted his back and dislocated both elbows. However, the film was a great success.

Olivier won a special Oscar Award for producing, directing and acting in the film. Vivien was afflicted with mental instability. She was treated for manic depression. In 1960, Olivier and Vivien were divorced.

Olivier’s thoroughness in acting was evident in every role he played in stage plays and films. His elaborate makeup, unusual movements, and tricks of voice were like a series of masks. In a television interview, he confessed that he still missed his mother even after 63 years of her death. When Olivier married Joan Plowright it became his third and last marriage. He said she resembled his mother. They had three children.

Olivier had exquisite makeup techniques. He used to wear an amazing collection of wigs, moustaches and beards. Once he played the role of Father Christmas. At first, his son Richard got frightened. Later Richard said, “You’re not Father Christmas. You’re just Daddy!”

On July 11, 1989, Laurence Olivier died in his sleep. Behind the greatest actor of our time hid a lonely, motherless child. According to critics, he was certainly the monarch of his profession.

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