Laurence Olivier

Last updated on the 24 May 2024 by Maeve

Laurence Olivier poster

Mini Biography

Born: 22 May 1907, Dorking, Surrey, England. 

Laurence Olivier was an English actor and director who, along with his contemporaries Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, dominated the British stage of the mid-20th century. His impact extended beyond the theatre as he also worked in films, playing more than fifty cinema roles and achieved considerable success in television roles later in his career.

Laurence Olivier’s family had no theatrical connections, but his father, a clergyman, decided that his son should become an actor. He attended the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art in London, where he learnt his craft through a succession of acting jobs during the late 1920s. 

In 1930, Laurence Olivier had his first significant West End success in Noël Coward’s play Private Lives. In 1935, he played in a celebrated production of Romeo and Juliet alongside John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft. By the end of the decade, Olivier was an established star. In the 1940s, he co-directed the Old Vic theatre company with Richardson and John Burrell. There, he played iconic roles such as Shakespeare’s Richard III and Sophocles’s Oedipus.

In the 1950s, Olivier became an independent actor-manager. His stage career revived when he joined the avant-garde English Stage Company in 1957 to play the title role in The Entertainer, which he later reprised in the film adaptation. From 1963 to 1973, he was the founding director of Britain’s National Theatre, fostering many future stars. His own roles there included Othello and Shylock.

Among Olivier’s notable films are Wuthering Heights (1939), Rebecca (1940) and a trilogy of Shakespeare films: Henry V (1944), Hamlet (1948), and Richard III (1955). His television appearances included adaptations of The Moon and Sixpence (1960), Long Day’s Journey into Night (1973), and Brideshead Revisited (1981).

Olivier’s personal life was marked by three marriages: Jill Esmond (married 1930, divorced 1940), Vivien Leigh (married 1940, divorced 1960) and Joan Plowright (married 1961). He had four children.

His honours included a knighthood (1947), a life peerage (1970) and the Order of Merit (1981).

Laurence Olivier’s legacy endures as one of the greatest actors of his time, leaving an indelible mark on both stage and screen.


BAFTA award


WINNER | Film:  British Actor for Richard III (1956) | Film: Supporting Actor for Oh! What A Lovely War (1970)


Oscar award


WINNER | Best Actor in a Leading Role for Hamlet (1949)




Suggested viewing


Richard III (1955)

Richard III poster

Bftv 9.0 / IMDb 7.4

A power-hungry duke manipulates and murders his way to the English throne, revelling in his villainy. However, his paranoia and short reign are ultimately shattered by a rebellion led by a rival family.

Top cast: Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Claire Bloom, Nicholas Hannen, Cedric Hardwicke, Paul Huson, Pamela Brown, Mary Kerridge.

Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca (1940) poster

Bftv 9.0 / IMDb 8.1

A young woman marries a wealthy widower and moves to his grand estate, only to find herself overshadowed by the memory of his deceased first wife, the beautiful and seemingly perfect Rebecca. The staff remains devoted to Rebecca, constantly comparing the new Mrs. de Winter to her, while her husband struggles with his grief and guilt. As the new Mrs. de Winter delves deeper, she uncovers a web of secrets and disturbing truths about Rebecca, leading her to question everything she thought she knew about her husband and their life together.

Top cast: Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders, Judith Anderson, Nigel Bruce, Reginald Denny, C. Aubrey Smith, Gladys Cooper, Florence Bates.

The Entertainer (1960)

The Entertainer poster

Bftv 8.0 / IMDb 7.1

An aging, down-on-his-luck vaudeville performer clings to his fading career and fractured family life. As the world around him embraces new forms of entertainment, his old-fashioned style loses popularity, mirroring the decline of his personal relationships. He grapples with mounting debt, a strained marriage and the changing times, desperately trying to maintain a sense of relevancy and control amidst a crumbling world.

Top cast: Laurence Olivier, Brenda De Banzie, Roger Livesey, Joan Plowright, Alan Bates, Daniel Massey, Albert Finney, Shirley Anne Field, Thora Hird.

Wuthering Heights (1939)

Wuthering Heights (1939) poster

Bftv 9.0 / IMDb 7.5

A passionate but destructive love story unfolds across generations, marked by social class differences and a deep-seated desire for revenge. A young orphan, adopted into a wealthy family, forms an intense bond with the headstrong daughter, defying societal boundaries. However, their desires are thwarted by external pressures, leading to heartbreak, betrayal, and a cycle of resentment that consumes not only them but also their children.

Top cast: Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier, David Niven, Flora Robson, Donald Crisp, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Hugh Williams, Leo G. Carroll, Miles Mander.

Fire Over England (1937)

Fire Over England poster

Bftv 8.0 / IMDb 6.5

Set against the backdrop of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign and England’s impending conflict with the Spanish Armada, the film interweaves themes of love, loyalty and national pride. A young man, torn between his love for a lady-in-waiting and his duty to his country, finds himself entangled in a web of intrigue as he becomes a spy and challenges a Spanish nobleman. The story explores the complexities of love and duty, while also depicting the courage and determination of the English people in the face of a formidable foe.

Top cast: Flora Robson, Raymond Massey, Leslie Banks, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Morton Selten, Tamara Desni, Lyn Harding, George Thirlwell.

That Hamilton Woman (1941)

That Hamilton Woman poster

Bftv 8.5 / IMDb 7.2

A charming social climber traverses life in 18th century Europe, marrying an older ambassador before falling into a passionate but forbidden love affair with a celebrated war hero. Their whirlwind romance unfolds against the backdrop of a brewing war, forcing them to grapple with societal pressures, personal desires and the potential consequences of their choices.

Top cast: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Alan Mowbray, Sara Allgood, Gladys Cooper, Henry Wilcoxon, Heather Angel, Halliwell Hobbes, Gilbert Emery.

Hamlet (1948)

Hamlet (1948) poster

Bftv 8.5 / IMDb 7.6

Prince Hamlet, consumed by grief and anger after his father’s death and his mother’s swift marriage to his uncle, is visited by his father’s ghost. The ghost reveals he was murdered by the new king, and urges Hamlet to seek revenge. Torn by doubt and philosophical contemplation, Hamlet delays, feigning madness to deceive the king. He devises a play to expose the king’s guilt, but his pursuit of revenge unleashes a chain of tragic events.

To cast: Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, John Laurie, Esmond Knight, Anthony Quayle, Niall MacGinnis, Harcourt Williams, Patrick Troughton.

Full filmography (@Wikipedia)


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