Laurence Olivier was born in 1907 in Dorking, England. The household was severe, confining, and religious, presided over by his father who was a member of the clergy who moved them through a number of parish districts. Young Laurence took refuge in play-acting and was in several Shakespearean roles by his mid-teens. So successful was his portrayal of Puck in A Midsummer's Night Dream at the School of St. Edward that even his pious father encouraged him to apply to London's Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Arts. In 1926, he joined Birmingham Repertory theater and met Ralph Richardson. In 1928, Birmingham Rep came to the Royal Court theater in London.
In 1935, London was undergoing a Shakespeare revival, largely thanks to John Gielgud's successful production of "Hamlet." For his next production, Gielgud chose Olivier to play Romeo in "Romeo and Juliet" and, in spite of complaints that his performance was shallow and athletic, the play was another huge hit.
His film success wasn't apparent until "Wuthering Heights" (1939). Instead of a stock-in-trade doomed lover, Olivier played Heathcliff with a smoldering, dangerous undercurrent, one that carried over into his subsequent performances in "Rebecca" (1940), "Pride and Prejudice" (1940) and "That Hamilton Woman" (1941).
As a director, Olivier adapted many Shakespearean plays into films. "Henry V" (1944) begins in a blatantly false Globe Theater and gradually opens out into an intensely cinematic battle at Agincourt. "Hamlet" (1948) employs voice-over interior monologues for Hamlet's soliloquies and enlists Wellesian deep focus and ominous moving-camera shots to convey the fetid atmosphere of the restricted castle setting of Elsinore. And "Richard III" (1955) uses eye contact with the camera to permit the audience to become accomplices in the comically maniacal Richard's conspiracies.
From the end of WWII to the early 70s, Olivier made sporadic film appearances, largely owing to his involvement in the administration of London's St. James Theater in the late 40s and the National Theater at the Old Vic from 1963 to 1973. With the film version of John Osborne's play "The Entertainer" (1960), Olivier bade farewell to his romantic screen persona and introduced Olivier the character actor in the role of Archie Rice, the seedy, pathetic vaudevillian. During the making of this film he met his third wife, Joan Plowright.
Now he began making film appearances in small character roles, often virtually unrecognizable beneath heavy makeup. Most notable among these performances were the Madhi in "Khartoum" (1966), the reclusive mystery writer in "Sleuth" (1972), and the evil Nazi dentist in "Marathon Man" (1976). In declining health, Olivier mustered his old fire in 1984 for a bittersweet, reflective television production of "King Lear", a fitting swan song for an actor dedicated to depicting the life-spark of humanity.
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