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Laurence Olivier Biography (1907–1989)


Laurence Olivier was one of the most acclaimed actors of the 20th century, known for his roles in numerous Shakespeare productions on stage and screen, as well as memorable turns in more modern classics.

Who Is Laurence Olivier?

Laurence Olivier was one of the most acclaimed actors of the 20th century. He is known for his career-defining performances of Shakespearean roles on stage and screen, as well as memorable turns in modern classics such as Wuthering Heights and Marathon Man. He was knighted by King George VI and later made Baron Olivier of Brighton by Queen Elizabeth II, who also gave him the Order of Merit. Outside of his acting career, Olivier is remembered for his love affair and tempestuous marriage to actress Vivien Leigh.

Early Life

Laurence Kerr Olivier was born in Dorking, in Southern England, on May 22, 1907, to a strict religious family. Both his father and grandfather held prominent positions in the Anglican church; his mother too came from a family of career clerics, but she was his solace in the rigid household run by his father. As the youngest of their three children, Olivier was shattered when his mother died in 1920 when he only 12 years old. But despite his father’s severity, it was he who encouraged Olivier, also known to the family as Kim, to pursue acting as a career after Shakespearean roles at school showcased his early talent.

Stage Career: Hamlet and Othello

Olivier enrolled at the Central School of Speech and Drama and followed theatrical tradition, joining the Birmingham Repertory company. He rose quickly from spear-carrier to leading man and soon moved to London’s West End. An early theatrical success came with the debut of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, which was quickly followed by a bold production of Romeo and Juliet, in which Olivier and John Gielgud alternated playing Romeo and Mercutio. The two actors, whose styles clashed, remained lifelong rivals.

Olivier’s dashing good looks attracted the attention of up-and-coming actress Vivien Leigh, and they soon began a passionate romance, abandoning their previous spouses. He was wed to actress Jill Esmond at the time, and she was the mother of his first child, son Tarquin.



Olivier made his mark with star turns in many of Shakespeare‘s leading roles, including those of Hamlet, Henry V, Anthony, Richard III, Macbeth and Othello, and Leigh often appeared as his leading lady, making the couple, who married in 1940, London theater royalty. The couple also toured and appeared in the United States, capitalizing on her popularity from Gone With the Wind‘s wild success. He was known to experience crippling stage fright, even as a seasoned actor.

After the demise of their marriage due to Leigh’s battle with manic depression, Olivier made a career departure: He starred in John Osborne’s The Entertainer, marking a turn in his life and acting approach. Helping to establish the Royal National Theatre, Olivier became its founding director, serving from 1962 to 1973.

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