Laurence Olivier didn’t just create characters; he created “the universe in the palm of his hands,” one of his own definitions of acting. Graced with the ability to disappear inside even the showiest role, he transformed himself into a series of unforgettable characters. Through the course of his career, he moved from romantic lead to cultured villain to grand old man with little concern for billing or salary.
Olivier started acting at fifteen, debuting as Kate in a boys’ school production of The Taming of the Shrew. He first hit Hollywood in the early thirties, but after the embarrassment of being fired from Queen Christina (1933) after one meeting with Greta Garbo (she preferred casting former lover John Gilbert), he returned to England, where he began building his reputation as a classical actor. He also rose to stardom as a romantic lead in British films like the adventure Fire over England (1936), on which he met future wife Vivien Leigh, and the romantic comedy The Divorce of Lady X (1938). That brought him back to Hollywood for Wuthering Heights (1939), which made him a movie star in the United States. After hits in Rebecca (1940) and Pride and Prejudice (1941), Olivier returned to England during World War ll to focus on stage work. His films of Shakespeare’s plays, starting with Henry V in 1945 and moving to his Oscar-winning work on Hamlet in 1948, were the first to garner both box office success and critical acclaim. He took a chance on a grittier character when he starred as a faded song-and-dance man in The Entertainer, both on stage and in a 1960 film version. The production also introduced him to future wife Joan Plowright. Despite a memorable villainous role in Spartacus (1960), he continued focusing most of his attentions on stage work, especially his artistic leadership of the National Theatre in London, which eventually named its main facility the Olivier Theatre. When health problems made stage work impossible in the seventies, he turned increasingly to the screen and television, giving acclaimed performances as a fugitive Nazi in Marathon Man (1976) and, in his last major role, King Lear in a 1983 television production. When he died, he became only the second actor in history (following Edmund Kean) to be interred in Westminster Abbey. In 1984, the Society of London Theatre renamed its annual awards, the most prestigious in England, the Oliviers.