Famous Bis: Laurence Olivier

By Jennie Roberson



When an actor attains a certain artistic height and influence, their name takes on a reverent tone when people discuss them — even generations later. I recall my grandfather talking about how deeply moved his parents were when they got to see the great Sarah Bernhardt play Hamlet — even though they saw her performance long before he was born. I saw the same thing in acting circles as I made my way through theatrical programs in high school and college. One name in particular whose greatness I kept hearing of was Sir Laurence Olivier. A titan of British theater, one of the most trusted stage actors of the 20th century, and one of the pioneers who brought Shakespeare to the masses with his Oscar winning performance and direction of Hamlet (1948). But it wasn’t until a few years ago that I learned that Olivier was also bi.

Born in 1907 in southern England, Olivier was the youngest of three to a stern father who held a high-ranking position in the Anglican Church and a kind mother who was also from a clergy family. Olivier originally had plans to follow in his brother’s footsteps and work at a rubber plantation, however after some early stage performances, his father surprisingly urged him to pursue a career in acting.

After enrolling in the Central School of Speech and Drama and earning his spurs, Olivier’s technique and talent soon caught the attention of the London theater scene. He rose quickly through the ranks, gaining recognition and lead roles in the West End with performances in productions such as Noel Coward comedies. Hollywood soon came calling, and his performances as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1939) as well as the lead in the noir classic Rebecca (1940) made him a bonafide star. His handsome looks ensured his place as a matinee idol and sex symbol of the ‘30s and ‘40s of the silver screen, though he notably put his career on hold during World War II in order to serve in the Royal Navy.

But it was his turns in the major Shakespearean dramas that really caught the eye of the public, and for the rest of his life he was considered to be a top interpreter of the Bard (#Bi2). Olivier was one of the first to find great dramatic and box office success with his direction and performances of some of the major works of the bard, including but not limited to: Henry V (1944), Hamlet (1948), and Richard III (1955).

Laurence Olivier in "Hamlet" (1948).

For these and other works, Olivier garnered high honors in his native England. In 1947, he was knighted by the king for his contributions to the arts and became Sir Laurence Olivier. Later on, Elizabeth II named him the Baron of Brighton and awarded him the Order of Merit.

Of course, Olivier didn’t limit himself to the classical oeuvre and often tackled modern works with iconic performances. Many of his roles on screens big and small during the ‘60s and ‘70s were to fund his project of reviving the Old Vic Theatre as well as the National Theatre Company. During this era, he famously took nearly every job thrown at him in order to fund these pursuits, and among them were admittedly some clunkers. However, he also churned out some excellent work in The Entertainer (1960), as well as bi-tastic turn on Spartacus (1960), and a chilling performance as a Nazi scientist in the 1970s classic, Marathon Man (1976) (“is it safe?” will never sound the same again).

Laurence Olivier in "Marathon Man" (1976).

While Olivier admired the performances of the new school of acting from Brando and the like, his own technical approach would sometimes be at odds with some of his co-stars. A famous example was when Olivier was out to dinner after a day on the set of Marathon Man, and invited co-star Dustin Hoffman to join him for dinner. Hoffman, deep into the method acting process, had been awake for three days straight in order to authentically portray his character’s exhaustion. When Hoffman slumped into the restaurant booth, Olivier quipped, “My dear boy, have you tried just acting?”

As to Olivier’s bisexuality, Laurence (who preferred to just be called “Larry”) married three times. His first marriage to actress Jill Esmond. Next was Vivien Leigh (for whom he got the agent who landed Leigh Gone With the Wind (1939).) This was a passionate and long affair, which ultimately unraveled due to his inability to cope with her emerging bipolar disorder. Olivier’s final wife was Joan Plowright. Olivier was plagued with bisexual rumors throughout his career — including one particular scandal claiming that he had a 10-year-long affair with Danny Kaye. In his autobiography, Olivier admitted to being attracted to Kaye but says he never acted on his attractions. In addition to this, Olivier’s official biographer found records that Olivier had at least one same-sex affair in his youth with an actor named Henry Ainley.

Despite his towering reputation, Olivier was no stranger to human frailties. He suffered from stage fright throughout his entire life — and at one point was so incapacitated by it that he did not work for years. He was a pioneer in the ‘60s as far as celebrities being open about their own cancer diagnoses, which he was able to beat. He was a fervent smoker — so much so that a brand of tobacco was named after him. But it was also important to Olivier to encourage youth to pursue the theater — even writing back to Kenneth Branagh who wrote him a fan letter while he was in college.

While Olivier continued to work into his twilight years, even putting in a poignant performance on a TV adaptation of King Lear (1983), his last few decades were spent in a spiral of failing health culminating in his death in 1989. But his legacy lives on. He was buried at Westminster Abbey at the Poet’s Corner — the first actor to be buried there in 150 years (the previous being Edmund Kean), and the Olivier Awards, the sort of the English equivalent of the Tonys, are named in his honor.

Laurence Olivier in "King Lear" (1983).

Olivier was a complicated man, a prodigious achiever in both the fields of stage and screen as an actor, director, and producer. His techniques and performances have influenced generations of artists. And he was bi.

It’s quite difficult to sum up such a formidable and influential life in such a small space, so if you’re interested in learning more about Olivier (like the fact that he had major rivalries with other hallowed actors like John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, who nearly threw him out of a window), please give his autobiography a read. Then you will truly understand why his name is still held in such high regard — by audiences and artists alike.


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