Sir Laurence Olivier is one of the truly iconic figures of the London stage, and for many the greatest actor of his, any and every generation. An actor and director, for whom the word legendary can be used without any hint of exaggeration, it is fitting that British theatre’s most illustrious awards ceremony proudly bears his name.
Throughout Olivier’s 60-year career he exhilarated audiences around the world both as an idol of the silver screen and as the definitive classical stage actor of the modern age. When the National Theatre was formed, he was the obvious choice as its first Artistic Director and in 1970 he became the first actor to be made a Lord.
The son of a strict clergyman, after studying at the Central School of Speech and Drama, Olivier’s first taste of West End success came in Noël Coward’s Private Lives in 1930. Within five years he was starring in what is considered by many to be the greatest Shakespearean production ever, Romeo And Juliet, which saw Olivier and John Gielgud sharing the roles of Romeo and Mercutio.
In 1939 Olivier made his first sortie to Hollywood and earned international renown through roles such as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. His fame rose further when he married Vivien Leigh, then probably the world’s most desirable woman after her appearance in Gone With The Wind.
One of Olivier’s most notable post-war performances came in 1957 when he appeared in John Osborne’s The Entertainer, thus aligning himself with the new wave of British theatre. Olivier was also developing his reputation as a director and took the helm of the newly formed National Theatre Company at the Old Vic in 1963.
Olivier made film history by becoming the first performer to win the Best Actor Academy Award for a film he also directed, Hamlet, and received a further nine nominations for seminal movies including The Boys From Brazil, Marathon Man, Sleuth and Henry V, which featured the ‘Once more unto the breach’ speech with which he is forever famously associated. He was given an honourary Academy Award on two occasions.
Until his death in 1989, he insisted he was just ‘Larry’ and as the London theatre world celebrates the cream of the London stage, it also remembers a man who forever bestrides the world of theatre as an enduring benchmark for theatrical talent.