Sylvia Syms looks back on the life of Laurence Olivier, perhaps Britain's greatest actor, using rare material from the BBC archives to tell the story of his distinguished career.
Browse content similar to Laurence Olivier. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
With smouldering good looks
and a strong athletic presence,
Laurence Olivier had a reputation
as the greatest actor of the 20th century.
In films like Wuthering Heights and Rebecca,
he raised the acting bar to new levels.
And for years, he led a life of high drama off the screen too.
With a tempestuous marriage to Vivien Leigh,
he became half of one of Hollywood's
original super couples.
Olivier was the youngest actor to ever be knighted,
and the first to become a life peer -
but famously insisted on being called not "sir", not "Lord",
but simply "Larry".
His acting talent and his future destiny
were both apparent from an early age -
something he talks about in this interview.
First, on location at The Old Vic theatre,
and then later from the BBC studios
on the programme Great Acting with Kenneth Tynan.
When you were 10 years old,
Ellen Terry said, "The boy who pays the part of Brutus
"is already a great actor".
Can you remember playing Brutus?
Oh, yes, I do. I do indeed.
My father had a story about Forbes-Robertson.
I never believed it, but my father used to tell it,
so I'll tell it, for what it's worth.
I don't know what it's worth in truth,
but he said that he met Forbes-Robertson on that occasion,
and as he put it, Forbes-Robertson had tears in his eyes
when my father said, "My little boy isn't bad, is he?" or something.
And, um, he said that Forbes-Robertson said,
"My dear man, he IS Brutus," he says.
Well, I don't see how I can have been at 10, but still.
Your father was a high Anglican clergyman.
He was a high Anglican clergyman.
-Did he have a great deal of influence on your life?
Oh, yes, very much. Very much.
You see, both my brother and I started,
at least, with a great sense of ritual.
And it was these elaborate rituals
that gave you the idea, perhaps, of acting?
Yes. Oh, yes. And my father's great prowess in the pulpit.
Did your father approve of you going on the stage?
Well, as a matter of fact,
although my relationship with him
had been extremely distant, all my youth -
I was terrified of him,
he was a very frightening father figure, Victorian father figure -
I absolutely worshipped and adored my mother,
who died when I was 13 years old.
I often think and say that perhaps I've never got over it.
Anyway, my father had to take over, not knowing me very much.
I think, to him, I was rather an unnecessary child.
I don't blame him at all,
because I was probably very fat an absolutely brainless.
But finally, when my brother went to India as an Indian rubber planter -
not as an Indian rubber planter,
but as an English rubber planter in India -
I was filled with the glamour of what my brother was doing,
and when we were seeing him off on his boat in Tilbury,
we got back home to Letchworth, where my father was rector,
I said, "Well, when can I follow Dickie to India, Father, please?
"About one or two years? I don't want to go to the university."
And my father said, "You're talking nonsense.
"You're going to be an actor."
-And this was a complete surprise to you?
-Yes, it was.
I was amazed, A, that he'd thought things out for me at all,
and B, that he'd thought things out that far.
And that he'd had the...
I secretly knew that he was right, that I ought to be an actor.
Have you found it difficult to find bits of yourself
in the evil characters you've played?
What you need to make up your make-up as an actor
You must, at its most highfaluting...
..the most highfaluting expression of it,
the actor is as important as the illuminator
of the human heart.
He's as important as the psychiatrist or the doctor.
Minister, if you like.
That's putting him very high and mightily.
At the opposite end of that pole,
you've got to find in the actor a man who will not be too proud
to scavenge that tiniest little bit of human circumstance -
observe it, use it, find it, use it - some time or another.
Frequently observe things.
And, thank God, if they haven't got a very good memory
for anything else, they've got a memory for little details.
And I've had things in the back of my mind for as long as 18 years
before I've used them.
And perhaps in those little tiny things
may be the key to a whole characterisation.
We're going to look now at a scene from the film of Richard III.
It's the scene after Richard has successfully made love
to the widow of one of his victims.
Was ever woman in this humour wooed?
Was ever woman in this humour won?
My dukedom to a widow's chastity,
I do mistake my person all this while.
Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot,
myself to be a proper man.
I'll be at charges for a looking glass.
And entertain some score or two of tailors to study fashions
to adorn my body.
Since I am crept in favour with myself,
I will maintain it to some little cost.
Shine out, fair sun,
till I have bought a glass,
that I may see my shadow as I pass.
Did you know at the time that that was going to be
one of the key performances of your career?
A lot of...
When I said, talking about scavenging just now,
one thing that may lead an actor to be successful in a part -
it may, not always, but may -
is to try to be unlike somebody else in it.
At the time, when I took over that part first of all,
Donald Wolfit had made an enormous success
in the part only 18 months previously.
I didn't want to play the part at all
because I thought it was much too close to this colleague's success.
I had seen it, and when I was learning it,
I could hear nothing but Donald's voice in my mind's ear,
and see nothing but him in my mind's eye.
And so I thought, "This won't do.
"I've just got to think of something else."
My first thought, I'd always had images, pictures I'd heard,
imitations of old actors imitating Henry Irving,
and so I did right away
an imitation of these old actors
imitating Henry Irving's voice.
That's why I took on that sort of narrow kind of vocal address.
Then I thought about looks,
and I thought about the Big Bad Wolf.
And I thought about a director under whom I had suffered
in extremis in New York called Jed Harris.
The physiognomy of the Big Bad Wolf
was said to have been founded upon Jed Harris,
and so hence the nose,
which originally was very much bigger than it was finally in the film.
And so with one or two extraneous externals,
I began to build up a character - a characterisation.
I'm afraid I do work mostly from the outside in.
I usually collect, whether consciously or unconsciously,
I usually collect a lot of details, a lot of characteristics,
and find a creature swimming about somehow in the middle of them.
Your excursions into contemporary plays,
things like The Sleeping Prince by Mr Rattigan,
John Osborne's The Entertainer.
I adore The Entertainer.
I think it's the most wonderful part that I've ever played.
Let's have a look now at a scene from The Entertainer film.
It's a scene in which the middle-aged
and unsuccessful musical comic Archie Rice,
knowing that his career is coming to an end,
talks to his daughter on the empty stage
of an empty seaside theatre where they're performing.
You think I'm just a tatty old music hall actor.
But you know, when you're up here...
..when you're up here...
..you think you love all those people around you out there.
But you don't.
You don't love them like...
JAZZ MUSIC PLAYS
Oh, if you learn it properly,
you'll get yourself a technique... and smile down,
you smile, and look the friendliest,
jolliest thing in the world.
But you will be just as dead and...used up,
just like everybody else.
You see this face?
This face can split open with warmth and humanity.
It can sing,
tell the worst and funniest stories in the world
to a great mob of dead, drab irks.
And it doesn't matter.
It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter, because look - look at my eyes.
I'm dead behind these eyes.
Just like the whole dumb, shoddy lot out there.
Archie Rice was influenced by a Negro blues singer.
Are there any actors who have influenced you to that degree?
Yes, lots of them.
I've mentioned Fairbanks, Barrymore.
It was Hamlet I first saw when I was 17 years old.
Noel Coward, in his way, influenced me a great deal.
He lent me a bit of stern professionalism.
Of all people I've ever watched with the greatest delight,
I think, was in another field entirely with Sid Field.
I wouldn't like anybody to think that I was imitating Sid Field
-when I was doing The Entertainer.
-There were a lot of things in it.
But Sid Field was a great comic, and this man is a lousy one.
But I know when I imitate Sid Field now, to this day,
I still borrow from him freely and unashamedly.
I watch... I had...
I watch all my colleagues very carefully.
Admire them all for different qualities which they have.
And I think the most interesting thing to see
is that an actor is most successful
when not only all his virtues
but all his disadvantages come into useful play in a part.
Laurence Olivier's first love was always the stage,
which perhaps explains why his move into films
in the 1930s wasn't easy.
It had taken two attempts to crack Hollywood
before his talents were able to fully flourish.
In this interview from Line-Up Film Night,
we see him talking about that journey,
and how he eventually combined roles
of film producer, director, and actor.
When you began to make a name for yourself in the West End
in the early '30s,
it was rather surprisingly not in classical roles at all,
but in light comedy and rather matinee idol parts.
One thinks of the fact that you played opposite Noel Coward
in Private Lives, that you played Beau Geste.
Not opposite Noel Coward,
but it was alongside him and way down the corridor.
But I had done quite some juvenile leading roles,
I suppose you'd call them,
from about 1928 to 1930, that sort of thing,
and then I joined up with Noel in Private Lives,
and played that terrible part, Victor Prynne.
Which I must say he had the decency to apologise about since.
And it was very exciting to be in a hit for the first time.
I mean, with such glamour figures as Gertie Lawrence and Noel,
you can imagine how glorious it was.
And then we went to New York with it,
and then it was in New York while we were playing there
that my wife - my first wife, Jill - was in the play.
Then she and I signed up with Hollywood,
and we had little
not terribly demanding approaches from all the studios,
but the one we chose was RKO.
Because that was sold us by the lady who sold the idea to us
because that was the youngest studio.
It was better for youngish people to belong to a younger studio.
I don't think it worked out at all. I did three pictures in two years.
And the first of it... The first of which was an extraordinary...
I would hate to see it now.
..it was called Friends And Lovers, with Adolphe Menjou -
"Adolphe", as he was called -
Lili Damita, Erich von Stroheim, and myself.
And then I played two other films there in two years.
That's all I did, and I came back... home, rather in disgust.
But of course they had that terrible Wall Street crash,
and the film industry had gone through a fearsome time.
I did start about three or four other pictures,
but about the second day, little men with black coats and spectacles
would come down onto the floor and say,
"That's it. That's all. Wrap it up."
And then when you went back to Hollywood
towards the end of the '30s, of course,
you began to make tremendous successes
in films like Rebecca and Wuthering Heights.
Did that change the whole picture of Hollywood for you?
The man who changed Hollywood for me, and the whole idea of it...
I was very snobbish about films.
I did them to make money and said so, all over the place.
Much to the disgust of the Sam Goldwyns of this world.
But the man who changed me was the man I quarrelled with
most bitterly of all, really, and that was William Wyler.
And you'd be amazed at the scenes
between Merle and myself and Willie Wyler
that took place beneath
that heart-throbbing romance called Wuthering Heights.
You'd be amazed at the temperament and the spit and the fury
and the passion and the rages with each other we went through.
And we were very narky with each other on the floor,
but it was he who said, persuaded me, simply with patient talking.
He wasn't a pleasant director to work with,
but he was a very interesting man to talk to.
He was much more coherent off the floor than on it.
But he told me that I must understand there wasn't anything
that could not be done in that medium,
if you found a way to do it.
And it was he who persuaded me
that you could even do Shakespeare successfully on a film.
When I came to make Wuthering Heights -
I'm sorry, Henry V -
and he was a major in the army,
staying at Claridge's hotel,
which so many majors in the American army seemed able to do.
And I asked him if he would direct Henry V.
He said, "Well, it's sweet of you. No, thanks. I can't."
He said, "You'd better do it yourself."
And so that's the way it turned out.
But if it hadn't been for him, I'd never have thought of making Henry V.
And is it true that before him, and before Wuthering Heights,
you had in fact been turned down
for the lead opposite Greta Garbo in Queen Christina?
Yes, that's true. But she was right.
I wasn't up to her standard at all. I hadn't got...
I hadn't got the stature necessary to be her leading man.
Anything like it. She was absolutely right.
She was very sweet to me years later,
and sort of I had apologetic messages through George Cukor and people,
and I said, "Please tell her she was absolutely right.
"I wasn't up...
"I wasn't... Couldn't hold a candle to her."
I was too young for her. I was about two or three years younger.
I was very light. I was only about 25, I think.
And she was not light.
She had immense personality.
Tremendous presence, and was a great, great artist,
and completely understood every single thing
that was to be thought or understood about her medium.
She was a mistress of it. Queen of it.
I didn't know anything about it. Little, little, little.
But what I knew was no match for her.
She was quite right to fire me.
Of course I nearly cut my throat
and nearly threw myself out of windows afterwards
because it was very highly publicised, as you could imagine, at the time.
However, one gets over these things.
And when you came, in more successful years, to make Henry V
and Hamlet and Richard III,
those three films over which you had control,
-not just as actor but also as director...
..they are the three, I think, for which you will be always remembered.
Is that just coincidence, or is it always better
to have one actor in charge of one film?
Well, I think it had not been done very much except by Orson Welles,
marvellously and masterfully,
in Citizen Kane.
And that film in which he really made a landmark in films,
that really was a landmark.
And it was a marvellous herculean task he undertook
and fulfilled brilliantly.
And he was the subject of great admiration,
and absolutely unstinted admiration,
I'm sure, the world over,
except possibly in his own country,
where people who likened themselves to the character he played
were a little bit offended about it, I think.
But in the realm of film, I mean,
Orson's name will go down to posterity I'm sure
as being one of the masters.
..I suppose in England,
I suppose I was about the first actor
to produce and direct his own film.
I think I was.
I wouldn't like to swear that, but I think I was.
Do you think you learnt much from him directly
in terms of acting and directing?
Or was it just the same...?
Oh, no, I didn't mean that. No, his style.
He created a style in Citizen Kane,
which you can say if you like -
I wouldn't mind anybody saying -
I sort of copied in Hamlet.
In that...during that,
Gregg Toland developed this deep focus work,
which had never been done before.
As a matter of fact, I was in the very first deep focus shot ever,
when Gregg Toland was photographing Wuthering Heights.
And at the end of a certain take,
which was Merle in the foreground in what we call a "three-shot",
and I was full-length in the background.
And he said, "Did you notice anything about that shot?"
And I said, "No,"
and I could bet my bottom dollar
that Miss Oberon was in focus and I wasn't, that's all.
And he said, "You're wrong about that.
"That's a new sort of shot.
"Didn't you feel your key light very strong?"
I said, "Well, yes, I think I did."
"You wait till the rushes."
"You mean I shall be in focus AND Miss Oberon will be?" "Yeah."
And that was the very first shot he'd ever tried it with.
And that also was Wyler.
And Wyler was always... always had Gregg Toland with him.
And Orson very wisely took Gregg Toland.
Now, there were a lot of shots in Hamlet.
This is when it was final and we're getting to the point.
There were a lot of shots in Hamlet which had very deep focus indeed,
very deep focus.
There was one shot of little Jean Simmons, as she was then.
The back of her head is showing every hair in focus
just right in the foreground,
and I was, through a mirror, 120 feet away
as Hamlet, and also in the shot.
And that was the style, and I...
I wouldn't like to say I would have thought of that style
if it hadn't been for Orson.
Three years after that interview,
Olivier took on a role
that would become one of his and the public's favourites,
starring alongside Michael Caine
in the classic thriller Sleuth.
Here's a report from the film set,
again by interviewer Sheridan Morley.
OK. That's all right.
-While the Sleuth team were filming at Athelhampton
we went to watch them at work,
and I had a number of tries at getting a few words
with one of the film's co-stars, Laurence Olivier.
-But he needed some persuading.
-It's an invasion of privacy!
The other star of Sleuth is Michael Caine,
playing a part which, it's fair to say,
is far above and beyond anything
he has previously tried to do in 10 years of film stardom.
-Can we get this before lunch, gentleman?
Stand on the final step.
-Together, Olivier and Caine form a screen partnership
which those who've already seen the film in America say is electric.
In terms of the sheer length of your part, has Sleuth been a very difficult film for you?
It's absolutely terrible! It's been... It's really very long.
I didn't have time to learn it, I was terribly busy
at the National, I didn't have time to learn it before we started.
And really that's the only thing to do.
What I'd have loved to have had time to do was to have taken it
on a baby road tour or something, if they'd have allowed me to,
-and played it for four weeks, possibly with Michael.
-On the stage?
Yes, it'd be been marvellous, made a bit of dough. We'd have known...
We'd have known all the thoughts then, we'd have known
all the different colours, we'd have known the signals along the line.
We'd have known why we did something,
because something followed, and why to avoid doing something,
because it would be obvious if we did it in such a way
because something else followed, you know.
All sorts of things that concern an actor all the time.
And, er...it's been a great effort to learn it.
I don't think I've let the production team down
more than once or twice by just frankly not being able to learn it.
My part is very hard, because very clever author, Tony Shaffer,
as he is, has written it as an author
speaking in the way that an author would like to speak.
And therefore that's not quite... a very colloquial way of speaking.
It's always rather... The mot juste is always just round the corner.
And there's plenty of alliterative occasions, which are always
probably hard for the author to find in the first place.
He's got to sort of find it. Therefore you've got to find...
It's not the word that immediately springs to mind.
Those alliterative things are always difficult.
-You know, I haven't congratulated you yet on your, er...game.
-It was jolly good.
-You really think so? Good!
I must say I was rather delighted with it myself. I say...
Did you really think your last moment on Earth had come?
You're not cross, are you?
I don't understand. That's one of your words.
Look, as I explained to you, when you were playing Doppler,
I had to test your mettle to see if, as I suspected,
you really were my sort of person.
-A games-playing sort of person?
-And am I?
-There's no question about it.
Compare your experience this weekend, my dear Milo,
with any other moment in your life.
If you're honest with yourself, you'll have to admit
that you lived more intensely in my company than in anybody else's.
Even with Marguerite. We know what it is to play a game, you and I.
That's so rare.
Two people brought together, equally matched, having the courage
and the talents to make of life
a continuing charade of bright fancies.
To face out its emptiness...
and its terrors by...playing.
Larry, whom I've known for many, many years,
of course I've never had the opportunity of working with
but remains the dream choice to play, er, Andrew Wyke..
..understood the character completely.
Little bits of Andrew Wyke always reminded Larry,
and me, of people we'd actually known.
And, most importantly, in Larry I had this incredible, er...
..Comstock Lode of experience and...
..his absolute...total command of every form of human expression
and projection, er,
to help keep the...the constant interplay of these two characters...
..er...exciting. In other words, no two scenes could be played alike.
This childlike grown-up man
who's constantly going off into little fantasies,
playing detectives, playing parts of charwomen.
Larry, with his tremendous store of experience, I mean, he does
everything from a Restoration rake to a 20th-century charwoman
in the film, and does it almost en passant in the characterisation.
And this is something you can't...you can't
do near realistically.
You can't find somebody off the street to do it,
it had bloody better be as close to Laurence Olivier as you can get.
But having Laurence Olivier playing Andrew Wyke
must be fair competition for you.
Is there a danger of being overshadowed by him?
Er, I think there's always a danger of being overshadowed.
The thing is, I suppose you just rely on the lighting man
and hope he can light shadows!
Um, it's not something you worry about, especially in a two-man piece.
There must eventually come a time when, er...
..you get your own sort of turn
and then it's very nice to have someone like Lord Olivier off camera.
Roy. Have you got the glasses or have I got them?
I must have left them upstairs.
CAINE: 'He was cast first and was asked who he would like to play the part
'and he said me.
'I mean, I suppose presuming I wouldn't overshadow him!'
Laurence Olivier would enjoy other successes in the '70s,
with The Boys From Brazil and Marathon Man,
his role in both earning him Oscar nominations.
Another landmark was his 80th birthday.
Amongst the celebrations was a pageant
hosted by the National Theatre, and news and television tributes
looked back on his life and his work.
-He was to show his genius again when he turned to television.
-The boy here?
-Yes, dear, he's here.
Don't let anyone ever deceive you
into believing that the world was created in six days.
Would you like your coffee now, dear?
The evolution of the horse was the most tortuous process.
This coffee's frozen. Like a sort of...Arctic mud.
-Shall I make you some fresh, dear?
-No...rather like it.
In recent years, Lord Olivier battled cancer and heart disease.
Each performance was a triumph over physical hardship.
But as he approached his 80th birthday at his Sussex home
his main concern was, of all things, the sudden onset of stage fright.
I've suffered for the first time in my life from stage fright slightly.
And that...that is a worry.
I'd say most people get over that when they're about 17,
but I never was frightened about anything when I was 17,
and all the time until now I'm, you know...
-I don't know where the hell I am. What am I, 77?
I begin to be a little nervous of personal appearances.
It's not only vanity, because I know I'm not very pretty, but it's...
I don't know what it is, I really can't account for it.
I think it's just one of those naughty things that nature
does to one, trips one up just when one's least expecting it.
Staunchly supportive of his wife's acting career and those
of their three children, who followed them into the profession,
Lord Olivier once said his aim was to make the audience believe.
As tributes pour in from the arts world,
it's clear he succeeded as few actors have.
God bless you, old cock.
Not surprisingly, Laurence Olivier acted right to the end.
His final performance was in Derek Jarman's War Requiem.
A year later, aged 82,
he died at his home in Ashurst, West Sussex, with wife Joan Plowright
and his family and beloved children by his side.
His passing prompted tributes from across the globe,
acting colleagues saying his death marked
the closing of a very great book.
Laurence Olivier left a towering legacy,
not just in performances but also in the concrete walls
of the National Theatre, of which he was the first artistic director.
The announcement that his ashes will be buried in Westminster Abbey
was a final, powerful indicator
of the high esteem the nation had for him,
and recognition of his devotion to his art
and his enduring status as the greatest actor of his time.
Sylvia Syms looks back on the life of Laurence Olivier, perhaps Britain's greatest actor, using rare material from the BBC archives to tell the story of his extraordinarily distinguished career.