“Living is strife and torment, disappointment and love and sacrifice, golden sunsets and black storms,” Laurence Olivier once said.  This great actor’s life with its brilliant successes, passionate love affairs, and dark disappointments certainly lived up to his statement.

The dark, handsome and suave English actor is considered to be the greatest actor of the twentieth century.  Noted for his playing of romantic heroes and his Shakespearian roles, he won two Academy Awards but was nominated twelve times, and he was also given two special Oscars.

Born in Surrey, England in 1907, Olivier was the son of an Anglican clergyman, who wanted him to become an actor.  Perhaps the young ‘Larry’s’ talent shone even then.  After attending the Central School of Speech and Drama, Olivier joined the Birmingham Repertory Company and acted on Broadway.  He starred on the London stage in Noel Coward’s Private Lives (1930) and in Romeo and Juliet (1935) and leaped to international fame as the difficult Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1939).  He was nominated for an Academy Award for his impressive acting. 

Other romantic roles which Olivier made famous were as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice with the beautiful Greer Garson as Elizabeth and Maxim de Winter in Rebecca with Joan Fontaine as his co-star. These were both made in 1940.

Olivier married Jill Esmond in 1930 and had a son, Tarquin.  But the young actor couldn’t resist the charms of the beautiful and sophisticated actress, Vivien Leigh, his co-star in Fire over England.  She followed the couple on holiday even though Jill Esmond was pregnant.  Vivien usually got what she wanted and she was determined to lure the darkly handsome Olivier away from his wife, but Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier were meant to be together.  Theirs was one of the great love stories of the twentieth century.  “This, this was love. This was the real thing,” Olivier said in 1986 when he watched a movie starring the lovely actress on television.

Even though Esmond has been described as a lesbian, she felt bitter about the break-up, feeling that she sacrificed her career for Olivier’s only to watch him fall in love with someone else. 

Vivien Leigh’s greatest success was as the flirtatious Southern belle, Scarlett, in Gone With The Wind in 1939.  She made some other memorable films, such as Waterloo Bridge (1940) and That Hamilton Woman (1941), but she never became as successful as her husband.  He directed and produced, as well as starred in, the great Shakespearian classic movies, Henry V(1944) and Hamlet (1948)  He won Academy Awards for Hamlet as Best Film and himself as Best Actor. Other famous Shakespearian roles included Richard III (1955) and Othello (1965).

He was given a knighthood in 1947 and became the founding director of the Chicester Festival Theatre and the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain.  He received a life peerage for this and was created Baron Olivier in 1970.

In the later years of their marriage, Vivien Leigh watched her career decline as Olivier’s soared.  Her turbulent mood swings, caused by bipolar disorder, and her affairs with other men, including the young Australian actor, Peter Finch, placed an incredibly heavy strain on their marriage. 

Although Leigh was the great love of Olivier’s life, there was no cure in those days for her complaint, and Olivier found it difficult to cope with.  He began to see another actress, Joan Plowright, probably the complete opposite of the passionate Vivien.  He divorced Vivien Leigh in 1960 and married Joan Plowright in 1961.

Although the great actor suffered from declining health dating from 1967 when he had radiation treatment for prostrate cancer, he played in many television and film roles, including the detective story, Sleuth (1971), and Brideshead Revisited. (1981).  He also narrated The World at War (1975) , a detailed history of The Second World War, considered to be one of the best British documentaries.
He died of cancer in 1982 and is buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, London.  He was only the third actor to be accorded that honor.  The other actors interred there are the legendary David Garrick and Henry Irving.

Laurence Olivier once said that: “The actor should be able to create the universe in the palm of his hand.”  If any actor could be said to have done this, it was Baron Olivier.