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‘I believe that I was born to be an actor’ - Laurence Olivier

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Born on this day in 1907.

At the age of ten, while attending a West End choir school Laurence Olivier “appeared in a production of Julius Caesar; it was seen by Irving's former theatrical partner, Ellen Terry, who noted in her diary: ‘The small boy who played Brutus is already a great actor’” (DNB).

Olivier became in turn “classical actor, Hollywood star, theatrical and television producer, West End impresario”, and co-founder and director of the National Theatre. The Oxford DNB biography of Laurence Olivier reads as if writer Michael Billington had been there for every one of Olivier's dramatic leaps, setbacks, and fiery successes.

Olivier made Shakespeare and Jane Austen popular on film. He conquered “the commanding theatrical heights" with performances of Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, Henry V, Romeo, Shylock, Oedipus, Strindberg's Captain Edgar and Osborne’s entertainer. He toured the Anglosphere with his second wife, actress Vivien Leigh, and at the National tutored and directed a younger generation of actors – Maggie Smith, Derek Jacobi, and Anthony Hopkins.

Olivier's artistry illuminates both his acting and directing careers. He enthusiastically threw himself into directing a new theatre enterprise at Chichester for a small fee –

After a shaky start with two obscure period plays, the opening season in 1962 sprang to life with his own near definitive production of Uncle Vanya. It was a reminder of Olivier's underestimated gifts as a director; everything about the production, from the distant sound of barking dogs to the intrusive peals of thunder, was perfectly orchestrated. It also proved that the open sided Chichester stage was perfectly suited to proscenium arch naturalistic drama. Above all, it was a company achievement dominated by luminous performances from Michael Redgrave as a shrill, pigeon-toed, self-deceiving Vanya, from Olivier himself as a visionary Astrov maimed by self-knowledge, and from Joan Plowright [Olivier’s third wife] as a defiant, unbearably moving Sonya.

Olivier suffered and delivered personal and professional blows, stumbled, recovered, and remained ever true to his calling. He was lucky to find his vocation so young - and to live in a country that loved theatre.

You can read his whole bio without a subscription if you check out Oxford’s DNB this week. And as you might imagine, there are other sites on the web as well.

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