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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
Laurence Olivier

(1907–89, kt 1947, baron 1970)
Perhaps the last great actor in the old tradition of heroic self-indulgence. He played every part with a frank enjoyment of theatricality which made the experience even more memorable for his audience. In the 1930s he established himself as a wide-ranging Shakespearean actor – alternating Romeo and Mercutio with John Gielgud at the New Theatre in 1935, and playing Hamlet, Henry V, Sir Toby Belch, Iago and Coriolanus at the Old Vic from 1937. By the end of that decade he had also demonstrated a powerful screen personality in Wuthering Heights (1939). His marriage in 1940 to Vivien Leigh (his second wife) seemed to complete the image of the romantic star.

From the mid-40s he excelled in directing himself in Shakespeare on film. The dramatically shot Henry V (1944), with its timely excesses of patriotism, was followed by Hamlet (1948) and finally by the melodramatically sinister Richard III (1956). When the new wave of British drama began in the late 1950s, Olivier was immediately part of it – giving one of his most brilliant performances as the world-weary music-hall comedian, Archie Rice, in John Osborne's The *Entertainer (1957).

As an actor of such wide range, and a successful producer and director, Olivier was a natural choice to bring the *National Theatre into existence in 1963. Together with his new wife Joan Plowright (they had married in 1961), he built up a brilliant company and repertoire at the Old Vic, scene of many of his past successes. He wisely involved Kenneth *Tynan in the choice of plays. Olivier played cameo roles in the company with as much zest as the blockbusters (which included his celebrated portrayal of the father in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night).

He handed over to Peter Hall in 1973, three years before the National's move to its custom-built home on the South Bank (where the main auditorium is called the Olivier in his honour).

Olivier subsequently busied himself mainly with television and films (including Sleuth 1972, Marathon Man 1976, The Boys from Brazil 1978). In 1970 he became the first actor to be given a peerage, just as Irving had been the first to be knighted – a link reflecting the outstanding position of both in their profession.

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