Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Olivier Century

Olivier Century

Last week marked the 100th birthday for one of theatre's most estimable actors, the late Lord Laurence Olivier.

The acclaimed thespian -- who refused to talk to anyone who didn't call him "Larry" -- was born in Dorking, Surrey, England on May 22, 1907. Overall, Olivier performed in over 120 stage roles on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in close to 60 movies.

At age fifteen, the budding actor made his acting debut at the all-boys All Saints Choir School. Four years later, he joined the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

At only 22 years of age, Olivier made his Broadway debut in Murder On The Second Floor. The play opened on September 11, 1929 and closed after a mere 45 performances.... right about the time of the infamous stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression.

Olivier would go on to star in fifteen more Broadway productions, yet was only nominated once for a Tony. He received his nod for his work in the 1958 mounting of The Entertainer, which featured an actress named Joan Plowright, whom he marry two years later (Plowright was Olivier's third wife after such notables as Jill Esmond and Vivien Leigh). Olivier was one of seven Tony nominees for Best Actor that year alongside such luminaries as Richard Burton, Anthony Perkins and Peter Ustinov, as well as winner Ralph Bellamy for his portrayal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Sunrise At Campobello.

Regarded as one of the finest contemporary Shakespearean actors, Olivier starred in three of The Bard's works on the Great White Way: Romeo And Juliet (1940), King Henry IV, Part I (1946), King Henry IV, Part II (1946) and Antony and Cleopatra (1951) -- the two pars of King Henry IV were played in repertory at the New Century Theatre.

Olivier made his last appearance on Broadway as Henry II in the 1961 production of Becket. However, having helmed a total of five Rialto productions, starting with the aforementioned Romeo And Juliet, Olivier's last direction credit there came in 1980 with the revival of Filumena that starred his beloved Joan in the title role.

Certainly, no treatise on Olivier would be complete without at least mentioning his renowned work on the London stage -- after all, they don't call the West End version of the Tonys "Oliviers" for nothing! -- or his body of film work.

Nominated for ten Academy Awards for acting, as well as one for directing, Olivier only received a single Oscar -- for his 1948 portrayal of "Hamlet" (the same film for which he received the direction nod), but he was later awarded an honorary trophy for his body of work in 1979.

According to his official biography, Olivier became Sir Laurence when he was knighted in 1947. Thirty-three years later, in honor of his "services to the theatre," Sir Laurence was made "Baron Olivier of Brighton" -- that honor allowed him to sit in the United Kingdom's House of the Lords. In 1981, the Queen bestowed the monarchy's most prestigious British Orders of Chivalry, the Order of Merit, which is awarded for exceptional service to the crown or for the advancement of arts, learning, law and literature -- it is the only Order specifically for artists, scientists and intellectuals.

Although Olivier passed away in 1989, his body of work has made him arguably the most respected actor of the past Century. And as his life and contributions to stage and film are celebrated anew, here's a special toast to the legend and legacy of a man who was happy to be called simply Larry.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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