Lord of Craft and Valor

TIME, December 29, 1975

Laurence Olivier invaded the 20th century stage and film with his puissance and his presence. After several ravaging illnesses, he bears only the slightest resemblance to the romantic lover of Wuthering Heights or the agile hero-king, Henry V. Today, the valor resides in the man himself and his will to endure. With gracious apologies, Sir Laurence, 68, does not rise from the sofa on which he reclines, but he still speaks in that unique, resonant voice that every other actor fears to imitate. Last week TIME Theater Critic T.E. Kalem interviewed Olivier in Hollywood, where he is playing a fascist killer in a thriller called Marathon Man.

ON PLAYING PARTS. You see, the craft of the actor can be rewarding and happy. The basic inclination toward the work is to pretend to be or feel like someone else. You feel like a king, or you feel like an archbishop. That can be better than being a real king or a real churchman because they are stuck with that. Next month you, as an actor, can be somebody’s uncle, and the month after that a Chinaman, and that’s an advantage. There are times when your life is suffused with bitterness and misery so that you can hardly endure to wear this particularly uncomfortable garment called life. I have been so wretched at times that I felt completely out of contact with reality. When I went on in a part in the nighttime, that was the only time I really felt Like myself.

ON ACHIEVING FAME. I wanted it very much, but when I started playing leading parts in London, I wasn’t popular at first. I swore to myself, “When I am popular I shall be so gracious to everybody. I will sit at the steps of the stage door saying, ‘My people, how I love you. There are only 300 here? I can sign all the autographs. Some of you go off and have a drink, and then come back.’ ” But when I became popular, I wasn’t like that at all. I’d take one horrified look at them, turn up my coat collar and run.

HIS LIFE IN ENGLAND. [Olivier’s wife, Actress Joan Plowright, is associated with a group called Lyric Theater. In a smash hit, The Bed Before Yesterday, she plays a middle-aged lady who discovers sex and loves it.] My Joanie has just had such a marvelous success—I am so happy for her. Apart from acting, I love gardening, designing a garden, planting it, working in the earth. I find it sanity-provoking. I think I would have liked to have been a farmer. Earth and greasepaint are a very good mix.

ON HIS MOST MEMORABLE EVENINGS IN THE THEATER. One was Barrymore’s Hamlet when I was 17. He was stunning, so exciting, his voice, his handsomeness, his nobility, doing his high jumps. I modeled my Hamlet on his, and then people said, “Why is Larry always leaping about?”

ON DRINK AS THE ACTOR’S BANE. It’s a dreadful, dreadful temptation. You see, one is sitting there in that dressing room from 6 to 8 with absolutely nothing to do, except possibly fret. And so actors begin drinking. And they drink during the play and they drink after the play. Years and years ago, Ralphie [Richardson] and I made a mutual pact. We promised each other not to drink until the curtain went down and we kept that pact.

ON HIS PROUDEST PERFORMANCE. Oh, I think it’s still John Osborne’s The Entertainer. It had the advantage of being a complete break from the other sort of work and that made it much more refreshing than tormenting oneself through these punishing roles of Shakespeare. I have an affinity with Archie Rice. It’s what I really am. I’m not like Hamlet.

ON RELYING ON FLASHES OF GENIUS. I have always distrusted genius in my world. I won’t tolerate that word applied to me because I don’t believe in it. Genius for hard work, sure, sure. Genius for application. But the rest is gift, gift, gift, talent with luck, and ultimately, most important of all, skill. I realize that the word skill outrages many modern actors. Some years ago, when I occasionally attended some of Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio lectures out of curiosity, I found that skill was a word that was absolutely verboten. Strasberg was saying very risky things that came to him from the sky. He fed very much on spontaneity. I think if you’re lecturing young people on a craft or an art, it should be studied and carefully thought out.

ON FITNESS AS TO CRAFT, HEALTH AND LIFE. Breath control is essential. I tried to persuade old Charles Laughton of that when he told me he was going to do Lear. He asked if I could give him any advice. I said, “Yes, I can, you fat, old s.o.b. [pronounced sob]. You have a large estate in Norfolk. I’ve seen it, not that you ever invited me to it, dear boy. I was catty. You have a large estate with an extensive hillside. Every morning I want you to climb that hillside, and shout out the lines.” Well, he didn’t do that, and he was absolutely no good.

When I was rehearsing for King Lear, I went on neighboring land and I screamed King Lear at the cows, who all came up and thought it was marvelous. And I roared at them and they’d moo. But the point was to exercise these bellows. Just to go on and think, “Oh, well, other people have done it, so I can,” without preparing your whole physique for it, is a failure to realize that the basic need for being good at anything is to be in a fit condition for it. What you must finally achieve is the proper initial humility toward the work and the difficult equation of the necessary confidence to carry it out. What you can do, you must do.

ON HIS PATRIOTIC IMPULSES. I am a childlike patriot, am to this day. When the war broke out, my late wife [Vivien Leigh] and I were out here in Hollywood and we had had a series of successes. When the studio heard we were leaving, they offered, first off, to buy us a house and donate a Spitfire to England. Another studio heard about that and offered both a house and a bomber. I suppose I could have held out for a house, a Spitfire and a bomber. But we both felt that we had to go back home and we left.

ON HIS MOTHER AND FATHER. The first great blow that hit me was my mother’s death when I was twelve. I was the apple of her eye and, God knows, she was my entire world. As one gets older and the grave begins to yawn, one feels closer and closer to one’s father. [Olivier’s father was an Anglican parson of austere Victorian rectitude.] I remember Tony Guthrie, a year or so before he died, saying, “Do you find yourself thinking about your father more and more?” and I said, “I do.” It’s as if an old man in a long white beard were waiting to fold you in his arms from some beautiful billowy cloud.

ON THEATRICAL SUPERSTITIONS. I pride myself on not having any, none at all. I always deliberately walk under a ladder. I spout lines from Macbeth [supposedly a British actor’s most terrible jinx], I don’t give a damn.

ON PRODUCING TEARS AT WILL. My God, I can’t. Some of my friends can. Michael Redgrave can. John Gielgud can. John is a dear man but he is a born weeper. When we were all young and attended the theater, we would say, “Don’t sit behind John.” If the play was at all moving, he would begin to weep. And his tears had a funny habit of squirting off to the rear, so that if you were behind him you would get wet.


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