Christopher P. Andersen
January 10, 1983 12:00 PM

With its cool marble walls and burnished yew paneling, the Grill Room of London’s legendary Savoy Hotel has not changed much since that evening in 1935—except that back then men were required to wear white tie to supper. “She was sitting right there,” says the elderly gentleman, putting down his martini glass and pointing to a vacant table for two nestled against a pillar not 10 feet away. “Except for seeing her on the stage, it was the first time I ever set eyes on that exquisite face. Yes, she saw me, too. But she was with a young man who looked very much in love, and I supposed that they were, to put it vulgarly, ‘at it.’ ”

Before leaving the Grill that night, however, Laurence Olivier and his first wife introduced themselves to Vivien Leigh and invited her and her first husband for a weekend at the Oliviers’ country house. “It was,” smiles Olivier, still gazing at the vacant table through the mist of nearly a half century, “like any first act of the period, don’t you think?”

Before there were Taylor and Burton or even Tracy and Hepburn, there were Olivier and Leigh. The scandalous extramarital affair that ensued after their encounter at the Savoy made front-page headlines on both sides of the Atlantic, and by the time the brooding Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights and Gone With the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara divorced their respective spouses to wed one another in 1940, they had become the First Couple of stage and screen.

Their reign would not be a happy one. In his recently published autobiography, Confessions of an Actor (Simon and Schuster, $17.95), Olivier, 75, tells of Leigh’s formidable sexual demands (aggravated, he admits, by his own recurring problem with premature ejaculation), her infidelities (with actor Peter Finch, among others) and her descent into mental illness. Once, while on vacation in 1953, Olivier dispatched longtime friends Stewart Granger and David Niven to check up on his manic-depressive wife. They discovered Vivien balancing precariously on an upstairs banister, nude.

Olivier confesses that Leigh’s erratic behavior moved him to violence. When, after an argument, she awakened him in the middle of the night by slashing him across the eyes with a wet facecloth, he hurled her across their bedroom and into a nightstand, leaving a gash above her eye. “I realized with horror,” he says, “that each of us was quite capable of murdering or causing death to the other.”

The British critics seemed more concerned about the tepid and tortuous literary style of the one man widely acknowledged to be the greatest living actor in the English-speaking theater. But at least one friend found Olivier’s passages concerning Leigh (she died at 54 in 1967 from tuberculosis) to be either undignified, unfair or both.

Sir John Gielgud, the actor’s colleague and frequent professional rival during the past 50 years, is affectionately referred to by Olivier as “Johnnie G.,” but Gielgud admits he was “upset” by Confessions. “All that about Vivien was unnecessary,” says Sir John. “Maybe he’s not a skilled enough writer to tell his story more delicately. He felt a victim of Vivien, but it seems easy money to write about people who are dead and can’t answer back.”

Olivier is incredulous in the face of such criticism. “If an autobiography is not candid, I don’t see the value of it. What’s the point?” he shrugs. “There have been a thousand biographies of Henry VIII, but he never wrote about himself. Imagine how wonderful it would be to pick up Henry VIII’s diary and read, ‘Met this charming little tart last night, named Anne something.’ ”

Olivier’s pretense-pricking wit and easy charm belie bouts in the last 15 years with many ailments: prostate cancer, appendicitis, an obstructed kidney, thrombosis, pneumonia and, since 1974, dermatopolymyositis, a muscle-wasting disease that Olivier sees as his most formidable foe. He has also consulted a psychiatrist to see what can be done about his memory lapses. These afflictions have taken their toll: Olivier moves cautiously now. But the voice, the flamboyant gestures and almost theatrical exuberance remain vintage Olivier.

For health reasons, His Lordship has declared himself to be on the wagon, but during lunch at the Savoy he downs his martini, four glasses of wine—three red, one white—and two brandies. “I’m doing this just for you,” he winks. “I want to sparkle. And I thought it might be a nice touch if, toward the end, I just slithered to the floor.”

For all the enduring controversy, the saga of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh pales in comparison to his extraordinary achievements. From his rapturous Romeo to his overpowering Othello, Olivier has earned a place as the most famous Shakespearean performer ever, the ideal against which subsequent generations of classical actors will be measured. Meanwhile, for his film Henry V, he received a special Academy Award in 1946 as actor/producer/director and two years later was named Best Actor for Hamlet. (He also earned an honorary Oscar for his “lifetime of contribution to the art of film” in 1979.)

Millions more know him not only from Wuthering Heights but also as the star of such movies as Rebecca, Pride and Prejudice, The Entertainer and, more recently, Marathon Man and The Boys From Brazil. Olivier was knighted in 1947 and eventually became the first actor in English history to be elevated to the House of Lords—an honor he refused three times, not wanting to separate himself from his colleagues by such class distinction, before finally relenting in 1970.

Although he recalls putting on little plays for his mother’s amusement (she died when Larry was 12), that he should ever have become an actor genuinely amazes Olivier. The youngest of a London parson’s three children, he is still haunted by his impoverished early years. “When I turned 5 years old,” he remembers, “my mother was going to bake a birthday cake for me. We walked to the store and asked the man behind the counter how much he was charging for a box of icing sugar. We couldn’t afford it. From that moment, I knew we were poor.”

There were other economies in the Olivier household that left their psychological scars. Like Marilyn Monroe, who would be his co-star and temperamental nemesis during the filming of 1957’s The Prince and the Showgirl, Olivier was allowed to bathe only after other members of the family had used the water in the tub. “You get to that point,” he says, “where you’ve either got to give up or get the hell out. Anybody who has ever suffered poverty like that knows exactly what I mean.”

Ironically, it was the parsimonious Rev. Gerard Olivier (“The initial trouble between me and my father was that he couldn’t see the slightest purpose in my existence”) who provided Larry with an escape hatch. Instead of following his older brother Dickie to work as a rubber planter in India, young Olivier was “astonished” to discover that their father had other plans for him: to go on the stage.

After attending St. Edwards School in Oxford on a scholarship, and an apprenticeship with the Birmingham Repertory Theater, where he met his lifelong pal Ralph Richardson, Olivier at 23 appeared in his first smash hit with Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence onstage in 1930’s Private Lives. That same year he embarked on two less-successful ventures: his first marriage, to actress Jill Esmond (their son, Tarquin, now 46, is a London businessman), and a disappointing first stab at Hollywood. After three films for RKO, he returned to the London stage.

In 1933 Olivier was called back to Hollywood and then fired from Queen Christina by the film’s star, Greta Garbo. “She was an absolute magician in her medium and had every right to get rid of me,” he says. “Of course, she’s dead now, isn’t she? No? Well, in that case, if you ever meet her, tell her I’d love to treat her to lunch—if she could bear it.”

After that Hollywood debacle, Olivier fared better back in London. (At about this time he contemplated—but did not pursue—embarking on a homosexual love affair with a man whose identity he refuses to divulge.) Following the swashbuckling style set by John Barrymore, Olivier soon came to be regarded as the most physical of all Shakespearean actors. In Macbeth, for example, he broke a sword with such force that it flew into the audience; for the film version of Hamlet, he leapt from a 14-foot-high platform, landing on an actor and knocking him cold. “He was so strong, so fiery,” says Gielgud. “It’s really a bitter irony that he should have all those diseases. Larry no longer has the panache he once had, and that must be painful for him.”

From the beginning, Olivier has worked “from the outside in,” plastering on the appropriate false noses and makeup and burrowing under the skin of his character. In virtually every one of his major roles, Olivier has concealed himself behind a variety of disguises: He was a blond Hamlet, an ebony Othello, a hunchbacked, stiletto-nosed Richard III.

“Larry hates to be his actual self,” observed Michael Caine when he was starring with him in 1972’s Sleuth. “He will use any prop to alter himself.” Olivier winces at the notion. “Too damn psychiatric,” he says. “My instincts are merely those of any mummer. Although,” he adds, “I really don’t know what I’m like, and I’m not sure that I want to.”

In fact, Olivier’s conversation is laced with self-remorse. “The worst part of me—the most boring part—is my guilt complex. I feel almost responsible for the fall of Adam and Eve.” He insists that he still blames himself for “somehow causing” Leigh’s mental problems. “Once you have those feelings, they don’t go away. It was all my fault, of course. Everything is. What isn’t? Now that I’ve admitted it, I’m looking for a little absolution.”

An old friend of both Leigh and Olivier, actress-author Lilli Palmer, sees no reason for his mea culpas: “Anyone who knew them saw that Vivien made Larry suffer terribly. She took a hammer to their love and smashed it.”

There to pick up the pieces was Joan Plowright, an actress 22 years his junior; they fell in love while touring in The Entertainer in 1957 and were married in 1961, just two weeks after his divorce from Leigh became final. These days when they are not on a set (Plow-right recently starred in the movie Brimstone and Treacle), the Oliviers divide their time between a town house in London’s Chelsea district (it once belonged to Dracula author Bram Stoker) and a country spread (“Please call it a cottage”) in West Sussex. Olivier’s white Bentley makes the trip from London in just under 90 minutes. In West Sussex, Olivier gets up at 5:30 a.m. and spends “a good hour alone, thinking” before doing 40 laps in his indoor 40-foot pool.

Clearly, the focus of Olivier’s life is his brood of youngsters by Plowright: Richard (“Dickie”), 21, and daughters Tamsin, 20, and Julie-Kate, 16. Dickie is a sophomore at UCLA and like Tamsin, an acting student in London, plans to follow his parents into show business. “No, I don’t worry that they’ll be compared to me,” their father shrugs. “I won’t be around to be compared to. I’ve timed the whole thing perfectly.” Julie-Kate, who attends a private school in Hampshire, has yet to confront a career.

One of the reasons Olivier has repeatedly given for working so hard—10 films in the last six years alone, not counting his masterfully understated portrayal of Lord Marchmain in TV’s Brideshead Revisited—is to leave his family “well provided for.” At up to $1 million per picture, there seems little doubt of that. Olivier bristles at the refrain from certain quarters that he has stooped to doing second-rate material. “My excuse has been that I’m doing it for the money, but it’s not true. For me, working is the only thing. If I stop, I’ll drop.” As for last year’s disastrous Inchon, Olivier angrily insists that both the film and his part in it as Douglas MacArthur were “wonderful—until the Japanese backers and ‘Mr. Moonie’ [the Rev. Sun Myung Moon] got their dainty little hands on it.”

No one is questioning Olivier’s decision to once again tackle the exhausting role of King Lear for British television, a three-hour production that he is now editing, to be broadcast in England in April and later in the U.S. But Larry already has his sights on an unlikely part that he believes could turn out to be his greatest—that of Willie Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Why Loman? “I feel happiest playing Americans. Americans and Jews. They are more real, somehow. More complex.”

Not as complex and often disarmingly inscrutable as the master himself. Lilli Palmer recently felt she “had to tell him what a great figure he is. While Larry sat in total silence, I went on and on, comparing him to other artistic geniuses of our time like Picasso and Stravinsky. When I finally finished, Larry looked at me and said, ‘Well, don’t stop. I’m rather enjoying this.’ ” So, Lord Olivier, are we.

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