Laurence Olivier

Icons of the Century

Naming the greatest actor of the 20th century is a fool’s errand, but Laurence Olivier will be mentioned most often if you ask.

He was, of course, a consummate thespian, dashing and intense in his youth; stalwart, serious and yearning in his middle years; and sage and a bit wry at the end. But he was never without competition, most often from John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.

If he wears the crown by default — he was the first actor elevated to Britain’s House of Lords, in 1970 — it’s because he had significant impact both in the theater and on film, a rarely managed accomplishment. his finest screen achievements were documents of his stage successes: the Oscar-winning “Henry V” (1944) and “Hamlet” (1948), “Richard III” (1956) and “The Entertainer” (1960).

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