|Laurence Kerr Olivier
Dorking, Surrey, England, U.K.
Education: St. Edward's School, Oxford; The Central School of Speech and Drama, London
1979 Honorary Academy Award for his Contribution to Film
1979 Nomination: Best Actor for The Boys From Brazil
1977 Nomination: Best Actor for Marathon Man
1973 Nomination: Best Actor for Sleuth
1966 Nomination: Best Actor for Othello
1961 Nomination: Best Actor for The Entertainer
1957 Nomination: Best Actor for Richard III
1949 Best Actor in a Leading Role for Hamlet
1949 Best Picture for Hamlet
1949 Nomination: Best Director for Hamlet
1947 Outstanding Achievement award for directing Henry V
1947 Nomination: Best Actor for Henry V
1947 Nomination: Best Picture for Henry V
1941 Nomination: Best Actor for Rebecca
1940 Nomination: Best Actor for Wuthering Heights
1984 Best Actor for King Lear
1982 Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or a Special for Brideshead Revisited
1975 Outstanding Lead Actor in a Special Program - Drama or Comedy for Love Among the Ruins
1974 Nomination for Best Lead Actor in a Drama for The Merchant of Venice
1973 Outstanding Single Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for Long Day's Journey into Night
1970 Nomination for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for David Copperfield
1968 Nomination for Outstanding Dramatic Program for Uncle Vanya
1960 Outstanding Single Performance by an Actor for The Moon and Sixpence
Golden Globe Awards
1983 Cecil B. DeMille Award
1980 Nomination: Best Motion Picture Actor in a Supporting Role for A Little Romance
1977 Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Actor in a Supporting Role for Marathon Man
1973 Nomination:Best Motion Picture Actor in a Drama for Sleuth
1949 Best Motion Picture Actor for Hamlet
New York Film Critics Awards
1972 Best Actor Award for Sleuth
1948 Best Actor Award for Hamlet
1946 Best Actor Award for Henry V
National Board of Review Awards
1978 Best Actor Award for The Boys From Brazil
1946 Best Actor Award for Henry V
British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards
1974 Nomination for Best Actor for Sleuth
1970 Best Supporting Actor for Oh! What a Lovely War
1963 Nomination for Best British Actor for Term of Trial
1961 Nomination for Best British Actor for The Entertainer
1960 Nomination for Best British Actor for The Devil's Disciple
1958 Nomination for Best British Actor for The Prince and the Showgirl
1956 Nomination for Best British Actor for Richard III
1953 Nomination for Best British Actor for Carrie
1983 Film Society of Lincoln Center, Gala Tribute.
1981 Order of Merit Award
1979 Saturn Award for Best Actor in The Boys From Brazil
1970 Life Peer Award
1958 Tony Award nomination for The Entertainer
1957 David di Donatello Best Foreign Production Award for Richard III
1956 Silver Berlin Bear International Prize for Richard III
1950 Italian National Syndicate for Film Journalists, Silver Ribbon Award for Best Director on a Foreign Film for Henry V
1949 Bodil Festen Best European Film Award for Hamlet
1948 Venice Film Festival Golden Lion Award for Hamlet
1939 Campbell Playhouse
1939 Lux Radio Theatre
1940 Canadian Red Cross Emergency Appeal
1940 Gulf Screen Guild Theatre
1946 Columbia Workshop
1946 Hour Of Mystery
1949 Music Hall Theatre
1950 Document A/777
1950 Hedda Hopper's Hollywood
1951 The Big Show
1952 Coronation Week Broadcast Series
1953 U. N. Story
1953-54 Theater Royal
1953 The Grand Alliance
1953 U. N. Album
1954 Biography In Sound
1957 ABC Mystery Time
Sir Laurence Olivier:
While performing a live production of Hamlet Sir Laurence completely blanked during the "to be or not to be" soliloquy. He simply sat down and remained there until he remembered the lines.
Sir Laurence was the father of four children: sons Tarquin Olivier and Richard Olivier, and daughters Julie Kate Olivier and Tamsin Olivier.
He is considered by many people to be the greatest English-speaking actor of the twentieth century--even more so than Marlon Brando and Spencer Tracy.
His acting in Hamlet (1948) is discussed by Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye (1951).
Olivier reportedly belittled his own achievements and held up the career of Cary Grant as the paradigm of greatness. Grant, who had a fortune estimated at $70 million by Look Magazine in its February 23, 1971, issue, was the person who presented Olivier with his Career Achievement Oscar in 1979. The two were acquaintances, never friends.
Became fast friends with Wuthering Heights (1939) co-stars David Niven, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and eventually, Merle Oberon.
Addressed President John F. Kennedy's inauguration on 20 January 1961.
In 1970 he became the first actor to be made a peer of the realm. He was elevated to the peerage as Baron Olivier of Brighton in 1970.
In his 1983 autobiography "Confessions of an Actor," Olivier writes that upon meeting Marilyn Monroe preparatory to the commencement of production of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), he was convinced he was going to fall in love with her.
Young Master Laurence at 8 years of age.
Sir Laurence's marriage to Jill Esmond circa 1930
Jill Esmond, Sir Laurence's first wife circa 1931
Sir Laurence in As You Like It (1936)
Sir Laurence circa 1937
Miss Vivien Leigh at 4 years of age.
Sir Laurence with Geraldine Fitzgerald in Wuthering Heights (1939)
Merle Oberon and Sir Laurence in Wuthering Heights (1939)
Vivien Leigh publicity photo from Gone With The Wind (1939)
Vivien Leigh publicity photo circa 1942
One of Sir Laurence's extraordinary sets from 1948's Hamlet
Alas, Yorick got less respect than Rodney Dangerfield. Here with Sir Laurence's Hamlet
Sir Laurence as Richard III.
Sir Laurence in Rebecca
Sir Laurence as Othello
Sir Laurence in Spartacus
Sir Laurence on stage in Trevor Griffiths' The Party, his first stage appearance after a 10 year battle with stage fright.
Sir Laurence as Archie Rice in The Entertainer
Sir Laurence and Joan Plowright stop to chat with Tommy Tune and Twiggy
Third wife Joan Plowright checks Sir Laurence's seams.
Sir Laurence and Lady Joan circa 1983
Is it safe?
It's Not Safe
Three of the five famous knights of England's 20th Century Drama Round Table -- Sir Ralph Richardson; Sir Laurence Olivier, Baron Oliver of Brighton; Sir Alec Guiness. Missing, Sir John Gielgud and [almost Sir] Paul Scofield
Young Laurence Kerr Olivier's ancestors were originally from France. Referred to as Huguenots, they were a Protestant sect which was persecuted for over a century by the predominantly Anglican Catholic majority of 16th and 17th Century England. Sir Laurence's father, himself a clergyman, decided that Laurence should become an actor.
Sir Laurence first attended St. Edward's School, Oxford--a top British Boarding school.
He then attended The Central School of Speech and Drama in London.
By 1926, he'd joined The Birmingham Repertory Company, and before long it was widely opined--as early as 1927--that Sir Laurence could speak William Shakespeare's lines as naturally as if he were "actually thinking them". One of Olivier's earliest successes as a Shakespearean actor on the London stage came in 1935 when he played Romeo and Mercutio in alternate performances of Romeo and Juliet with John Gielgud. Gielgud reportedly got the better reviews in the lead of Romeo, which only served to spur Olivier on to become a better actor.
In the interim, Sir Laurence had met and married (1930) his first wife, Jill Esmond, a noted classical actress in her own right, and in all likelihood, given their respective levels of experience at the time, Sir Laurence's better on the stage. The young couple had a son together in 1936, and remained married for just over ten years.
As it happened, a young Englishwoman just beginning her own career on the stage fell in love with Olivier's Romeo. By 1937, she was Ophelia to his Hamlet in a special performance at Kronberg Castle, Elsinore, Denmark. In 1940, she became Sir Laurence's second wife after the couple returned from making films in America that were the major box office hits of 1939. Sir Laurence's film was Wuthering Heights (1939), his Lady's film was Gone with the Wind (1939).
Vivien Leigh and Olivier had already been screen lovers in Fire Over England (1937), 21 Days (1940) and That Hamilton Woman (1941). Indeed, they almost did a fourth film together, but in researching the background of the story, the film project was abandoned. During their tumultuous, twenty-year marriage, Olivier and Leigh appeared on the stage in England and America and made films basically whenever it suited their economic needs.
During World War II Sir Laurence had been asked by the the Ministry of Information to play the French-Canadian trapper Johnny in 49th Parallel (1941), a film commissioned by the Ministry to raise awareness of the Nazi threat in North America. Many French-Canadians did not want to be at war with Germany and did not want to fight. Vichy France was an ally of Nazi Germany, and many French-Canadians in Quebec were pro-German. That's the reason Olivier, the biggest star in the film, was asked to play a French-Canadian who tells the Nazi officer he is a Canadian and not French. It was felt Oliver would intensify the film's value as pro-British propaganda in Quebec. Olivier, of course, is a French surname; his ancestors were Hugenots, as noted previously.
Olivier had to accompany Vivien Leigh to Hollywood in 1950 in order to keep an eye on her to ensure that her manic-depression did not get out of hand and disrupt the production of the Tennessee Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). In order to do so, he accepted a part in William Wyler's Carrie (1952), which was shot at the same time as "Streetcar".
Vivien Leigh won her second Oscar for bringing Blanche DuBois to the screen. For Sir Laurence's part during this period, Carrie (1952) was a film that Olivier never really talked about. The protagonist was George Hurstwood, a middle-aged married man from Chicago who tricked a young woman into leaving a younger man about to marry her, and ulitmately became a New York street person himself in the novel. Olivier played him far more sympathetically. As must be obvious, both A Streetcar Named Desire and Carrie had forced the couple to confront the harsher realities of their own lives--both as individuals and as a couple. The comparison, contrasts and conclusions couldn't have been very encouraging to either of them, but in all likelihood, far less encouraging for Sir Laurence.
The Oliviers were understandably popular with Hollywood's elite, and Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando both liked "Larry" very much. None of them knew the depths of the anguish Sir Laurence was enduring as the caretaker of his mentally ill wife. Brando said that Leigh was superior to Jessica Tandy--the original stage Blanche DuBois--as she was Blanche DuBois. Olivier himself had directed Leigh in the part on the London stage.
Orson Welles wrote his novel Mr. Arkadin (1955) during an extended stay with Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh. Welles was appearing at Olivier's St. James theater in London at the time in his fabled production of Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), which had been produced by Michael Todd in New York. Todd, who later made the film without Welles' participation, had offered to produce a film version of Macbeth to be directed by and starring Olivier, but Todd died in 1958 before the plans could be finalized.
Considered the greatest Macbeth of the 20th century for his second stage portrayal of the role in the 1950s, Olivier had hoped to bring The Scots Play to the big screen in the late 1950s, but the failure of his movie Richard III (1955) to make back its money frustrated his plans. Producer Michael Todd, Elizabeth Taylor's third husband, told Olivier in 1958 that he likely would produce the film with Olivier as Macbeth and Olivier's real-life wife Vivien Leigh as his Lady, but that hope died in the plane crash that claimed Todd's life. Thus, the infamous "Macbeth curse" prevented the greatest actor of the 20th century from realizing his dream.
As already alluded to above, a 1987 PBS documentary on Olivier's career, noted that his first wife Jill Esmond's on Stage star was higher than his at the time. And in Film, he was upstaged by his second wife, as well, even though the list of films he made is four times as long as Leigh's.
Indeed, more than half of Sir Laurence's film credits come after The Entertainer (1960), which debuted as a stage play in London in 1957. When the play moved from London's stage to Broadway in 1958, the role of Archie Rice's daughter was taken over by Joan Plowright, who was also in the film. Sir Laurence and Joan Plowright married soon after the release of The Entertainer (1960).
Life-long friend of Ralph Richardson, whom he met and befriended in London as a young acting student during the 1920s, he was dismayed that Richardson expected to play Buckingham in his film of Shakespeare's Richard III (1955). Olivier wanted Orson Welles, another friend, to play the role but could not deny his oldest friend. In his autobiography, Olivier says he wishes he had disappointed Richardson and cast Welles instead as he would have brought an extra element to the screen, an intelligence that would have gone well with the plot element of conspiracy.
John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson were considered equal to Olivier in the classical repertoire--and in of course in Shakespeare. Gielgud was felt to have bested him due to his mellifluous voice, which Olivier himself reportedly said "wooed the world"--but it was widely felt that Olivier, as a stage actor, exceeded both of them in contemporary plays such as John Osbourne's The Entertainer (1960).
Sir Laurence was the first person to direct himself to a Best Actor win--in Hamlet (1948). He was also the first actor nominated for an acting Oscar in five consecutive decades--the 1930s through the 1970s. Only Katharine Hepburn--1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1980s, Paul Newman--1950s, 1960s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, and Jack Nicholson--1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, come close to equalling Olivier in this respect. By contrast, Bette Davis' 10 nominations and Spencer Tracy's 8 were spread over four decades--the 1930s through 1960s--while Marlon Brando's 8 nominations were bunched into three decades--1950s, 1970s, and 1980s.
Sir Laurence was nominated 13 times for the Academy Award:
- 9 times as Best Actor
- Once as Best Supporting Actor
- Twice for Best Picture
- Once as Best Director
In the acting field, only Jack Nicholson and Katharine Hepburn with 12 acting nominations each and Meryl Streep with 13 have more acting nods than Olivier. Bette Davis was nominated 10 times for an Academy Award--all of them for Best Actress.
Whenever Sir Laurence appeared--on Radio or in Television--it was deemed a special event, on either side of the Atlantic. And so it was that Sir Laurence's Radio appearances--in both the U.S. and England--were almost always causes celebre. One such case was Sir Laurence's quite unique Theatre Royal series (1953-1954). The first twenty-six episodes of Theatre Royal featured Sir Laurence Olivier in a different starring, dramatic role. This was a rare treat for any audience on either side of the Atlantic. For NBC and its American audience it was a treasured opportunity to hear one of history's finest classical actors show his versatility over twenty-six diverse 30-minute dramas. Sir Laurence turned the series over to his life-long friend Sir Ralph Richardson to finish out the remaining thirteen episodes. The American audience was thus treated to the versatility of two of England's finest actors and two of the greatest classical actors in the world--all brought to the American public through the good offices of The National Broadcasting Company.
Sir Laurence's Radio career in the U.S. spanned some thirty years--virtually the entire span of The Golden Age of Radio. Sir Laurence also performed on American Television over a career of some thirty-five years and forty appearances on some of American Television's most prestigious dramatic venues.
Sadly, Sir Laurence's physical problems plagued him for the last third of most aspects of his professional and personal life:
- June 1967 -- he underwent hyperbaric radiation treatment for prostate cancer at St. Thomas' Hospital, London. On July 7 he discharged himself from the hospital, where he had been confined to bed with pneumonia as a complication of the cancer treatment, after Vivien Leigh died. In the following year he had his appendix removed--at the age of 61
- July 1970: While playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at the National Theatre, he was hospitalized with pleurisy and a thrombosis of the right leg. In September 1974 he fell ill during a holiday in Italy with director Franco Zeffirelli, and after x-rays and blood tests back in England at the Royal Sussex Hospital he was diagnosed with dermato-poly-myositis, a rare muscle disorder. For three months he remained critically ill in the hospital, and was told he could never act on stage again.
- 1974: Afflicted by stage fright for the last 10 years of his stage career, he was determined to fight through it and not have it drive him from the stage. He succeeded, and last appeared on stage in 1974, in Trevor Griffiths' The Party, in which he had to deliver a 20-minute soliloquy.
- 1976: According to producer Robert Evans, he could not obtain insurance for Olivier to appear in Marathon Man (1976). He went ahead with Olivier despite the obstacle. Evans and the rest of the production members, particularly Dustin Hoffman, were quite charmed by the man Hoffman called "Sir."
- July 1978: Was in frail health while filming The Boys from Brazil (1978), having recently undergone surgery for kidney stones.
- May 1983: In the summer of that year Olivier again suffered from pleurisy, and stayed in St. Thomas's Hospital for three weeks for the removal of a kidney.
- March 1989: Following a bad fall in March, Olivier endured his final operation--a hip replacement. His sister Sybille died the following month at the age of 87. By early July his one remaining kidney was in a precarious state, and he was given a maximum of six weeks left to live.
- July 11, 1989: At the time of his death, at 11:15 a.m., he had been ill for the last 22 years of his life.
Even more emblematic of Sir Laurence Olivier's remarkable career was the manner in which his own peers honored him during his October 20, 1989 Memorial Service:
Joan Plowright and the three children of his last marriage were the chief mourners, along with Tarquin, Hester, and Olivier's first wife, Jill Esmond--in a wheelchair.
Olivier's 'trophies' were carried in a procession:
- Douglas Fairbanks Jr. carried the insignia of Olivier's Order of Merit
- Michael Caine bore his Oscar for Lifetime Achievement
- Dame Maggie Smith a Silver Model of the Chichester Theatre
- Paul Scofield a Silver Model of the National Theatre
- Derek Jacobi the crown worn in Richard III (1955)
- Peter O'Toole the script used in Hamlet (1948)
- Sir Ian McKellen the laurel wreath worn in the stage production of Coriolanus
- Dorothy Tutin the crown worn for King Lear (1983 - TV)
- Frank Finlay the sword presented to Olivier by John Gielgud, once worn by the 18-century actor Edmund Kean
Albert Finney read from Ecclesiastes: "To everything there is a season . . . A time to be born and a time to die".
John Mills read from I Corinthians: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels . . . "
Peggy Ashcroft read from John Milton's Lycidas.
Sir John Gielgud read Death Be Not Proud by John Donne.
Sir Alec Guinness gave an address in which he suggested that Olivier's greatness lay in a happy combination of imagination, physical magnetism, a commanding and appealing voice, an expressive eye, and danger:
"Larry always carried the threat of danger with him; primarily as an actor but also, for all his charm, as a private man. There were times when it was wise to be wary of him."
He reminded the audience that Olivier has been brought up as a High Anglican, and said he did not think the need for devotion or the mystery of things ever quite left him.
The climax of the service was Olivier's own taped voice echoing round the abbey as he delivered the St. Crispin's Day speech from The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France (1944).
Its quiet resolution was the choir singing "Fear no more the heat o' the sun" from Cymbeline.
Consider Sir Laurence's 'peers' making their above referenced observations on Sir Laurence's career. These were the finest American and British actors of the 20th Century--period. There were few finer anywhere in the world.
And yet, with all his noble titles, awards, recognition and adulation throughout the world, he refused to carry on a conversation with anyone who wouldn't address him as simply 'Larry.'
|Ralph David Richardson
Stage, Radio, Television and Film Actor and Director
Tivoli Road, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England, U.K.
1946 Columbia Workshop
1954 Theater Royal
1954 Biography In Sound
1955 The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes
1957 ABC Mystery Time
1972 Afternoon Theatre
He won the BAFTA Award for Best British Actor for The Sound Barrier (1952).
In 1963, Richardson won the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival for Long Day's Journey Into Night.
He also received Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominations for The Heiress and Greystoke. His Oscar nomination, BAFTA nomination and NYFCC Award for Greystoke were all posthumous.
He was awarded the Laurence Olivier Theatre Special Award in 1982--1981 Season-for his Lifetime Achievement in Theatre.
Sir Ralph Richardson:
Richardson habitually rode a motorbike even during his seventies; initially a Norton Dominator and in his later years a BMW. Sir Ralph also collected classic motorcycles as a hobby. Richardson would also take his pet parrots for rides on his shoulder while motorcycling.
Richardson was knighted in 1947, the first of his generation of actors to receive the accolade. He was soon followed by Olivier, Gielgud, and Guiness.
Sir John Gielgud's autobiography, An Actor and His Time is dedicated "To Ralph and Mu Richardson, with gratitude and affection".
Sir Ralph is interred at Highgate Cemetery (East), Highgate, London, England, UK.
Sir Ralph was once found by police walking very slowly along the gutter of an Oxford street, he explained he "was taking his pet mouse for a stroll."
Played two roles originally played by Basil Rathbone: Karenin in Anna Karenina (1948), and Dr. Sloper in The Heiress (1949).
Was the first of a quintet of great English stage actors, the other four: Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Alec Guiness and Paul Scofield.
Sir Ralph, Sir Laurence and Sir John appeared in several scenes together in the epic mini series Wagner (1983), released shortly after Richardson's death.
Wonderfully eccentric, he once stopped in a middle of a stage performance, and addressed the audience enquiring "Is there doctor in the house?". When a doctor made himself known, Richardson calmly enquired "Isn't this a terrible play doctor ?".
Sir Ralph Richardson circa 1937
Sir Ralph Richardson circa 1939
Sir Ralph circa March 1948
Sir Ralph's second wife Meriel 'Mu' Forbes-Robertson circa 1980
Sir John Gielgud's Sherlock Holmes plays to Sir Ralph's Dr. Watson circa 1955
Orson Welles introduces nemesis Professor Moriarty to the mix of Sir John and Sir Ralph for a complete Sherlock Holmes experience at the BBC Mike circa 1955
Sir Ralph Richardson and Margaret Leighton in MacBeth
Sir Ralph circa 1980
Sir Ralph circa 1981
From the Galley for Sir Ralph's autobiography circa 1981
Last known official photo of Sir Ralph Richardson
|Ralph David Richardson was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England, the third son--and youngest--child of Arthur Richardson, Master at the Ladies' College and his wife Lydia [née Russell]. When he was a baby, his mother left his father and took him with her to Gloucester, where young Ralph David was raised in the Roman Catholic faith of his mother (his father and brothers were Quaker).
His father continued to support them with a small stipend. Lydia Richardson had wished Ralph to become a priest. He had been an altar boy in Brighton, and was sent to the Xavierian College, but he ran away from the school. After working as an office boy for an insurance company--and later studying art--Richardson tried a theatrical career. With a small legacy from his grandmother, Richardson paid a local theatrical manager ten shillings a week as an acting tutor.
In September 1924 Richardson married 17 year old student actress Muriel 'Kit' Hewitt (1907-1942). Sir Ralph appeared in several plays during the 1920s with Kit. The marriage was childless but reportedly quite devoted. Kit contracted sleeping sickness and died in 1942 after a protracted illness.
Sir Ralph toured with Charles Doran's company for five seasons, gradually being promoted to larger parts including MacDuff in Macbeth and Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. In 1925 he joined Sir Barry Jackson's Birmingham Repertory Company, where many preeminent British actors, from Dame Edith Evans to Sir Derek Jacobi, had learned their craft, and Richardson under the veteran taskmaster H. K. Ayliff reportedly, "absorbed the influence of older contemporaries like Gerald du Maurier, Charles Hawtrey and Mrs. Patrick Campbell."
Richardson made his London début in July 1926 as the stranger in Oedipus at Colonus at a small local theatre, followed by a West End début as Arthur Varwell in Yellow Sands which ran for well over 600 performances and from then through 1929 Sir Ralph played in various supporting roles in other London productions.
Following a tour of South Africa in 1929, Sir Ralph played his first of two seasons at the Old Vic and two seasons at the Malvern summer theatre.
Sir Ralph's Old Vic roles included Caliban to John Gielgud's Prospero, and Prince Hal to Gielgud's Hotspur. Thus began a professional association and personal friendship that endured for five decades. Richardson's other parts in the Old Vic seasons included Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra, Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, Henry V, Brutus in Julius Caesar, and Iago in Othello.
During his 1932 season at Malvern, he played Face in Ben Jonson's The Alchemist. In 1933 he played the title role in W. Somerset Maugham's play Sheppey at Wyndham's Theatre. But it was while at West End that Sir Ralph became a star as Clitterhouse in Barré Lyndon's comedy melodrama, The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1936) which ran for 492 performances. Further solidifying his rising stardom was his role as Johnson in J. B. Priestley's Johnson Over Jordan directed by Basil Dean, with music by the legendary young Benjamin Britten.
During World War II Sir Ralph served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, rising to the rank of Lieutenant-Commander despite being nicknamed 'Pranger' Richardson "on account of the large number of planes which seemed to fall to pieces under his control".
Both Sir Ralph and Laurence Olivier were released from the armed forces in 1944 to run the Old Vic company as a triumvirate with Stage Director John Burrell. The Old Vic theatre was in disuse due to Nazi buzz-bomb damage, and the Old Vic company relocated to the New Theatre in St. Martin's Lane. During this period, Sir Ralph gave some of his most noteworthy performances, including "the definitive Falstaff and Peer Gynt of the century", Bluntschli in Arms and the Man, the title roles in Cyrano de Bergerac and Uncle Vanya and Inspector Goole in An Inspector Calls.
In 1944 Richardson married the actress Meriel 'Mu' Forbes (1913-2000), a member of the theatrical Forbes-Robertson family. The couple had one son.
Sir Ralph also directed Alec Guinness as Richard II, taking on the role of John of Gaunt in the production after the Old Vic governors insisted that either Richardson or Olivier must act in every production. In 1945 Richardson and Olivier took the company on a tour of Germany, where they were seen by many thousands of servicemen; during that tour they also appeared at the Comédie Française in Paris.
The triumphs of Richardson and Olivier eventually led the governors of the Old Vic to fear that the their two stars overshadowed the entire company. As London's The Guardian reported it, the governors "summarily sacked the pair in the interests of a more... mediocre company spirit."
Upon leaving the Old Vic, Sir Ralph resumed appearances in the West End as Dr Sloper in a Henry James adaptation, The Heiress (1949); David Preston in Home at Seven (1950); and Vershinin in Three Sisters (1951). In 1952 he appeared at the Stratford-on-Avon festival at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre to mixed reviews. Reportedly his Prospero in The Tempest was judged too "prosaic", and his Macbeth--directed by Gielgud--was deemed "unconvincingly villainous". But then of course one might well wonder why Sir Ralph was even playing MacBeth to begin with.
Returning to the West End, Sir Ralph starred in The White Carnation (1953) by R. C. Sherriff and later that year Sir Ralph and Gielgud starred together in N. C. Hunter's A Day by the Sea.
1954 brought a tour of Australia in a company which included his wife, Meriel Forbes, together with Sybil Thorndyke and her husband, Lewis Casson, playing Terence Rattigan's plays The Sleeping Prince and Separate Tables.
In 1954 and 1955 Sir Ralph portrayed Dr. Watson in an American/BBC radio co-production of Sherlock Holmes, with Gielgud as Holmes and Orson Welles as the villainous Professor Moriarty. This brief series is widely accepted as one of the definitive Sherlock Holmes productions from The Golden Age of Radio. 1954 also took him back to The Colonies to appear for Laurence Olivier in the remainder of a series of dramas for NBC titled Theatre Royal (1954). Sir Ralph completed the last thirteen installments of the production.
To his everlasting regret, Sir Ralph turned down the role of Estragon in Peter Hall's premiere of Waiting for Godot, later reproaching himself for missing "the chance to be in the greatest play of my generation". However, Sir Ralph's 1956 return to The Old Vic as Timon of Athens was quite well received, as had been his Broadway appearance in The Waltz of the Toreadors (1957) for which he was nominated for an Antoinette Perry ['Tony'] Award. This was the first of what would be three nomination for Tony Awards during Sir Ralph's career.
As popular on Television as in Radio, The Stage and Film, during the 1960s Richardson played Lord Emsworth in BBC Television's dramatizations of P. G. Wodehouse's delightful Blandings Castle stories, with real-life wife Meriel Forbes playing his domineering sister Connie, and Stanley Holloway as his butler, Beach.
Sir Ralph's most notable film appearances included:
- The Citadel (1938)
- The Heiress (1949), his first nomination for an Academy Award)
- Richard III (1955) as Buckingham to Olivier's Richard)
- Our Man in Havana (1959) with Alec Guinness and Noel Coward
- Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)
- Tales from the Crypt (1972) as the Crypt Keeper)
- O Lucky Man! (1973)
- Dragonslayer (1981)
- Time Bandits (1981)
- Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) for which he was again nominated for an Academy Award
- Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984)
During the 1960s, Richardson appeared as Sir Peter Teazle in John Gielgud's production of School for Scandal, as the Father in Six Characters in Search of an Author (1963), reprised his role as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1964) and the original production of Joe Orton's controversial farce, What the Butler Saw (1969) in the West End at the Queen's Theatre with Stanley Baxter, Coral Browne and Hayward Morse.
During the 1970s, he continued appearances in the West End and with the National Theatre under Peter Hall's direction, where among the classics he played Firs in The Cherry Orchard and the title role in Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman, with Dame Wendy Hiller and Peggy Ashcroft.
Sir Ralph continued his long stage association with John Gielgud, the two appearing together in two new works: David Storey's 'Home' and Harold Pinter's 'No Man's Land'. Sir Ralph's last appearance was at the National Theatre in the lead role in Eduardo De Filippo's 'Inner Voices' (June 1983) to 'mesmerising' reviews in both Punch and The New York Times.
Eccentric, lovable, eminently watchable Sir Ralph Richardson passed away at the age of 80 in 1983, from complications of digestive problems. Richardson, who began a six-decade career on the Stage as a scenery painter with an amateur theater group, died in London's King Edward VII Hospital.
Reportedly as popular as The Queen Mother herself at the time of his death, his passing was honored throughout Great Britain at the close of all theatrical performances that evening.
He was eccentric, yes, but arguably quite cannily eccentric. His eccentricities humanized him, making him more 'of the people' than many others of his famous group of four knighted giants of the English Stage.
His eccentricities--and candor--were certainly what endeared him to over four generations of American theater-goers--and Film, Television and Radio fans as well. Sir Ralph's performances in Radio, Television and Film are for the most part readily available even today, thus memorializing this great--and beloved--English actor for generations to come.