My history hero: Steven Berkoff chooses Laurence Olivier (1907–89)

Actor and author Steven Berkoff chooses actor and film director Laurence Olivier as his history hero

Laurence Olivier pictured in New York, 1933. “In my young mind he was theatrical royalty – almost a kind of monarch,” says Steven Berkoff. (Image by Getty Images)

Laurence Olivier: in profile

Laurence Olivier was one of the leading actors and theatre and film directors of his generation. He was also the founding director of the National Theatre. The son of a clergyman, among his most notable stage performances were the title role in Shakespeare’s Richard III and Archie Rice in The Entertainer. He also starred in hit films including Henry V (1944), The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) and Marathon Man (1976). The three-times married thespian died aged 82.

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When did you first hear about Laurence Olivier?

As a teenager. I would see posters plugging his latest film or play, and in my young mind he was theatrical royalty – almost a kind of monarch. I started seeing Olivier’s movies and then saw him on stage – the way he did the tap dance as a broken-down old performer in [the 1960 British film] The Entertainer was quite remarkable.

What kind of man was he?

A perfectionist who believed in staying fit. There was a real dynamic to him and I think he wanted to be, and saw himself, as the greatest actor of his generation. For him, acting justified his existence. Perhaps as a result of having a churchman father, I think he had a messianic-type ambition to achieve his full potential in his profession. He wanted to see how far a human being could reach as an actor, but he also loved the whole process of being directed, and directing.

What made Olivier a hero?

Being able to play a role and take it further than anyone else would ever dream. He somehow dissolved himself in the character he was playing, literally adopting their personality and behaviour to the point where he forgot who he was. He also knew – really knew – how to interpret the language of Shakespeare. Lastly, he began the inauguration of the National Theatre; without him we probably wouldn’t have a national theatre.

Is there anything that you don’t particularly admire about him?

What he did as an actor was so admirable that it overwhelms any faults he may have possessed.

How do you think he would have coped during lockdown?

I think he would have carried on working in whatever capacity possible, be it writing, doing audio work or appearing in streamed plays.

Can you see any parallels between Olivier’s life and your own?

Only that we both took the bull by the horns and made our own careers. We didn’t wait by the phone. If we wanted to do something, we would do it.

What would you ask Olivier if you could meet him?

I would just tell him how fortunate I felt to be alive at the time that my Lord Laurence was giving such shattering, illuminating performances.

Steven Berkoff is an actor, author and playwright. His latest book, Poems for the Working Class, is available via stevenberkoff.com. He was talking to York Membery

LISTEN In Radio 4’s Great Lives, guests choose inspirational figures

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This article was first published in the August 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine