The title of the book begins on the back cover with the bold red letters: O L I. On the spine is another letter, V. The front cover continues with I E R, under a photo of a brooding, young Laurence Olivier.
The ostentatious look of a new, authorized biography of a man considered to be one the greatest actors of the 20th century seems fitting. In theater, films and television, Olivier commanded the stage and screen in everything from “Hamlet” to “The Prince and the Showgirl” with Marilyn Monroe.
“Olivier” is the result of four years of scholarship by Terry Coleman, an English journalist, novelist and historian. He had two advantages over other biographers of the actor: He interviewed Olivier many times as correspondent for the Guardian of London and had access to Olivier’s collection of letters and other memorabilia.
“Olivier in his last years kept all his papers in great big stage hampers in a barn at his country place in Sussex,” Coleman said from his London home. “He was a bit dismissive about them, and at one point he said, ‘Get the gardener to burn them.”’
The gardener didn’t burn them, but after Olivier’s death, the papers were forgotten and subject to the damp English winters. After five years, the family realized the value of the collection, which included business letters, love letters, contracts, cast lists and other items. They were entrusted to the British Library.
The estate’s executors chose Coleman to write the official Olivier biography. They were impressed by “The Nelson Touch,” Coleman’s biography of the British naval hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson. Olivier had portrayed Nelson in the 1940 made-in-Hollywood “That Hamilton Woman,” with his future wife, Vivien Leigh, in the title role.
The romance of Olivier and Leigh was widely publicized, especially since both were married to others. They obtained divorces and married in 1940. The marriage lasted 20 years.
“Vivien was quite mad,” Coleman cited as the reason for the breakup. “It’s a sad story. At the time, nobody ever realized that Vivien Leigh was quite as mad as she was. She died in 1967, and it came out in about 1980 that she had in her last years been a manic-depressive.
“But what nobody knew ... was that she was mad as early as when she was filming ‘Gone With the Wind.’ She was quite dreadful to work with because she wouldn’t turn up and she was terribly nervous on the set. During the filming, she actually took an overdose.”
Olivia de Havilland, the sole surviving star of “Gone With the Wind,” disputes what Coleman says about Leigh.
“Vivien was impeccably professional, impeccably disciplined on ‘Gone With the Wind,”’ de Havilland said from her home in Paris. “She had two great concerns: doing her best work in an extremely difficult role and being separated from Larry, who was in New York playing ‘No Time for Comedy’ with Katharine Cornell. She worked until midnight on Saturday so she could join Larry.”
Plowing through the mass of correspondence, the author discovered that Olivier was a great letter writer. Starting in his late 20s, he kept the letters written to him and made carbon copies of his replies. When he was directing Leigh in the London debut of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Olivier realized the play was too American for British audiences. He sent a 32-page, handwritten letter to Tennessee Williams suggesting changes. The playwright was so astonished that he authorized the revisions.
Coleman devotes a seven-page author’s note at the end of the “Olivier” text to the matter of “The Androgynous Actor.” He considered various reports that Olivier was bisexual. One biography printed after his death alleged that Olivier “was deeply involved in a homosexual affair with Danny Kaye.”
“This sort of thing is very difficult to check,” Coleman said in the interview. “I did check it and talked to a number of people. In this mountain of material in the archives I could not find a hint of an affair with Danny Kaye. His third wife (Joan Plowright) had no inkling of it, and I believe her.
“What I did find was evidence of a homosexual affair in 1937 with an actor called Henry Ainley. He was a big name of the 1910s and 1920s. I’m not sure this is a terribly important thing. It’s there and it’s a fact and therefore I report it.”
The author declared he found no other evidence about Olivier’s bisexuality. In his 1982 autobiography, Olivier hinted at a homosexual “dalliance,” Coleman writes, prompting readers to assume that the “one male” had been Noel Coward. The author considers Ainley more likely.
During the last 22 years of Olivier’s life, Coleman said, he was ill “with an awful succession of diseases.” (Olivier died July 11, 1989, at 82.)
“He insisted on acting as long as he could,” said the biographer. “When he could no longer direct, he acted in films, mostly in cameo parts at $1 million apiece. When he couldn’t stand the trip to Hollywood, he made two terrific television films in England — ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and ‘King Lear.”’