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The Quotable Laurence Olivier

Published: 7/11/2014
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Laurence Olivier (Wikimedia Commons / Allan Warren)

When Laurence Olivier died 25 years ago this week at age 82, critics and fans mourned the loss of the actor many consider to be one of the 20th century's finest. He dazzled both onstage and on screen for more than 60 years, with memorable turns as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and Maxim de Winter in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, to name just two. British playwright Charles Bennett once remarked that Olivier delivered lines in Shakespeare as if "he were actually thinking them." Appropriately, Olivier served as lead actor and director for three films based on the Bard's plays: Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III.

Olivier was nominated for and won most of the industry's major awards, including multiple BAFTAs, Golden Globes and Emmys. Nominated for 12 Academy Awards as actor, producer or director, he won twice – for best film and best actor for Hamlet. He also received two special Oscars – one in 1947, an "outstanding achievement" award for directing Henry V, and the other in 1979, for his contribution to film.

Legacy.com remembers the acting legend by setting the record straight in regard to what may have been his best-known off-screen quote: "Try acting, dear boy," also remembered as, "Why not try acting? It's much easier," "Why doesn't the dear boy just act?" and other similar phrases.

The 1976 thriller Marathon Man stars Dustin Hoffman as a simple history graduate student who finds himself caught in the middle of a conspiracy involving stolen diamonds and a Nazi war criminal played by Olivier. Hoffman had a reputation as a "method" actor, one who fully immersed himself in a character. He took up running for long stretches as the titular character did, losing 15 pounds in the process. He also literally immersed himself in the job, as when he insisted that the men trying to drown his character in one scene hold his head underwater for longer stretches in repeated takes. According to a June 2010 Esquire magazine article, Hoffman advised the other actors to be careful not to press on his Adam's apple, but "to try to really hold me under. Let me see how long I can stay under. Let me see if I can fight you. Let me see what happens."

The legend goes like this: Hoffman chose to stay awake for three days in a row to be more convincing in his role. Olivier saw his battered and weary co-star and gave him the advice described above.

That version of events is unfair to Olivier, Hoffman later said, because they implied Olivier did not respect method actors. Olivier's actual comment was something like "Why don't you just try acting" Hoffman leaves out the word 'just' when sometimes recounting the story. More importantly, the words were said in jest and with irony.

In the extras section of the 2001 DVD release of Marathon Man, Hoffman said those who have widely retold this tale, "leave out the reality and just put in what feels more provocative or a better story. ... And what accompanied Olivier saying, 'Why don't you just try acting?' He said, you know. ... He laughed, because he said, you know, 'I'm one to talk.' And then he was actually the first one that told me about risking his life every night jumping whatever it was 20 feet in the last act of Hamlet. And the truth of it is I didn't just stay up three days and three nights for the scene; it was a good excuse, because these were the days of wine and roses in Studio 54."

And during a 2003 interview, Hoffman told NPR's Neil Conan that "I think the story, in a sense, does a disservice to him because he was adventurous. You know, acting didn't have boundaries to him."

So the truth: Hoffman did have some late nights during the filming of Marathon Man, but mostly because he was about to re-enter single life and he was enjoying the disco scene. Olivier loved acting in all its forms and did not judge his co-workers.

"If I wasn't an actor, I think I'd have gone mad," Olivier once said, according to his official website. "You have to have extra voltage, some extra temperament to reach certain heights. Art is a little bit larger than life. It's an exhalation of life and I think you probably need a little touch of madness."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."

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