I Once Met…Laurence Olivier

Like many Americans, I’m a sucker for an English accent. If I still lived in the U.S., I’m sure I’d have joined the ranks of America’s millions of ‘Downton Abbey’ fans, just to listen to the actors speak.

But for me the best of them all was the late Laurence Olivier. The moment I heard that glorious voice, and saw him act, I was hooked. Who can forget that dashingly heroic Olivier on horseback, rallying the yeomen of England in Henry V with his soaring, ‘Cry God for Harry, England and St. George!’? Or his tortured Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, all brooding and passionate? His Maxim de Winter… Richard III… even Archie Rice? No wonder fellow actor Spencer Tracy called Olivier ‘the greatest actor in the English speaking world’. I grew up loving his films and by extension, ‘fell in love’ with him.

As a native New Yorker, I was lucky enough to attend the Tony Awards (equivalent of the BAFTAs) ceremony in 1969 when Olivier accepted a special award on behalf of the National Theatre. It was an indescribable thrill to see him centre stage of a New York theatre. He delivered his speech with humility and grace – maybe it was acting, but it certainly affected me, as I sat there listening, glued to his every word. He looked up towards the Circle where I was sitting, and I felt as if he was directing his words straight to me.
On a visit to London in 1971, I treated myself to the best Stalls seat available for the National Theatre’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’. This was because Olivier was playing the key role of James Tyrone, the father in this famously dysfunctional family, and I wanted to sit as close as possible to my hero. As this an American play, Olivier had to have an American accent, and it was faultless – as was his acting. The tragedy takes almost four hours to unfold – but I was never bored. When I left the theatre, I was both drained and exhilarated.

Fast forward to 1980. I’m now living in a West Sussex village called Steyning. Just a couple of miles away lies the hamlet of Ashurst – where Olivier, by now the Baron of Brighton, and family live. My move to Steyning was not to pursue Lord Olivier, like some sort of obsessed groupie. In truth, I had no idea that he lived so close by. I just happened to have married an Englishman who loved the South Downs and had bought a small cottage in this chocolate-box village.

One morning as I was walking along the high street on my way to the supermarket, who should I see but the great man himself, Laurence Olivier, in the flesh and coming in my direction. I was awestruck, thunderbolted, knocked for a loop – all the clichés you can ever think of – you name it, I was all of them. In my years in Manhattan, I’d often see well-known actors in restaurants, upmarket department stores, at the theatre. I’d silently register their presence but would never go up to them, never accost them or (heaven forbid!) ask for their autograph. But this was different. This was Laurence Olivier. This was the god of acting – and an opportunity that might never happen again.

So, I strode up to him to say hello. I can’t recall exactly what I said except that as I started talking, the words that came out of my mouth were a steady stream of gibberish. I burbled on about having seen him at the Tony Awards and being so impressed with his acceptance speech. I gushed like a teenager about how wonderful an actor I thought he was. As verbal diarrhoea took over, I could see this poor man’s face fall and remember his furtive attempts to move backwards in imperceptibly small but determined steps towards his Volvo estate car parked next to the kerb. The more I spoke, the more distressed he looked. I’d so wanted to make a good impression, to be charming! Instead, I only succeeded in embarrassing both him and myself. It was as if, thanks to my stalking, he was an actor trapped onstage, searching desperately for the exit that would deliver him safely to the wings. Finally, Olivier managed to excuse himself and fairly leapt into his car and drove off. And how did I feel? I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me right then and there.

That evening, when my husband Dave returned home, part of me wanted to tell him that I’d encountered my hero in the High Street. The other part wanted to keep schtum because I couldn’t bear to tell him what a fool I’d made of myself.

A few weeks later, Dave went out with some mates. I was still awake when he came home, obviously quite mellow from an enjoyable time at the pub.

‘Where did you guys go?’ I asked.

‘The Fountain in Ashurst. And you’ll never guess who was there.’

‘Who?’

‘You know – that actor bloke you like so much – Olivier.’

I could feel my face go all crimson. ‘Did you talk to him?’

‘Of course not. I wouldn’t do that. He was there having a good old session with some friends. It would never do to intrude. I’m sure you know by now how important an Englishman’s privacy is to him.’

Dear Dave had quite unwittingly put me in my place. My only wish was that I would run into Lord Olivier once again in the High Street – just so I could ignore him.

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