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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

He was a vigorous Hamlet, an inspiring Henry V, and when Laurence Olivier played Heathcliff in 1939's "Wuthering Heights," his costar Merle Oberon wasn't the only one who swooned.

(Soundbite of movie, "Wuthering Heights")

Mr. LAURENCE OLIVIER (Actor): (As Heathcliff) Cathy, we're not thinking of that other world now.

Ms. MERLE OBERON (Actress): (As Cathy) Smell the heather. Fill my arms with heather. All they can hold. Come on.

Mr. OLIVIER: (As Heathcliff) Cathy, you're still my queen.

SIEGEL: Laurence Olivier was born 100 years ago today. On his death in 1989, he was widely regarded as the greatest actor of his generation. But during the six decades he was a leading man, acting styles changed. And NPR's Bob Mandello says Olivier had to change with them.

BOB MANDELLO: Laurence Olivier once described stage acting as a kind of lying and said if you were going to lie to an audience, you had better do it well. He was, by that reckoning, a great classical liar. A matinee idol who modified the flamboyant traditions of 19th-century theater to appeal to 20th-century tastes. In his wartime film of "Henry V", he turned battlefield speeches, the bard had written for a king centuries earlier into a rousing call-to-arms for a Britain freshly under siege.

(Soundbite of movie, "Henry V")

Mr. OLIVIER: (As King Henry V) We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother be he ne'er so vi. And gentlemen in England now-a-bed shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here they were not here. And hold their manhoods…

MONDELLO: For almost a decade, Olivier was among the cinema's most sought-after leading man. A master craftsman, who gloried in disguising himself with accents, putty noses and wigs. But in the 1950s, the ground was shifting under him. Marlon Brando's new, more natural style made Olivier and his craft seem old-fashioned. He'd been all but written off as a dinosaur when he answered his critics by playing a seedy, vaudeville has-been in "The Entertainer." Starting with a plumy accent, then letting it disappear as he virtually deconstructed his own art.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Entertainer")

Mr. OLIVIER: (As Archie Rice) Now, if you learn it properly, you'll get yourself a technique. Smile, darling, smile, and look the friendliest, jolliest thing in the world. I bet you'll be just as dead and used up just like everybody else. See this face? This face can get split open with warmth and humanity. It can sing, tell the worst unfunniest stories in the world, and it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter because, look, look at my eyes. I'm dead behind these eyes. I'm dead.

MONDELLO: Every actor reinvents himself for each new role, but Olivier had reinvented himself as an actor. The change was fundamental - not like putting on a new nose or like the time he spent weeks in the countryside bellowing at cows to lower his voice for a tragedy. This was a declaration that technique could still matter in film. Olivier would never become a believer in "The Method," and dredging up emotion from within. But directors discovered they could put him next to a Method actor — Dustin Hoffman, say, in "Marathon Man" — and let him impersonate a mad Nazi dentist, and the mix of his finesse and Hoffman's feeling worked.

(Soundbite of movie, "Marathon Man")

Mr. Dustin Hoffman (Actor): (As Thomas Levy) I don't know anything.

Mr. Olivier: (As Dr. Christian Szell) Oh, please don't worry. I'm not going into that cavity. That nerve is already dying. A live, freshly cut nerve is infinitely more sensitive. So, I'll just drill into a healthy tooth until I reach the pulse. Unless of course you can tell me that it's safe.

(Soundbite of drill)

MONDELLO: Still inspires chills, yes? And Laurence Olivier inspired much more. A whole generation of actors who have followed his example, gliding effortlessly from theater to film lending credence to everything from HBO epics to the "Die Hard" and "Harry Potter" franchises. Not bad for a guy who was once dismissed as all technique, which, of course, he never was.

I'm Bob Mondello.

SIEGEL: There's video of "Henry V" and "The Entertainer" at our Web site, npr.org.

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