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He's big even on the small screen

A dominant force in theater and in film, Laurence Olivier didn't shy away when it came to mastering the telly.

October 01, 2006|Susan King

Laurence Olivier Presents

(Acorn Media, $50)

THOUGH the legendary British actor is best known for his stage and film work, Olivier, who died in 1989 at age 82, also made his mark on television. He won five Emmy Awards for his work in such prestigious projects as "Love Among the Ruins," "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "Brideshead Revisited."

During the 1970s, England's Granada Television teamed up with Olivier for a series of adaptations of award-winning plays. This collection includes four of the Granada presentations Olivier produced and appeared in, one he produced and co-directed and one of his last television roles, from 1984.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

At first, Olivier seems slightly miscast as the tyrannical Southern patriarch Big Daddy -- he's more like a Middleweight Daddy -- in this 1976 adaptation of Tennessee Williams' hit play that also aired on NBC. But his Big Daddy comes to life in the intense, combative scenes with his alcoholic, emotionally troubled son Brick (Robert Wagner, in one of his best performances). The late Natalie Wood, who was married to Wagner at the time, also excels as Brick's wife, Maggie the Cat, who is clawing her way back into her husband's life and bed. Robert Moore directed.

The Collection

Also from 1976 is this taut, exceptionally acted adaptation of the 1960 Harold Pinter drama, which finds Olivier playing a fussy, controlling benefactor of a young, haughty dress designer (Malcolm McDowell). Alan Bates plays the owner of a dress shop who believes that his dress-designer wife (Helen Mirren) had a romantic fling with McDowell's character at a hotel in Leeds. As Bates' character visits McDowell's to uncover what really did or didn't happen, Olivier's calls on Mirren's to discover her side of the story. Michael Apted directed.

Come Back, Little Sheba

At 70, Olivier was a bit too long in the tooth to play the alcoholic Doc in this 1977 adaptation of William Inge's 1950 acclaimed Broadway play, but he works so well with female costars Joanne Woodward and Carrie Fisher that one can almost forget he's wearing a bad toupee in an attempt to make him look younger.

Set in a shabby house in a small Kansas college town, "Sheba" revolves around an unhappily married couple -- Lola, the sweet, but slovenly and lonely wife of Doc, who was once a well-respected doctor until he became a mean drunk. Doc now toils as a chiropractor while Lola stays at home dreaming that her long-lost dog, Sheba, will return home.

Though sober for a year, Doc falls off the wagon when he learns their young, pretty boarder (Fisher) is actually sleeping with her boyfriend (Nicholas Campbell).

The lengthy sequence in which a drunken Doc returns home in a rage and chases after Lola with a hatchet is terrifying and exquisitely performed.

Saturday, Sunday, Monday

Four years after the hit London production, the cast of this Eduardo de Filippo comedy reunited for this 1977 TV production. Olivier's wife, Joan Plowright, plays the colorful matriarch of an energetic, extended Italian family, whose tempestuous relationship with her husband (Frank Finlay) hits a boiling point one weekend. Olivier is the scene stealer as Plowright's character's eccentric father. Edward Woodward is a family friend who Finlay's character believes is having an affair with Plowright's. The casts' Italian accents are a bit on the strong side, but the performances are fun.

Hindle Wakes

Donald Pleasance headlines this production from 1976 based on Stanley Houghton's 1912 social drama. Olivier is listed as a producer as well as a co-director.

The Ebony Tower

Adapted by John Mortimer from John Fowles' novella, this 1984 nudity-laden tale finds a frail Olivier playing a famous painter living in the countryside in France with a young female protege named Mouse (Greta Scacchi) and a punk free spirit (Toyah Willcox) aptly named Freak.

Olivier's Henry Breasley, while charming, is abusive and a drunk, but that doesn't stop both women from sharing his bed on occasion.

Roger Rees plays a reporter from an art magazine and a painter in his own right who arrives at the villa to do an interview with Henry and ends up falling in love with Mouse.

Extras: Biographies of Olivier and the casts and information on each drama.

-- Susan King

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