Dame Joan Ann Plowright, the Baroness Olivier, is one of the most distinguished actors of her generation. She may be best remembered as the third wife and widow of Laurence Olivier, generally considered the greatest anglophone actor of the 20th Century, but she had a distinguished career of her own on stage and screen spanning six decades.
Born in Brigg, Lincolnshire on October 28, 1929, she received her training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and made her professional stage debut at Croydon in 1948. Her London debut came in 1954, and two years later, she joined George Devine’s English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre, which would change her life just as the drama at the Royal Court revolutionized the English theater.
The Royal Court’s 1956 production of John Osborne’s _Look Back In Anger’ was a watershed in English theatrical history, ushering in the ‘Angry Young Man” era in British cultural life. In 1957, Plowright first co-starred with her future husband Olivier in the Royal Court’s production of Osborne’s The Entertainer (1960) when she took over the role of Archie Rice’s daughter Jean Rice when the play transferred to a commercial venue in the West End. She recreated the role in Tony Richardson’s 1960 film of the play.
To escape the notoriety from Olivier’s divorce from Vivien Leigh, Plowright and Olivier went to New York, where they appeared on Broadway, he in Becket (1964) and she in A Taste of Honey (1961). For her performance as Josephine, which Rita Tushingham played in the movie version, she won a 1961 Tony Award as Best Actress in a Play. (She had first appeared on Broadway in a twin bill of Eugène Ionesco’s “The Chairs” and “The Lesson” in January 1958, a month before she appeared with Olivier in “The Entertainer”.) When his divorce from Leigh came through, they were married in March 1961 in New York with Richard Burton as Larry’s best man.
From 1963 onward, she was a member of the National Theatre, which was headed by Olivier. Plowright created a distinguished stage career and was acclaimed when she began appearing more frequently in movies and television starting in the the 1980s. She was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire, the female equivalent of a knighthood, in the 2004 Queen’s New Year Honours.
Plowright divorced her first husband, the actor Roger Gage, to marry Olivier in 1961 and they had three children, Richard Kerr Olivier, Tamsin Olivier and Julie Kate Olivier.
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