For Laurence Olivier’s Birthday: “You’ve Got a Fucking Cheek, Haven’t You?”

Happy birthday, Laurence Olivier!


Here’s a funny anecdote from Antony Sher’s book Year of the King: An Actor’s Diary and Sketchbook, his diary detailing his process rehearsing (and creating) Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Sher was daunted by the ghost-images of the great actors who had played the role, and the diary represents his struggles/stories about finding his “way in.” It’s a wonderful actor’s-process book and I highly recommend it, especially to anyone who thinks acting is magic. The book is also a gossipy backstage look at the theatre world, with some hilarious cameos.

Here’s just one of the anecdotes told in the book, and it’s not even Sher’s anecdote. Michael Gambon told it to Sher.

Tuesday 21 February

CANTEEN I’m having my lunch when I hear a familiar hoarse shout, ‘Oy Tony!’ I whip round, damaged my neck further, to see Michael Gambon in the lunch queue …

Alan Howard (a previous Richard III at the RSC) is standing in front of him, puzzled as to who is being sent up.

Wonderful seeing Gambon again. He and Howard have been rehearsing a play here. They’ve just heard it’s been cancelled because of the scene-shifters’ strike. Everyone assures us that it will be over by the time we go into studio in four weeks.

Gambon tells me the story of Olivier auditioning him at the Old Vic in 1962. His audition speech was from Richard III. ‘See, Tone, I was thick as two short planks then and I didn’t know he’d had a rather notable success in the part. I was just shitting myself about meeting the Great Man. He sussed how green I was and started farting around.’

As reported by Gambon, their conversation went like this:

Olivier: ‘What are you going to do for me?’
Gambon: ‘Richard the Third.’
Olivier: ‘Is that so. Which part?’
Gambon: ‘Richard the Third.’
Olivier: ‘Yes, but which part?’
Gambon: ‘Richard the Third.’
Olivier: ‘Yes, I understand that, but which part?’
Gambon: ‘Richard the Third.’
Olivier: ‘But which character? Catesby? Ratcliffe? Buckingham’s a good part …’
Gambon: ‘Oh I see, beg your pardon, no, Richard the Third.’
Olivier: ‘What, the King? Richard?’
Gambon: ‘ — the Third, yeah.’
Olivier: “You’ve got a fucking cheek, haven’t you?’
Gambon: ‘Beg your pardon?’
Olivier: ‘Never mind, which part are you going to do?’
Gambon: ‘Richard the Third.’
Olivier: ‘Don’t start that again. Which speech?’
Gambon: ‘Oh I see, beg your pardon, “Was every woman in this humour woo’d.”‘
Olivier: ‘Right. Whenever you’re ready.’
Gambon: ‘ “Was ever woman in this humour woo’d –” ‘
Olivier: ‘Wait. Stop. You’re too close. Go further away. I need to see the whole shape, get the full perspective.’
Gambon: ‘Oh I see, beg your pardon …’ Gambon continues, ‘So I go over to the far end of the room, Tone, thinking that I’ve already made an almighty tit of myself, so how do I save the day? Well I see this pillar and I decide to swing round it and start the speech with a sort of dramatic punch. But as I do this my ring catches on a screw and half my sodding hand gets left behind. I think to myself, “Now I mustn’t let this throw me since he’s already got me down as a bit of an arsehole”, so I plough on … “Was ever woman in this humour woo’d –“‘
Olivier: ‘Wait. Stop. What’s the blood?’
Gambon: ‘Nothing, nothing, just a little gash, I do beg your pardon …’
A nurse had to be called and he suffered the indignity of being given first aid with the greatest actor in the world passing the bandages. At last it was done.
Gambon: ‘Shall I start again?’
Olivier: ‘No. I think I’ve got a fair idea how you’re going to do it. You’d better get along now. We’ll let you know.’

Gambon went back to the engineering factory in Islington where he was working. At four that afternoon he was bent over his lathe, working as best as he could with a heavily bandaged hand, when he was called to the phone. It was the Old Vic.

‘It’s not easy talking on the phone, Tone. One, there’s the noise of the machinery. Two, I have to keep my voice down ’cause I’m cockney at work and posh with theatre people. But they offer me a job, spear-carrying, starting immediately. I go back to my work-bench, heart beating in my chest, pack my tool-case, start to go. The foreman comes up, says, “Oy, where you off to?” “I’ve got bad news,” I say, “I’ve got to go.” He says, “Why are you taking your tool box?” I say, “I can’t tell you, it’s very bad news, might need it.” And I never went back there, Tone. Home on the bus, heart still thumping away. A whole new world ahead. We tend to forget what it felt like in the beginning.’

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9 Responses to For Laurence Olivier’s Birthday: “You’ve Got a Fucking Cheek, Haven’t You?”

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention “You’ve Got a Fucking Cheek, Haven’t You?” | The Sheila Variations --

  2. Rob says:

    I’m totally reading that in Gambon’s voice in my head. Fantastic story. The last line goes right through you.

  3. Phil says:

    I love this anecdote. I remember reading another funny Gambon/Olivier story a few years aho, and here it is as relayed by Nicholas Hytner:

    “Gambon is a young spear-carrier in the newly founded National Theatre at the Old Vic, terrified (as are they all) of Olivier. He’s having breakfast one morning early in the canteen, all alone. Enter Sir Laurence. Gambon quakes. Sir Laurence realises he has to sit with Gambon, fraternise with the junior, do his bit as company leader. So he takes his coffee and sits at Gambon’s table, says good morning, Gambon quakes some more.

    Desperate for something to talk about, Gambon sees that Sir Laurence is carrying an impressive leather document case, embossed in gold with the letters NORGE.

    “Norge,” says Gambon.

    “What?” says Sir Laurence.

    “Norge, Sir Laurence,” says Gambon.

    “What the fuck are you talking about?” says Sir Laurence.

    “On your case, Sir Laurence, it says Norge, Sir Laurence. That’s very interesting. Norge – it’s Norwegian for Norway, isn’t it. Did they give you that in Elsinore, Sir Laurence? For playing Hamlet?”

    “Elsinore is in Denmark,” says Sir Laurence, gathering up his coffee. “And Hamlet was Danish. And you’re a cunt.”

    Exit Sir Laurence.

    It has to be said that most of Michael’s Olivier stories end with Olivier saying cunt. “

  4. sheila says:

    Phil – DYING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    “What the fuck are you talking about?” hahahaha laughing out loud!

    Okay, I need an entire book of Gambon/Olivier anecdotes.

  5. Ken says:

    That’s funny. Talk about having “the cheek to make verses about Eärendil in the house of Elrond.”

  6. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Sheila, sometimes I think you are writing in and around my life. I worked for him when he was shooting MARATHON MAN back in the 70s. He was very ill at the time, and needed a lot of assistance. I was kind of there to do whatever. And I did whatever. Lady Joan would arrive and leave, pretty much on schedule and I never met or saw his kids. He was kind of sad, actually, but quite nice and actually lovely to me. Busy. Loved to work. Kept me on my toes.

    But it’s odd how your writing and my life intersect at times. I’m probably making too much of it.

    • sheila says:

      What a nice story, Melissa! I didn’t know you worked for him, that’s super cool. Lady Joan!!

      And I do birthday posts all the time – whenever I’ve actually written something about the person in question. Olivier is one of the all-time greats so of course I wanted to post something – but this is really the only piece on my site about him. I love Gambon’s story – and the image of him swinging around the column – desperately, trying to redeem himself – and then spurting out blood, and Larry handing over bandages. And THEN giving him the role.

      One of my favorite audition stories.

  7. Rinaldo says:

    There’s a good Olivier story or two in Frank Langella’s book, which I think I’ve mentioned here before.

    There’s also a story in which (for a change) someone else gets the best of him verbally. I forget where I read it, so it’ll have to be from memory. (And of course we can each decide whether or not to believe it.) Early in her career Jessica Tandy played Princess Katherine to Olivier’s Henry V. After one performance she was just outside his dressing room, poised to stick her head in and say good night, when she heard him complaining to a friend, “Oh, it’s so draining, I have to give Jessie every inflection so she’ll know how to speak a line — she’s not an actress, she’s like a fucking parrot.”

    Some time later, she had a great success in New York creating the role of Blanche Dubois. Sir Laurence and his group came back to see her afterwards, and he gushed, “Darling, you were just marvelous.” And she beamed back, “Just like a fucking parrot, eh, darling?”

    • sheila says:

      Ha!!! Man, that would be hard to “go on” after overhearing a comment like that.

      Dustin Hoffman tells an anecdote about Marathon Man (so grain of salt). Olivier and he were sitting there, quietly. Suddenly Olivier said, “Do you know why I’m an actor?” He was old, ill, revered, a superstar, all the rest. Hoffman said, “Why?” Olivier leaned toward him – with this fierce aggressive attitude (I saw Hoffman do it in an interview) – and said, “Look at me look at me look at me look at me look at me….” over and over. Hoffman teared up when he told the story – because all actors understand that feeling, from being a kid – needing to be the center of attention – but you’re not supposed to admit it, and Hoffman was so touched by the honesty of it. (Again: grain of salt, in re: Hoffman. I still love the story!)

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