RECENTLY, in the Style section of this newspaper, Tom Shales allowed that he found it a little sad to see the great Sid Caesar making the rounds of the television talk shows to plug his personal history, Where Have I Been? Compromises the dignity of an idol, even a fallen idol. Around the same time I caught Laurence Olivier -- Lord Olivier of Brighton -- flogging his newly published autobiography on the Merv Griffin program. There he sat, looking rather frail and older than his 75 years, in a neatly tailored outfit but with his shirt collar unbuttoned and tie loosely knotted, discoursing with youthful animation on his life story (his father was a clergyman without the means to provide for his children as in his earlier days he had hoped), on some of his great acting roles, and on personalities, especially Marilyn Monroe.

These are all matters Olivier takes up in his book. He has a whole chapter on Marilyn, whom he directed and costarred with in The Prince and the Showgirl, the 1956 film of a Terence Rattigan light comedy. By turns adorable and insolently impatient, she would irritably demand "Wasseeemean?" of Paula, the wife of her coach, Lee Strasberg. When Olivier had no luck in injecting the necessary sparkle into the first meeting of the Grand Duke of Carpathia and the chorus girl, Paula came to the rescue by advising, "Honey, just think of Coca-Cola and Frankie Sinatra!" That the suggestion worked was enough to make Olivier want to cut his throat.

Unlike most of Merv's guests, he scarcely glanced at his host -- he addressed his audience in the studio and in millions of homes across the land, as we sat transfixed by this ancient thespian mariner's glittering eye. It was a performance. In his Confessions, Olivier remarks, "Nowadays people often ask my wife, Joan [Plowright], 'How do you know when Larry is acting and when he's not?' and my wife will always reply, 'Larry? Oh, he's acting all the time.' In my heart of hearts I only know that I am far from sure when I am acting and when I am not..." (Ralph Richardson, in O'Connor's admirable life, recalls an incident which occurred during World War II, when he and Olivier were serving together as parachute officers in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. Richardson thought he would go and see how Olivier, his junior officer, was getting on. He observed his big while canopies and white cords hanging motionlessly from the rafters. Later he noted how clean and quiet Oliver's parachute section was, and how he introduced the Wrens and seamen to him without ever making a mistake. "'Larry did that very well indeed,' I said to myself; I walked on. Then a thought crossed my mind: 'I wonder if he rehearsed it?'" It's thought which often crosses people's minds.)

For he does perform all the time, whether he is playing General Douglas MacArthur in a Moonie-bankrolled schlock movie, or Lord Marchmain come home to Brideshead to die in John Mortimer's elegant TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel, or hawking instant cameras for Polaroid -- on this side of the drink only; that wouldn't go down too well in the mother country. The last I heard, he was filming king Lear for the rival channel to the BBC. Compromising his dignity? Lord Olivier doesn't stand too much on his dignity, so long as he has an audience out there.

His Autobiography too is a performance, rather like the transcript of a long solo TV monologue uninterrupted by commercials or a host's proddings. Oliver admits early on that a lust for popularity has been obsessive with him all his life. He exults in his 1954 triumph in Macbeth, undiffidently quoting his friend Rattigan's considered opinion, "Yes, at last, the definitive Macbeth," going on to assess his gifts at this juncture of his career:

"I had at that time, most importantly of all, lungs like organ bellows, vocal power and range that no infection could seemingly affect, and bodily expression balanced by a technique that could control all physical expressiveness from dead stillness to an almost acrobatic agility; my performances were apt to have, if anything, too much vitality... I had now a Shakespeare-trained intellect, and had come to terms with the verse-speaking problem by reaching the truth behind the text through the verse -- never ignoring it (natural speech is essential), but working in harmony with the inherent fabric, rhythm, beat, with full awareness of all the poetic values and nuances."

This is a bit much -- however true it may all be, and Olivier knows it, catching himself with an exculpatory parenthesis: "('Hates himself, doesn't he?' All right, I can hear you, reader dear.)"

The paragraph I have qyoted is sandwiched in between reflections on the sad, doomed condition of Vivien Leigh, his second wife. Harsh words here for the theater critics; they had, as Olivier bitterly reflects, their whipping boys (and girls) and also their favorities. He was then a favorite, which gratified his ego, but Vivien was deemed unacceptable in Shakespeare, and this was destructive to a professional relationship that happened also to be a marital relationship. The influential Kenneth Tynan, aware of her precarious health, cruelly dismissed Vivien as Olivier's "stricken lady." She was then appearing with him in Twelfth Night at Stratford-upon-Avon. The celebrated Macbeth would immediately follow; on the horizon loomed Titus Andronicus, which I was privileged to see. It remains one of the great revivals of my playgoing career, for Olivier returned to the liing repertory a vast, brutal and rhetorically powerful early Shakespeare tragedy which had never been previously acted at Stratford, and hardly acted anywhere for centuries. But in the part of Titus' raped and mutilated daughter Lavinia, Vivien did not shine.

She was then more famous than her husband. She had, after all, plucked Academy Awards for her portrayals of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind (an all-time box-office winner) and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, and wrung tears from millions opposite heart-throb Robert Taylor in Waterloo Bridge. But Leigh was fiercely ambitious, and knew she would never match Olivier's greatness as a stage performer. The stage counted for more than the cinema. Illness, emotional and physical, destroyed her marriage, and ultimately her life, as hysteria, manic-depression (for which she received shock treatments), and tuberculosis took their toll. The story is already familiar enough; Anne Edwards has told it with frankness and sympathy in her biography of Vivien (1977). But a special value attaches to having it told once again by one of the principals in this real-life tragedy. Olivier confesses that he cannot help feeling that, despite reassurances from the psychiatrists who treated her, he bore responsibility for his wife's disturbances.

Olivier talks about the productions, the directors, the receptions, the tours. In the Soviet Union he took delight in meeting a man whose name was pronounced "Aneext" -- he hasn't bothered to set down the name properly for his readers, although that would have been easy enough to verify. This "Aneext," whose English was so exceptional and erudite, must be Alexander Anikst of the Institute of Arts in Moscow, and the Soviet Union's preeminent Shakespeare scholar. Olivier has little of compelling interpretive interest to relate about the plays; he tells us that Titus was punishing, which we might have guessed, and that Shylock wasn't "a really nice chap... just better stuff than any of the Christians in the play." Such doubtful profundities we can live without. But there are here and there fascinating revelatory touches. Thus Olivier explains how, with the help of a "secondary image," he produced the terrible cry in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex after Oedipus at last realizes his origins. He thought of how the ermine is trapped by licking salt scattered in hard snow; the snow sticks, and the animal cannot tear itself free. Olivier is informative about the filming of Henry V, especially that stunning hail of arrows at Agincourt, which turns out to be a studio effect, and about his film Hamlet, for which he chose for the part of Gertrude an actress 13 years his junior: fit casting for the textbook Oedipal-Freudian interpretation, courtesy of Dr. Ernest Jones.

Olivier is big on friendship, so Dougie Fairbanks Jr., Ronnie Colman, Tony Quinn, Dickie Burton, Freddie March, Zeff (for Franco Zeffirelli), and other showbiz luminaries take their bows. It is all recounted in answerable style; cliches -- "aching void," "trials and tribulations," "sigh of relief" -- are not disdained, and the vocabulary is with-it informal: "moneywise," "dough," "sheckels," "bucks," "wow," "gent," "by the short and curlies." Olivier may beat his breast when the mea culpa mood is on him, but the twinkle quickly returns to his eye.

After two failed marriages, Olivier has found happiness with his third actress-mate, Joan Plowright, who is herself wonderfully gifted. His family life these days is "rapturous." Having weathered cancer of the prostate and other bouts with catastrophic illness he dares not yet expose himself to the rigors of day-in, day-out stage acting, from which he retired almost a decade ago, but he nurses hopes that in time he will overcome his scruples. So the ending is upbeat. Confessions of an Actor may not be a topdrawer performance, but it is attractively life-embracing.

The book will be a valued resource for Oliver's future biographer. And who better qualified for that undertaking than Garry O'Connor? He has directed plays, had six of his own produced, reviewed plays and films for The Times of London, and published a life of singer Maggie Teyte. His new life of Richardson is, in a word, exemplary: carefully researched, sensitively attuned to the subject, agreeably written (with shuttlings in time neatly accommodated), and well and clearly documented, without the additional baggage of footnotes.

Olivier and Richardson have known each other for over half a century, and naturally their paths cross in both books. At first they didn't get on. Olivier, in Richardson's phrase "a cocky young pup full of fire and energy," flirted with Richardson's young wife Kit. (In his Autobiography Olivier admits to being bewitched by Kit, a situation he acknowledges must have been "mildly irritating" to her husband.) For Olivier, Richardson became -- characteristically -- "Ralphie"; equally characteristically, Olivier remained "Laurence" for Richardson. A very private man, he maintains his secrecy; he has always managed to keep his name out of the gossip columns. Yet his life, no less than Olivier's, has had its share of tragedy. For him it came early. Not until I read O'Connor's book was I aware that his beloved Kit fell victim to encephalitis lethargica, the dread sleeping sickness. Eventually she had to withdraw from active life, and, finally, in 1942, some 14 years after contracting the ailment, she died. Through it all, her husband bore up stoically. The simple epitaph carved on her gravestone reads: "A loving wife, a charming actress." Two year later Richardson would be married again, happily, to another charming actress. This union produced a son.

In his own understated way, Richardson has performed perhaps no less impressively, if less charismatically, than Olivier. Take the movies. In the 1930s there was The Shape of Things to Come, that unforgettable relic of the future, in which Richardson modelled his portrait of The Boss on Il Duce. I learned from O'Connor that the resemblance did not escape the dictator; Things to Come was banned in Italy on Mussolini's personal order. Richardson was the butler Baines in Carol Reed's masterly The Fallen Idol. (1948) and the grief-stricken cruel father Dr. Sloper in William Wyler's The Heiress, drawn from the Henry James novel, Washington Square. Do movies really count for something in a great stage actor's career? Yes they do.

Alas, I wasn't able to get to Richardson's Falstaff, as he proceeded "through the play at his own chosen pace, like a gorgeous Indian ceremonial elephant"; so the actor describes his own performance. According to O'Connor, his idea was to make Falstaff the opposite of coarseness: no belching, no crude horseplay. Michael Warre, who played Prince Hal, was so moved by the final scene of Henry IV: Part 2, in which he rejected Falstaff, that when he left the stage he would regularly burst into tears.

We hear oddly of a model of the Globe playhouse in 1589; the theater wasn't built until a decade later. "The Assassination of the Giants" is a fine chapter on the sacking in 1948 of the triumvirate of directors -- Richardson, Olivier, and the lesser known John Burrell -- who were guiding the Old Vic. The author succeeds better than Olivier in creating a sense of the plays themselves in performance, as he interweaves his own conversations with Richardson -- a welcome personalizing touch -- and with those who know Richardson. It reads effortlessly, although much work must have gone into this biography. For O'Connor, Richardson is like the hero of Jorge Luis Borges' parable, who found himself in the presence of God, and told Him, "I who have been so many men in vain want to become one and myself." And the Lord answered, "Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one."