Harvey's civil birth name was Laruschka Mischa Skikne. His Hebrew names were Zvi Mosheh. He was born in Joniškis, Lithuania, the youngest of three sons of Ella (née Zotnickaita) and Ber Skikne, Lithuanian Jewish parents. When he was five years old, his family travelled with the family of Riva Segal and her two sons, Louis and Charles Segal on the ship, the SS Adolph Woermann to South Africa, where he was known as Harry Skikne. Harvey grew up in Johannesburg, and was in his teens when he served with the entertainment unit of the South African Army during the Second World War.
After moving to London, he enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but left RADA after three months, and began to perform on stage and film.
Harvey made his cinema debut in the British film House of Darkness (1948), but its distributor British Lion thought someone named Larry Skikne (as he was then known) was not commercially viable. Accounts vary as to how the actor acquired his stage name of Laurence Harvey. One version has it that it was the idea of talent agent Gordon Harbord who decided Laurence would be an appropriate first name. In choosing a British-sounding last name, Harbord thought of two British retail institutions, Harvey Nichols and Harrods. Another is that Skikne was travelling on a London bus with Sid James who exclaimed during their journey: "It's either Laurence Nichols or Laurence Harvey." Harvey's own account differed over time.
Associated British Picture Corporation quickly offered him a two-year contract, which Harvey accepted. He appeared in supporting roles in several of their lower-budget films such as Man on the Run (1949), Landfall (1949) and The Dancing Years (1950). For International Motion Pictures he was in The Man from Yesterday (1949). He had a small role in the Hollywood financed The Black Rose (1950), starring Tyrone Power and Orson Welles, then Associated British gave him his first lead, appearing alongside Eric Portman in the Egypt-set police film, Cairo Road (1950).
Harvey starred in leading roles for two movies with Lewis Gilbert, Scarlet Thread (1951) and There Is Another Sun (1951). For Ealing he made I Believe in You (1952), then he starred in a low budget thriller, A Killer Walks (1952).
Harvey's career gained a boost when he appeared in Women of Twilight (1952); this was made by Romulus Films run by John and James Woolf, who signed Harvey to a long-term contract. James Woolf in particular was a big admirer of Harvey.
He had an uncredited role in the comedy Innocents in Paris (1953), and in a Hollywood film, Knights of the Round Table (1953). Romulus have him a good part in a thriller directed by Gilbert, The Good Die Young (1954). He was given the romantic male lead in another Hollywood spectacular, King Richard and the Crusaders (1954), supporting Rex Harrison and George Sanders . It was a box office disappointment. That year he also played Romeo in Renato Castellani's adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, narrated by John Gielgud. He was now established as an emerging British star. According to a contemporary interview, he turned down an offer to appear in Helen of Troy (1955) to act at Stratford-upon-Avon.
Romulus came to the rescue again when Harvey was cast as the writer Christopher Isherwood in I Am A Camera (1955), with Julie Harris as Sally Bowles (Cabaret is a musical from the same source texts).
He appeared on American television and on Broadway, making his Broadway debut in 1955 in the play Island of Goats, a flop that closed after one week, though his performance won him a 1956 Theatre World Award. Harvey appeared twice more on Broadway, in 1957 with Julie Harris, Pamela Brown and Colleen Dewhurst in William Wycherley's The Country Wife, and as Shakespeare's Henry V in 1959, as part of the Old Vic company, which featured a young Judi Dench as Katherine, the daughter of the King of France.
Zoltan Korda used him as one of the soldiers in Storm Over the Nile (1956), a remake of The Four Feathers (1939), playing the part taken by Ralph Richardson in the 1939 version. It was popular in Britain, as was a comedy for Romulus, Three Men in a Boat (1956). After the Ball (1957) was a biopic of Vesta Tilley, in which Harvey played Walter de Frece. The Truth About Women (1958) was a comedy.
Harvey's breakthrough to international stardom came after he was cast by director Jack Clayton as the social climber Joe Lampton in Room at the Top (1959), produced by British film producer brothers John and James Woolf of Romulus Films. For his performance, Harvey received a BAFTA Award nomination and a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor. Simone Signoret and Heather Sears co-starred as Lampton's married lover and eventual wife respectively. It was the third most popular movie at the British box office in 1959 and a hit in the USA. Harvey followed it with a musical, Expresso Bongo (1959), a film best remembered for introducing Cliff Richard.
Room at the Top led to Hollywood offers starting with John Wayne's epic The Alamo (1960). Harvey was John Wayne's personal choice to play Alamo commandant William Barret Travis. He had been impressed by Harvey's talent and ability to project the aristocratic demeanor Wayne believed Travis possessed. Harvey and Wayne would later express their mutual admiration and satisfaction at having worked together. The Alamo was a hit (although the enormous cost meant the film lost money). Even more successful was MGM's BUtterfield 8 (1960), which won Elizabeth Taylor her first Oscar.
Back in England, Harvey was cast in the film version of The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961), in a role originally performed by Peter O'Toole during the play's West End run. Back in the US he supported Shirley Maclaine in MGM's Two Loves (1961) and co-starred with Geraldine Page in the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams's Summer and Smoke (1961).
In Walk on the Wild Side (also 1962), he was cast along with Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Fonda and Capucine. Fonda was not positive about the experience of working with him: "There are actors and actors – and then there are the Laurence Harveys. With them, it's like acting by yourself." The same year, he recorded an album of spoken excerpts from the book This Is My Beloved by Walter Benton, accompanied by original music by Herbie Mann. It was released on the Atlantic label.
Harvey's portrayal of Wilhelm Grimm in the MGM film The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) earned him a nomination for Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama. The movie was a box office disappointment.
Harvey appeared as the brainwashed Raymond Shaw in the Cold War thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Film critic David Shipman wrote: "Harvey's role required him to act like a zombie and several critics cited it as his first convincing performance". The movie was a hit and is one of Harvey's best remembered films. Less successful was A Girl Named Tamiko (1962) and The Running Man (1963). Harvey made his directorial debut with The Ceremony (1963), in which he also starred.
Harvey played King Arthur in the 1964 London production of the Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical Camelot, at Drury Lane.
Harvey and Kim Novak took an almost instant dislike to each other when they first met to work on a remake of W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1964). Their acting styles were found to be incompatible, which caused problems for director Henry Hathaway. During filming, kidnap threats were made against both Harvey and Novak.
The Outrage (1964) was director Martin Ritt's remake of Akira Kurosawa's Japanese film Rashomon (1950). Besides Harvey, the film starred Paul Newman and Claire Bloom, but was unsuccessful critically and commercially. He reprised his role as Joe Lampton in Life at the Top (1965), then he enjoyed a big hit with Darling (1965), co-starring Julie Christie and Dirk Bogarde. While his role in the film is short, his involvement enabled director John Schlesinger to gain financial backing for the project.
Harvey co-starred with Israeli actress Daliah Lavi in the comedy The Spy with a Cold Nose (1966), a parody of the James Bond films.
Harvey owned the rights to the book on which John Osborne's early script for the film The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) was partially based, Cecil Woodham-Smith's book The Reason Why (1953). He intended to make his own version.
A lawsuit was filed against director Tony Richardson's company Woodfall Film Productions on behalf of the book's author. There was a monetary settlement, and Harvey insisted on being cast in a cameo role (being cast as Prince Radziwell) as part of the agreement for which he was paid £60,000. Charles Wood was brought in to re-write the script. Harvey's scenes were cut from the movie at Richardson's insistence, except for a brief glimpse as an anonymous member of a theatre audience which, technically, still met the requirements of the legal settlement. John Osborne asserted in his autobiography that Richardson shot the scenes with Harvey "French", which is film jargon for a director going-through-the-motions because of some obligation, but with no film in the camera.
Harvey completed direction of the spy thriller A Dandy in Aspic (1968) after director Anthony Mann died during production. The film co-stars Mia Farrow. Harvey provided the narration for the Soviet film Tchaikovsky (1969), directed by Igor Talankin.
He co-starred with Ann-Margret in Rebus (1969) then appeared in a film set in Ancient Rome, Kampf um Rom (1970). The latter starred Orson Welles who directed Harvey in The Deep, a thriller that was abandoned.
Harvey had a cameo role in The Magic Christian (also 1969), a film based on the Terry Southern novel of the same name. His character gives a rendition of Hamlet's soliloquy that develops unexpectedly into a striptease routine. He had a small role in WUSA (1970) and was guest murderer on Columbo: The Most Dangerous Match in 1973, portraying a chess champion who murders his opponent.
Joanna Pettet appeared with Harvey in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery ("The Caterpillar", 1972), in which Harvey's character attempts to assassinate a romantic rival by having a burrowing insect dropped in the man's ear.
Harvey starred in Escape to the Sun and was reunited with Taylor in Night Watch (1973).
Harvey directed and starred in his final film Welcome to Arrow Beach, which co-starred his friend Pettet, John Ireland and Stuart Whitman. The film deals with a type of war-related post-traumatic stress disorder that turns a military veteran to cannibalism.
Just before Harvey died he was planning to star and direct two films, one on Kitty Genovese, the other a Wolf Mankowitz comedy called Cockatrice. Harvey's death in 1973 ultimately put an end to any hope that Orson Welles's The Deep would ever be completed. With Harvey and Jeanne Moreau in the leading roles, Welles worked on the film in between his other projects, although the production was also hampered by financial problems.
Early in his career, Harvey reportedly had a live-in relationship with actress Hermione Baddeley (who appeared in a supporting role in Room at the Top, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress). He left Baddeley in 1951 for actress Margaret Leighton, six years his senior and at the time married to publisher Max Reinhardt. Leighton and Reinhardt divorced in 1955, and she married Harvey in 1957 off the Rock of Gibraltar. The couple divorced in 1961.
In 1968 he married Joan Perry, seventeen years his senior, the widow of film mogul Harry Cohn. Her marriage to Harvey lasted until 1972.
His third marriage was to British fashion model Paulene Stone. She gave birth to his only child Domino in 1969 while he was still married to Perry. Harvey and Stone married in 1972 at the home of Harold Robbins.
In his account of being Frank Sinatra's valet, Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra (2003), George Jacobs writes that Harvey often made passes at him while visiting Sinatra. According to Jacobs, Sinatra was aware of Harvey's sexuality. In his autobiography Close Up (2004), British actor John Fraser claimed Harvey was gay and that his long-term lover was Harvey's manager James Woolf, who had cast Harvey in several of the films he produced in the 1950s.
After working in two films with her, Harvey remained friends with Elizabeth Taylor for the rest of his life. She visited him three weeks before he died. Upon his death, Taylor issued the statement, "He was one of the people I really loved in this world. He was part of the sun. For everyone who loved him, the sun is a bit dimmer." She and Peter Lawford held a memorial service for Harvey in California.
Harvey once responded to an assertion about himself: "Someone once asked me, 'Why is it so many people hate you?' and I said, 'Do they? How super! I'm really quite pleased about it.'"
A heavy smoker and drinker, Harvey died from stomach cancer in Hampstead, London on 25 November 1973 at the age of 45. His daughter Domino, who later became a bounty hunter, was only four years old at the time; she died at the age of 35 in 2005 after overdosing on painkillers. They are buried together in Santa Barbara Cemetery in Santa Barbara, California.
According to his obituary in the New York Times:
With his clipped speech, cool smile and a cigarette dangling impudently from his lips, Laurence Harvey established himself as the screen's perfect pin-striped cad. He could project such utter boredom that willowy debutantes would shrivel in his presence. He could also exude such charm that the same young ladies would gladly lend him their hearts, which were usually returned utterly broken... The image Mr Harvey carefully fostered for himself off screen was not far removed from some of the roles he played. "I'm a flamboyant character, an extrovert who doesn't want to reveal his feelings", he once said. "To bare your soul to the world, I find unutterably boring. I think part of our profession is to have a quixotic personality."1956 Theatre World Award.
1959 Nomination BAFTA Award for Best British Actor
1960 Nomination BAFTA Award for Best British Actor
1959 Nomination Academy Award for Best Actor
1960 Nominated Laurel Award Top Male New Personality
1963 Nomination for Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama.
Note: Where British Film Institute (BFI) and American Film Institute (AFI) differed on release year, or if the Wikipedia article title had a different release year, whichever source is the country of production is the year used.