Back from the dead: Lord Larry Olivier returns to movies after 'resting' for 15 years

Laurence Olivier once remarked "work is life ... without acting I cannot breathe", and during the course of his career he notched up 120 stage roles, 60 films and 15 television productions. He also ran the newly formed National Theatre for more than a decade.

Laurence Olivier once remarked "work is life ... without acting I cannot breathe", and during the course of his career he notched up 120 stage roles, 60 films and 15 television productions. He also ran the newly formed National Theatre for more than a decade.

Even death is proving no bar to his prolific career. In the unlikely vehicle of the new retro-science-fiction romp Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, he returns to the big screen from beyond the grave.

In a move which could spark a trend and prove a cash cow to the estates of long-dead film stars, Lord Olivier has been resurrected 15 years after his death. He is to star alongside Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Michael Gambon.

The first-time director Kerry Conran has used a combination of computer graphics and old film footage to bring him to life as the evil Dr Totenkopf.

Revealing details of Olivier's role at the annual Comic-Con International sci-fi convention in the United States this week, Jude Law said he was honoured to play alongside the late great actor, even if it was a posthumous partnership. "He plays my nemesis. And he's referred to throughout the movie, so you know eventually you're going to get to see this bad guy. It builds up, and you only see him in the last minutes, and he's in hologram form."

Although another actor supplies Dr Totenkopf's voice, Law believes Olivier brings added "authority" to the film, due for release in September.

Set in 1930s Art Deco New York, nearly a decade after Olivier had made his Hollywood debut, the metropolis is lavishly recreated using old photographs and digital enhancement.

The producers promise lashings of excitement as Law, the hero, teams up with Paltrow, who plays his old flame Polly Perkins, a reporter. Their mission is to track down Olivier's twisted genius who is kidnapping the world's leading scientists for his own dastardly ends.

The release of the film, which began life as a six-minute short, has been delayed from the summer to avoid stiff box office competition, according to industry gossip. The film has already spawned an online game and is generating considerable excitement among science fiction fans on the internet.

Conran is also creating a buzz in the film world. Hailing from Flint, Michigan, the same town as Michael Moore, he has created a new computer generated image (CGI) programme, which allowed him to make the whole film against a blue screen. Each scene was carefully drafted using 3-D storyboarding stored on computer and then kicked into life by the presence of the live actors. Among the influences are Flash Gordon as well as Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Olivier is not the first screen great to be brought back from the dead. Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe and Groucho Marx have all featured in advertisements since their demise.

The death of Peter Sellers failed to deter Blake Edwards from shooting a sixth Pink Panther film in 1982. And in 2000 Ridley Scott spent a reported $30,000 (£16,500) on "resurrecting" Oliver Reed after he died halfway through filming Gladiator in Malta in 1999.

Reed had been playing the part of Proximo, who trained the enslaved fighters, when he died, midway through production, of a heart attack, reportedly after a drinking session.

A three-dimensional image of Reed's face was scanned into computers so it could smile and talk, then digitally grafted onto a body double. But despite the technological wizardry, the character of Proximo had to be killed off earlier than planned.

The trade in dead stars remains a lucrative one. CMG Worldwide represents the estate of Laurence Olivier - the descendants of the four children from his three marriages - as well as nearly 300 stars from film, sport and the arts. Among the firm's clients are the estates of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Malcolm X, Jack Kerouac and even the horse Cigar. An annual rich list of dead stars is published by Forbes magazine. Last year Elvis Presley topped the chart with an annual turnover of $40m, followed by Charles M Schulz, who created Charlie Brown and Snoopy, with $32m. Buoyed by the successful filming of his epic trilogy, J R R Tolkien has moved into third place at $22m.

The highest grossing deceased actor remains Marilyn Monroe, whose estate pulled in $8m last year primarily for the rights to use her likeness.

So tight is the control that even the words "Laurence Olivier" are strictly copyrighted, as is his voice and likeness. Permission to use them must be obtained from CMG.

According to Kumal Dua of CMG, developments in CGI have given dead stars a boost. "We are very involved in motion pictures and television commercials. It has become much easier to use these iconic images thanks to CGI."

Whether Sky Captain will form a fitting final curtain call for the four -times Oscar winner remains to be seen. His performances as Hamlet, Heathcliff and Szell, the Nazi dentist in John Schlesinger's 1976 thriller Marathon Man, are among the most memorable in film history.

The question is whether Sky Captain could mark the beginning of a whole new acting career after his death. But Olivier himself may well have seen the irony in the situation, having once observed: "Acting is illusion, as much illusion as magic is, and not so much a matter of being real."

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