They may have complained about the messes they got themselves into on-screen, but Laurel and Hardy were firm friends away from the limelight. So much so that after Oliver Hardy died in 1957, his comedy partner just couldn’t go on laughing. And Stan Laurel’s vow following his colleague’s passing shows just how much the two meant to each other.
It’s undoubtedly hard to find anybody who hasn’t heard of Laurel and Hardy. Famous for their bowler hats and physical humor, the comedy duo were titans of the early days of Hollywood. Even today, their antics are still enjoyed by millions. But while their names may be inseparable now, the two actually didn’t start out as a double act.
Prior to meeting his brother-in-gags, Stan Laurel worked with another comedy legend: Charlie Chaplin. Yes, in 1910 the English actor took a job as The Tramp star’s understudy. Nevertheless, the two didn’t exactly get along. In fact, Laurel later branded the mustachioed-comic “mean and cheap” in a 1957 letter to his friend Ed Patterson.
Despite their differences, the pair eventually traveled to America with their theater troupe in 1912. Yet while Chaplin’s film career almost immediately took off, Laurel’s path to stardom was a little more labored. And it wasn’t until he partnered with American actor Oliver Hardy in 1927 that fame and fortune really came calling.
Laurel’s future partner, Oliver Hardy, was originally a movie theater manager in Georiga. In fact, his film career didn’t begin until he was 21. But thanks to his wide frame, the actor gained reliable film work in villainous roles. In 1921, for instance, he played a roguish character alongside Laurel in The Lucky Dog. But it would take six more years before the pair truly began a partnership.
Seeing the pair’s rapport in producer Hal Roach’s All Stars ensemble, director Leo McCarey urged them to form a double act. So over their next few films – including 1927’s Putting Pants on Philip – the pair began to work on their comic timing. And soon enough the duo became a hit with film audiences.
With their opposing appearances and personalities, Laurel and Hardy were a natural fit. In the upcoming years, the duo made some of their most celebrated works, including 1933’s Sons of the Desert. Most notably, 1932’s The Music Box – which saw the pair attempt to push a piano up some stairs – won an Oscar.
On-screen, Hardy epitomized the put-upon straight-man while Laurel played his bumbling accomplice. But in real life, the pair had a different dynamic with the latter often taking charge of their artistic direction. Nonetheless, each actor shared genuine affection and respect for the other.
Their relationship was so strong, in fact, that Laurel – who wrote their films – only cared for Hardy’s professional opinion. And – as revealed by Roach to United Press International in 1957 – he rarely took anyone else’s feedback onboard. “Stan was very jealous of his scripts and wouldn’t allow any changes except those [Hardy] made,” the producer revealed.
Later, as their fortunes in Hollywood changed, Laurel and Hardy fought to keep their partnership alive. In 1941 – following a split with Roach – the duo signed with 20th Century Fox, which promised to keep them a double act. However, the deal came at the cost of a reduced creative input, and their films were relegated to B-movies.
So, with their influence in Hollywood waning and their health slowly deteriorating, Laurel and Hardy began to step back from cinema. In 1951 they made their final film, Atoll K, which received an unenthusiastic response on release. Following this, the pair moved to Europe where they enjoyed a successful second career on stage.
Yet although the pair were welcomed with open arms in Europe, the two became increasingly unable to meet their audience. In 1954 a tour was scrapped after Hardy suffered a heart attack. Just one year later, his partner endured a stroke which thwarted plans for a T.V. series. And soon enough, the duo’s health would end their careers for good.
Despite starting a new health regimen, Hardy suffered a stroke in 1956 that left him unfit for work. Emaciated and bedridden, the actor became an alarming shadow of his former self. And in 1957, aged 65 – and after two more strokes – the star finally succumbed to his illness and passed away.
Of course, losing a friend can be difficult to process, and Laurel was overcome with despair after his partner’s death. In a letter to his friend Betty Healy – written less than a week after Hardy’s passing – the actor admitted to feeling “terribly upset” by the news. “I miss him very much and feel quite lost,” he revealed.
But while Hardy meant the world to the comedian, Laurel was unable to pay his final respects. Yes, due to his own failing health, the star had to miss the funeral. In the end, his wife Eda and daughter Lois attended in the actor’s place. However, the comedy legend would never forget his friend’s memory – as well as the partnership they’d had together.
Following Hardy’s passing, too, Laurel stunned fans with a shocking announcement. “I have had it,” the actor asserted to United Press International less than a month after his friend’s death. Indeed, so much did his partner’s presence mean to him that the actor issued a promise: “I’ll never work again.”
And in the years after Hardy’s death, Laurel stood firm by his vow and declined various offers of work. In particular, he turned down “a nice chunk of money” to star in 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Nevertheless, the comedian still thought of gags for his double act. “The other day I thought of having a doorbell ring… and [Hardy] says, ‘Stanley, go get the door,’” he told The New York Times. “And I come back with the door.”
Eventually, Laurel succumbed to his own illnesses, and in 1965 – eight years after Hardy’s passing – he died, aged 74, following a heart attack. As a testament to the actor’s legacy, his funeral was attended by comedy legends including Dick Van Dyke and Buster Keaton. The latter even reportedly branded Laurel “the funniest” star of all time at the ceremony.
Over a half-century on from the pair’s deaths, public interest in them still remains as strong as ever. In fact, personal artefacts from the stars continue to sell at auction. And letters written by Laurel in 1957 to his cousin Nellie – auctioned in 2015 – underscored the sadness felt following his bereavement.
“[Hardy’s passing] was a shock to me even though I had been notified the day before that the end was near,” the star wrote. “I miss him terribly… can’t realize that he’s gone.” This was indeed a sad ending for one of the funniest buddy-ups in movie history. However, the love shared between these two jesters makes their partnership all the more treasured.