Born on 16 June 1890 in Ulverston, Lancashire, England, Arthur Stanley Jefferson, known later to the world as Stan Laurel, was the son of a theatre manager from Bishop Auckland called Arthur Jefferson and an actress from Ulverston called Margaret. He was born in his grandparents’ house and spent a lot of time with his grandmother Sarah growing up as both of his parents were very busy with theatre life.
Stanley was initially educated at King James I Grammar School in Bishop Auckland before he moved with his parents to Glasgow, where he attended Rutherglen Academy.
Growing up around the theatre, it was natural for him to become involved and at the age of 16, he gave his first professional performance in pantomime and music hall, during which he adopted one of his famous comedy devices, the humble bowler hat.
By the time he turned 20 Stan Laurel joined the acting troupe of Fred Karno, the pioneer of slapstick, and toured the USA. During this time he was, for a short time, an understudy to one of the other actors in the troupe, the one and only Charlie Chaplin.
The First World War had begun whilst Stanley was in the USA and although he registered for military service on 5 June 1917, he was never called up due to deafness and his status as a resident alien.
In 1921, he met his future long-term comedy partner, Oliver Hardy when they both appeared in the film The Lucky Dog. At this point in time though, neither of them knew what the future would hold for them.
Around the same time, Stan Laurel met Mae Dahlberg and the pair stayed together for around six years although they were never married. It was she that suggested that he change his stage name, which at the time was Stanley Jefferson. She said that it was unlucky due to it having thirteen letters, and so Stanley settled on the name Laurel. Shortly afterward, he landed his first film contract and appeared alongside Mae in the film Mud and Sand in 1922. The contract didn’t last long due to a reorganisation at the Universal studio, but it was enough for Stanley to decide to leave the theatre and concentrate on film making.
His next contract was for 12 films with Joe Rock although one stipulation was that Mae Dahlberg was not allowed to be in any of them as Rock thought that she was having a negative effect on Laurel’s career. She wasn’t going to go away lightly though, and her meddling prompted Rock to offer her cash and a one-way ticket back to her home in Australia, which she accepted in 1925. The 12 films were all 2-reelers. Produced during 1924 and 1925 they included West of Hot Dog, The Snow Hawk and The Sleuth.
On 13 August 1926, Stan Laurel married his first wife Lois Nelson and their daughter, also called Lois was born on 10 December the following year. The couple would then go on to have a son whom they called Stanley in May 1930 but unfortunately, he was born two months premature and only lived for nine days. Laurel and Lois would go on to divorce in December 1934.
Stan Laurel’s next contract was with the Hal Roach studio where he met up again with Oliver Hardy who was working on a film called Yes, Yes, Nanette under the name of Babe Hardy. Stan Laurel had initially signed with Hal Roach with the intention of writing and directing but when Oliver Hardy was injured and hospitalised, Stan filled in for him. When Hardy returned to work, the pair began to work together and from 1927 appeared in several short films including Duck Soup and With Love and Hisses. It was obvious that the pair had chemistry and they had also become good friends. This along with the audience reactions to their films led to them being teamed up for more, culminating in the Laurel and Hardy series later in the year.
The pair made a large number of short and feature films over the next few years and in 1932 they won an Academy Award for Best Short Subject for The Music Box.
A contract dispute between Stan Laurel and Hal Roach led to a short period where they didn’t work together but Stanley returned to the studio after the case was dropped. The films made after this period included A Chump at Oxford and their last film for Hal Roach, Saps at Sea.
In 1935 Stan Laurel married Virginia Ruth Rogers, known as Ruth, but in 1937 he filed for divorce stating that he hadn’t gotten over Lois. However, after Lois decided that reconciliation wasn’t a good idea he went on to marry Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, better known as Illeana. This marriage was very volatile and the pair divorced in 1940. In 1941 Stanley remarried Ruth but they divorced again in 1946. On 6 May the same year, Stanley tried marriage for the fourth time when he married Ida Kitaeva Raphael. This time it would last as the pair remained married until Stanley’s death.
Laurel and Hardy signed for 20th Century Fox in 1941 and were contracted to make ten films over the next five years. Initially, they were only signed as actors but as the films became massively popular, they were granted more freedom to add their own material. Six of the films were completed before Fox suddenly canceled all B movie film production in 1944.
After the second world war, Laurel and Hardy undertook a tour of the United Kingdom, including a Royal Variety Performance in front of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, allowing Stanley to revisit his music hall days. The pair were met by huge excited crowds of people everywhere they went and they were somewhat bemused by how popular they were outside of the USA. The tour was in fact so popular that Laurel and Hardy spent the next seven years on the road touring around the UK and Europe.
Shortly afterward, Stanley found that he had diabetes and he encouraged Oliver Hardy to find some solo projects, which he did, starring alongside John Wayne and Bing Crosby. In 1950, the pair were invited to make a film in France, which they did, but both were seen to be ill during filming and the resulting film was a disaster. They returned to the USA to recuperate but in 1952 and 1953 they toured Europe again. However, Stanley fell ill during the tour and was unable to perform for a number of weeks. The tour was ultimately canceled in May 1954 after Oliver Hardy had a heart attack.
A television series called Laurel and Hardy’s Fabulous Fables was being planned during 1955 but the plans were delayed when Stan Laurel suffered a stroke. He recovered from this but as the pair were planning on getting back to work Oliver suffered a massive stroke which led to him retiring. He died on 7 August 1957, something which Stanley never really got over, refusing to perform either on film or on stage.
Stan Laurel had always been a heavy smoker but he suddenly quit in 1960. However, in January 1965, he had a number of x-rays taken due to an infection on the roof of his mouth. He suffered from a heart attack on 19 February the same year and four days later, at the age of 74, he died.
He was interred at Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills Cemetery. According to IMDB, Stan Laurel appeared in 188 films. He also has 60 writing credits and 12 Director credits. Stanley once quipped that “If anyone at my funeral has a long face, I’ll never speak to him again”. At the funeral, Buster Keaton said, “Chaplin wasn’t the funniest. I wasn’t the funniest; this man was the funniest.”