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From the Archives: Film Comic Stan Laurel Dies at 74

From the Archives: Film Comic Stan Laurel Dies at 74
Oliver Hardy, left, and Stan Laurel during a break in the filming of "Towed in a Hole." (John Kobal Foundation / Getty Images)

Stan Laurel, the skinny and bewildered half of the famed Laurel and Hardy comedy team, died Tuesday of a heart attack. He was 74.

An invalid since he had a stroke in 1955, the lovable comic suffered a heart seizure Monday night and the fatal attack at 1:45 p.m. Tuesday.

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His wife, Ida, and a nurse were at his side when he died in his small apartment at 849 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica.

Laurel's physician, Dr. John H. Parrott, said the first attack was so severe that Laurel could not be moved to a hospital. However, the comedian was conscious when Dr. Parrott saw him Tuesday morning.

Kept on Joking

"It was the first time I'd seen him that he didn't crack some kind of a joke," the doctor said. "He'd had severe illnesses before, but they never stopped him from joking.

"I think he knew his time had come, but he didn't say anything because he didn't want to alarm his wife."

During his last night, Laurel was cared for by Ralph Downs, the same male nurse who attended Oliver Hardy before the latter's death in 1957.

Most Successful Duo

Hardy, the fat and pompous know-it-all, and Laurel, the sad-eyed, squeaky-voiced simpleton, were the most successful comedy duo in movie history.

Laurel, living in semi-seclusion the last 10 years, never stopped getting fan mail from all over the world.

When he was hospitalized for a diabetic condition nearly a year ago, officials at Valley Doctors Hospital said "bushels of mail, mostly from kids" poured in. Although Laurel felt he hadn't made a good film since the 1930s, he was proud of the mail.

On the wall of his apartment hung an autographed picture of the late President Kennedy, which "just came in the mail one day," he said.

His long-lived popularity was due largely to showings of Laurel and Hardy films on television, but Laurel refused to watch such televised shows.

"I never watch myself on TV any more," he told The Times' Doug Mauldin in a rare interview last year.

"Everything is completely chopped. The important routines are ruined.

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Didn't Upset Him

"But it doesn't upset me. I don't care. Why would I? There's nothing I can do about it."

Nor could Laurel do anything about the fact that he didn't make a penny from the endless re-runs of his films.

Laurel and Hardy made their movies for a flat salary and were left empty-handed when their work continued to reap millions.

In recent years, Laurel was confined to his modern, unpretentious, one-bedroom apartment overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He received a small pension from the Screen Actors Guild.

Had 'Great Life'

"It's been a great life," Laurel said in 1961, "and I'm happy that I have made people forget some of their sorrows—but it would have been nice to have made a little money along the way. I'm not complaining. I've got all I want in this little apartment."

Laurel made the remark when he was visited by Marcel Marceau, the Frenchman who generally is rated the world's greatest mime.

"I am now in the home of ze master," said Marceau. "I learned my art from watching Laurel and Hardy movies."

In about 100 shorts and 27 full-length films—the best made at the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City—Laurel played the innocent, bungling scamp who unfailingly brought catastrophe to the 300-pound dunderhead "Babe" Hardy.

In 1933 the pair won an Academy Award for a short film, "The Music Box."

The partnership of Laurel and Hardy was unique in that they never quarreled.

"We had different hobbies," Laurel observed. "He liked horses and golf. You know my hobby—and I married them all."

Oliver Laurel and Stan Hardy.
Oliver Laurel and Stan Hardy. (The Hollywood Museum)

Married Eight Times

Laurel married four women a total of eight times and had a fifth sue to be declared his wife. His marriages brought him a series of legal squabbles in the 1930s.

He had a daughter, now Mrs. A.R. Brooks by his first marriage. Mrs. Brooks, of 5329 Tampa Ave., Tarzana, and her husband, parents of two children, hurried to the Laurel apartment Tuesday afternoon.

Laurel married his last wife, Ida Kitaeva, a Russian singer, in 1946.

Always the melancholy fool in films, Laurel's off-screen personality was exactly the opposite.

Quick-Witted Man

Those who knew him in his final years recall a white-haired man with a polka-dot bowtie, a quick wit and a loud belly-laugh.

In his film-making days, he planned and directed many of the films.

"We devised most of our own plots . . . frequently improvising as we thought of this funny thing or that funny thing." he said, adding that the job was "bloody hard work."

Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in Ulverston, Eng., June 16, 1890, to theatrical parents. He grew up touring with theatrical companies, and later attended Mames Grammar School, Gainford High School and Tynemouth College.

Made Debut at 7

He made his stage debut playing a newsboy at the age of 7. At 15, he toured Europe with a song-and-dance act. At 17, he joined Fred Arno's London Comedians and spent some time as understudy to the troupe's star, Charlie Chaplin.

The troupe arrived in New York in 1910 on a cattle boat and Laurel toured with them for three years before entering vaudeville.

He made his first silent picture in 1917 but it was in 1926, when he was directing comedy shorts for Hall Roach, that Laurel was asked to replace a sick actor in a skit with an overweight comic called Ollie Hardy.

The pair clicked, going on to their greatest success in talking films.

"We tried not to copy anybody's style," Laurel once recalled. "Nobody lifted gags in my time like they do now. There was more ethics then, hence more creativity."

If he had it to do over, Laurel said recently, he wouldn't have changed a thing—with the exception of his last films in the '40s.

"Those films were terrible," he said. "We quit too late."

Shocked and Saddened

Laurel's death brought an immediate reaction from Dana Andrews, president of the Screen Actors Guild, who said:

"We are shocked and saddened by the passing of Stan Laurel, who was so gifted and full of talent. We are glad that just a little over a year ago, Stan Laurel was presented the Annual Screen Actors Guild award 'for outstanding achievement in foster the finest ideals of the acting profession and advancing the principles of good citizenship.' "

In addition to his wife, daughter and grandchildren, Laurel leaves a sister in England.

Funeral services are pending at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park Hollywood Hills.

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