“Fat and skinny guys comin’!”
That’s how a Nebraska playmate of mine would burble the news that, if Saturday would ever come, we’d be once again rolling with laughter at Stan and Ollie. Twice. We’d learned how not to get caught, sitting through for the second showing.
If someone had told me then that I would one day meet a member of that beloved team, my mind would have had no way of processing the thought.
I’d be as likely to meet Donald Duck.
Just out of school and working as a copyboy at Time, I returned a folder to the “L” section of a file shelf and noticed the next folder said, “Laurel, Stan.” It was 1960. Who knew he was alive?
Fade down and back up.
I was a writer now with Jack Paar and the show was in Los Angeles for two weeks. A note to Mr. Laurel had gotten an immediate response, self-typed, beginning with an almost courtly, “Dear Dick Cavett, Thank you for your letter, containing such kind sentiments, so graciously expressed.” Also within was a postcard-size photo of Laurel & Hardy (beside his smiling face he had penned, “Hi, Dick!”) — and an invitation to visit him in Santa Monica. (Where, unbelievably, he was in the phone book!)
It came to pass. For maybe the first time in my life I was ready, dressed and combed an hour before it was time to go.
I drove slowly to Santa Monica and the Oceana Apartments, facing the sea. There on the side of the building was the same logo as on Laurel’s apartment stationery. This somehow confirmed that, far from dreaming, I actually was about to meet the man who helped the fat man struggle and wrestle and heave that piano up that long flight of steps in “The Music Box.”
Inside. The desk.
“Mr. Laurel, please.”
A dreary, bored clerk, without looking up: “204, up those stairs.”
He didn’t seem part of the magic.
I took a breath, rang, the door opened, and my not having met Stan Laurel abruptly ended.
“Well, lad, it certainly is nice to meet you.”
There he stood. No derby. No silly grin. No shrill, squeaky crying to “I didn’t mean it, Ollie…” Just a nice-looking gent in a white shirt and tie and a warm, welcoming manner. The face was fuller but the eyes — and the ears — were instantly familiar.
But there was one thing to certify who it was. The slight speech impediment. The familiar Laurel fricative on the “s” sound. (Webster: fricative: frictional passage of the expired breath through a narrowing at some point in the vocal tract.) Every impersonator of Laurel, including me, does it. I spared him my version.
On people who “do” him: “I suppose it’s flattering. I like when Chuck McCann and Dick Van Dyke do me.” But, he said, there was a guy who asked to come over “and the whole time he was here he talked in my voice. It was so goddamn embarrassing I didn’t know where to look.”
The apartment was at best three rooms, modern furniture, with a commanding view of the sea. His honorary Oscar was on the TV, a rather small framed photo of L & H on the wall. No other showbiz mementos. We sat, with tea.
“I just today got a lovely letter. You might like to read it.”
He was justly proud. It was two pages, beautifully handwritten, praising his work in films with detailed appreciations of his comic techniques, ending with, “I have always attempted to emulate you in so many ways in my work.”
It was signed, “Alec Guinness.”
I told him how it irritated me in reading Charlie Chaplin’s recent and redundantly titled “My Autobiography” that there was no mention of Laurel. And yet we learn in a photo caption that the two of them arrived on the same boat from England with the Karno troupe. I said, peevishly, “I guess the great man didn’t want his historic entrance to America diluted by sharing it with another great comedian.”
His sweet reply: “I don’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with Charlie.”
Neither he nor “Babe” Hardy, as he always referred to him, got a cent of the millions raked in on their movies on TV. Stan — and he had insisted I call him that — said he didn’t mind the money, but it killed him to see the films cut up to sell peanut butter and used cars.Associated PressActors Stan Laurel, left, and Oliver Hardy in 1945.
“I hated to see the interruptions hurt the gags. I wrote to the distributor and offered to re-cut the films for them for free, but they never answered my letter.”
“Were you never hurt? Amidst all those explosions and car wrecks and floods and crashing through floors and falling bricks and…”
“Only once. Between takes, I was talking and stepped backwards off a curb and twisted my ankle.”
An eon after making their last films, Stan said the mechanism still hums. “I still dream up gags for Babe and me. The other day I thought of having a doorbell ring in the other room and Babe says, ‘Stanley, go get the door.’ And I come back with the door.” We laughed.
Another one. Stan has had a profound thought and Ollie asks what it is. “You can’t strike a match on a cake of soap.” We agreed the door gag was better.
Stanley Kramer, he said, had offered him “a nice chunk of money” to appear for just a couple of quick shots in his “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” movie.
Stan declined. “I just didn’t want the kids to see how different I look.”
The phone rang and he apologized for having to deal with some business. I picked up a magazine, pretending to read, while trying to fuse the screen Laurel with the well-spoken, businesslike figure on the phone. Where in that body was the dim-witted, bleak-faced, haplessly gesturing silly we know so well?
The closest you yourself can get to this contrast is in “A Chump at Oxford.” Stan, at Oxford, is bumped hard on the head by a falling window and instantly reverts to a time in his life when he was a British lord. He plays the subsequent scenes with a faultless upper-class accent, complete with dressing gown, monacle and long cigarette-holder. He could be doing Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter.” (Hilariously, he repeatedly refers to Oliver, now his man-servant, as “Fatty.” Ollie winces.)
He liked that I singled this out. “It’s the only place people could see that maybe I’m not a total buffoon.”
I asked about stories that he and Hardy never saw each other off screen. He said rumors of feuds and coldness were phony. But there was a priceless and somewhat revealing story.
He said he dropped by Hardy’s apartment with a present on Christmas morning and that it was instantly clear that Hardy had gotten nothing for Stan.
“Babe sort of frantically looked around under the Christmas tree and spotted an unwrapped, very expensive bottle of bourbon. He picked it up, looked at it fondly and apparently realized that it was in fact a very fine bottle of bourbon. He held it out toward me. ‘You can almost never find this brand here in Los Angeles’ he said, putting it back.”
Stan laughed heartily.
He told me he learned early on in directing Babe to save his “burns” — that great, full-screen, exasperated, direct-to-camera stare of Hardy’s — until the end of the day, “when he couldn’t wait to get out of his costume and out to the golf course before it got any later … I got some great burns that way.”
Stan would stay at the studio, working into the night, editing.
A sensitive point: In my maturity, I’ve had to agree with Woody Allen that Hardy is the finer screen comedian. His precision of movement and delicacy of gesture is a thing of beauty. His work is scaled perfectly to the screen. Stan, coming from the vaudeville stage, is sometimes a bit too broad for the camera.
There is a sad quote from Hardy somewhere, wondering if he had had a valuable life, “just pulling silly faces for a camera.” Oliver Hardy was an artist to his fingertips. But the affection goes to Stan.
During my visit, as he took another brief phone call, leaning back in his desk chair with his back to the sea, I noticed that the sun was beginning to set. The symbolism was a bit too much. We parted. I said “good-bye” and he said, “Let’s make that ‘au revoir.’” What a class act.
Back at the studio I told Jack Paar where I’d been and he asked me to quickly write a brief tribute to Stan for that night’s show. It played well and Stan was delighted.
Some years later, while I was working for Johnny Carson, Stan was in the hospital for a time, I got a letter from him that included the line, “Johnny Carson came to the hospital to visit me. Gave me quite a lift.” I gave Johnny the letter; too dumb even to copy it.
Over time, more visits and letters followed right up until the time in February 1965 when I walked into Johnny’s office with that day’s joke submission. “You too?” he said, dabbing his eyes. We’d both just seen the news of Stan’s death come over the wires.
“Write me something, Richard,” he said. I did, and with a minute to go at the end of that night’s show, he did it. “A great comedian died today…” it began, and a picture of Stan filled the screen. I don’t remember the rest of it, but Johnny did it beautifully. His voice broke at the end.