Oliver Hardy: The Fat One

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website or at Facebook.

Norvell Hardy, who was to gain world fame as one half of the legendary movie comedy team of Laurel and Hardy, was born on January 18th, 1892, in Harlem, Georgia. He was the fifth and youngest child of Oliver Hardy and Emily Norvell (young Norvell had two half-sisters and two half- brothers). Oliver Hardy was a confederate veteran who was wounded at the battle of Antietam in 1862. Sadly, he was never to get to know his father, as Oliver Hardy was to die in the first year of Norvell's life (he passed away on November 22, 1892).

He faced another childhood tragedy when his older brother Sam died in drowning accident. Norvell fished his brother's body out of the water and tried to resuscitate him, but Sam was already dead.

Almost from day one (possibly to compensate for these early childhood tragedies) young Norvell had huge appetite. According to family lore, his mother once baked 20 buttermilk biscuits, only to watch in amazement as little Norvell ate all 20. For the remainder of his life, as a child, a teen, and an adult, Hardy was to be obese, his weight, at it's peak, reaching 350 pounds. His ravenous appetite caused him to be overweight from an early age, and Norvell had to deal with the taunts of "Fatty! Fatty!" from the other kids.

He soon realized that laughter brought him balm and pleasure. If the other kids laughed with you, they couldn't laugh at you. Norvell loved to umpire the local baseball games and ham it up, calling out "Steeeriiiike threeeee!".

Once, a wild bear got loose and chased him up a tree. Even in this terrifying situation, Norvell caused great laughter, as he shouted out from the tree top, "Lord, if you don't help me, please don't help the bear!!"

A born entertainer, Norvell developed a very melodic singing voice at family sing-a-longs. At the age of eight, he ran away from home and joined a troupe called Coburn's Minstrels, who he briefly toured with. After returning home, he was enrolled in a local boarding school, which he hated, causing him to run away again.

When he returned home, Emily, realizing what a great singing voice he had, sent him to receive singing lessons in Atlanta from the distinguished Adolf Dahm-Peterson. Norvell often skipped his lessons, instead earning $3.50 a week singing at the local Alcazar Theater. Returning home once more, Hardy's mother (probably to discipline him) put him in a military academy, which, as would be expected, the rambunctious Norvell hated. He was enrolled briefly at Young Harris college, but his heart was obviously in entertaining.

Around 1910, two important things happened in the life of Norvell Hardy. First, he changed his name from Norvell to Oliver Hardy. One story says he changed his name because he was advised to by a psychic or a numerologist, but possibly, he simply took on the name of his late, lamented father.

Second, he opened the first-ever movie theater in Milledgeville, Georgia. Ollie, besides being the movie theater's manager, was also its janitor, ticket taker, and projectionist. While watching and studying the movies on screen, Oliver thought he could act just as well, if not better, than the actors he saw.

He moved to Jacksonville, Florida, in hopes of finding employment as a movie actor with the Lubin Movie Company. Willing and eager, young Ollie soon started getting cast in various roles in Lubin films. In Jacksonville, he was to meet his first wife, a pianist named Madelyn Soloshin, who he was to be married to until 1921.

Also during this early period of his film acting career, he acquired his lifelong nickname "Babe". According to Hardy, when he would go in to get a haircut at the local barber shop, a colorful Italian barber would pat his cheeks, pat talcum powder on his face, and say "Atsa nice bay-bee, atsa nice bay-bee!" Kiddingly, the other actors started calling him "Baby", which was soon shortened to "Babe".

Oliver worked as a cabaret and vaudeville singer at night and worked for the Lubin company during the day. He made his first movie Outwitting Dad in 1914. Working under the name Babe Hardy, he was to act in an incredible total of 250 silent movies (150 of which are now lost).

Over the next decade, Hardy worked at various film studios, including Pathe, Casino and Edison. He usually played a "heavy" (he loved  that joke) in his films (a "heavy" in films is a "bad guy" or villain.)

While Ollie was acting in films in 1917, he was to face a terrible experience. Right after the U.S. declared their entrance into World War I, the 25-year-old Hardy, flush with patriotic fervor, rushed to the local enlistment center and asked to sign up.

The recruiter, seeing the 250-pound hopeful, burst out laughing, He called to a fellow recruiter, "Hey Harry, look what wants to enlist." The two laughed hysterically as poor Ollie left the enlistment office in shame. One can only imaging the effect this cruel incident had on poor "Babe" Hardy.

On a happier note, in 1917, he played a bit part in a movie called The Lucky Dog, which featured a 27-year-old British comedian named Stan Laurel. Stan and Ollie appeared onscreen for the first time in that one scene (where villain Ollie robs Stan at gunpoint) and the two parted ways.

He continued working in various roles (Ollie played the Tin Man in the original screen version of The Wizard of Oz in 1925) for the next nine years. In 1926, Ollie was scheduled to work in a film called Get 'Em Young, but accidentally burned his leg on a hot leg of lamb and was unable to work. He was replaced by then director/gag man Stan Laurel.

Stan and Ollie both appeared in the 1926 film 45 minutes to Hollywood, but not in the same scenes. In 1927, the two were teamed up in the film Putting Pants on Phillip and an immortal movie comedy team was born. Stan and Ollie were a hit with the public almost immediately and were to be comedy pair for the next nearly quarter of a century.

Although they started in silents, Stan and Ollie were soon forced to convert to the talkies. Fortunately, their voices perfectly fit their characters, and, unlike so many silent actors, they successfully made the conversion to talkies.

Ollie's fastidious, pompous, self-important screen character, he claimed, was derived from a then-popular comic strip character called "Helpful Henry." Hardy recalled the character as always trying to help, but instead always messed things up. This was to be the basic plot of most of the Laurel and Hardy films.

Stan and Ollie made scores of shorts and feature films together throughout the 1930's, as well as touring their act around the world and giving many live performances. (the boys were to win an Academy Award for "best live action comedy short" for their short film The Music Box in 1932). Their working relationship was simple, Stan was "the brains" of the act, thinking up gags, writing scripts, and helping to direct.

Off the set, Ollie did what he loved best- playing golf. He had been introduced to the game in the mid-teens and had developed a lifelong addiction to the sport. Besides golf, Ollie enjoyed going to the races, singing, dancing, playing cards, gourmet cooking and rooting for his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team.

In 1939, Ollie met the great love of his life. Lucille Jones was the script girl on the boy's feature film Flying Deuces.

At first, the two disliked each other, Lucille thinking Ollie was a pompous jerk. But one day, a light fell from the rafters and knocked Lucille unconscious. Looking at her face while she lay unconscious on the ground, Ollie saw how beautiful she was. He often visited Lucille in the hospital, bringing flowers, and the two soon fell in love. They married in March of 1940.

Stan and Ollie's films grew progressively worse through the 1940s. Leaving the Hal Roach studios, where they made their classic shorts, they moved to MGM and were put into a series of very mediocre features. Besides working on the Laurel and Hardy films, Ollie proved himself a very adept character actor, playing John Wayne's sidekick in an entertaining western called The Fighting Kentuckian in 1949. The boys made their final film together, a monstrosity called Atoll K in 1951.

By the mid-fifties, retired from making films, Ollie grew severely overweight, ballooning from 250 to 350 pounds (he was also a chronic smoker). Worried about his health, Ollie tried a severe crash diet, but ironically, it was the worst thing he could have done. His rapid weight loss probably contributed more to his upcoming health problems than the excess weight.

He had a major stroke in September 1956. Confined to bed, Ollie was never to leave it for the remainder of his life. Rendered speechless by the stroke, when his former partner Stan would come to visit him, the two would communicate by miming and mimicry, never speaking a word.

Oliver Norvell "Babe" Hardy, after a torturous, final, bedridden year, finally passed away on August 7, 1957. His last words were "I love you," spoken to his beloved Lucille, who had loyally nursed him during his final days.

(YouTube link)

(Title image credit: Eddie Vadim)

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If you are ever near Ulverston in England, take a tour of the walled gardens and dine at the Stan Laurel House. It was his home town and they are very proud of him. It is the launching point for the Cumbria Way and therefore has many good B&Bs.
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My favorite comic team. That they really loved and admired each other's talents is wonderful. And each was certain that the other was the secret to their success.

Don't know if it's apocryphal, but there's a great story of Ollie and Stan touring London. Great swarms of people came out to see them. A reporter pulled each aside and asked what they thought of the reception. Ollie said something to the effect of "They really love Stan, don't they?" Stan: "It's wonderful how much they love Babe."

Thanks for another great one, Eddie.
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