Norvell Hardy was born on January 18, 1892 in Harlem, Georgia, U.S.A. His father, Oliver Hardy, died in November of the same year, and to honour the father he never knew, Norvell would later assume his father’s first name.
His mother, Emily Norvell, raised her five children alone, and managed or owned small hotels and boarding houses in Madison and Milledgeville, Georgia.
Young Oliver wasn’t an easy child to raise. He had no interest in education, but took an early liking to music. In 1900, he ran away from home to join the ‘Coburn’s Minstrels’. He returned home after a couple of weeks.
Between 1906 and 1909, Oliver attended various schools, including Georgia’s military academy, but didn’t thrive.
1910 saw the opening of Milledgeville’s first cinema, and Oliver landed a job checking tickets, projecting movies, and cleaning. He also sang during breaks.
He soon became fascinated by the new film industry, and was convinced he could do better than the actors he saw on screen. In 1913, he quit his job, and moved to Jacksonville, Florida, to try his luck in the film busines. He met Madelyn Saloshin and married her on November 17, 1913. The following year, he made his first film, ‘Outwitting Dad’ for the Lubin Film Company. He was alternately billed as Oliver Hardy, O.N. Hardy and Babe Hardy. He got the nickname ‘Babe’ from an Italian barber near the studio, who, when powdering him after shaving, would say: ‘Nice-a baby’.
By 1915, Oliver Hardy had already appeared in 50 one-reelers for Lubin. After a brief time in New York, he returned to Jacksonville, where he collaborated with Chaplin impersonator Billy West.
In 1917, Oliver and Madelyn broke up, and he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a freelance actor for various Hollywood studios, and became the regular costar of at first Jimmy Aubrey, and later star comedian Larry Semon at the Vitagraph Studio. He played the tin man in Larry Semon’s version of ‘The Wizard of Oz’. He would remain with this studio until 1924. In 1920, Oliver and Madelyn’s divorce became official.
In 1921, he had a supporting role in ‘The Lucky Dog’, a two-reeler featuring Stan Laurel. That same year, he married Myrtle Reever, who he had mat at Vitagraph.
In 1925, Oliver Hardy made his first film at Hal Roach Studios as a freelance actor, and was directed by Stan Laurel in ‘Yes, Yes, Nanette’. In June 1926, he signed permanently with the Hal Roach Studios. That year, a leg of lamb would change the future of both Laurel and Hardy. Oliver Hardy was to play a role in ‘Get ‘Em Young’, but burnt his arm while cooking a leg of lamb at home, and had to forfeit. Due to cast changes, Stan Laurel, who was supposed to direct the film, played the part. From then on, Laurel and Hardy would regularly act in the same films, albeit not as a team.
Leo McCarey, Hal Roach Studios’ principal director, noted the public enthousiastic reactin when Stan and Oliver were together in the same scene, and started to give them increasingly more screen time together, resulting in the Laurel and Hardy film series starting in 1927. With Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, he created the most famous comedy team ever, and short films were produced at a fast rate, including such gems as ‘The Battle of the Century’, ‘Two Tars’, and ‘Big Business’.
Laurel and Hardy easily made the transition to sound films, because their voices matched their screen characters, and talkies accentuated their comedic talents even more. After initial resistance from Stan, who thought their style didn’t suit feature films, they made their feature film debut ‘Pardon Us’ in 1931, although they would continue to produce shorts until 1935.
Outside the studio, Oliver Hardy loved playing card games, betting at horse races, nice meals and a good glass of wine. He liked to attend boxing matches and was a skilled golf player. He displayed a lack of interest for cutting, dialogues and other creative aspects of the L&H films. He was quite happy to leave that to others, especially to Stan Laurel.
Oliver’s marriage to Myrtle Reeves didn’t fare well because of her problems with alcohol and spells of depression, and for several years, Oliver carried on an affair with Viola Morse, with whom he was also seen in public. In 1936, he divorced Myrtle, and everyone expected him to marry Viola. But that didn’t happen.
For years, Laurel and Hardy had separate contracts with Hal Roach Studios, which expired at different times, because it allowed Hal Roach to fully control his star comedians. In 1939, Stan refused to renew his contract until the team could sign up together. During those months, Oliver and Harry Langdon made ‘Zenobia’. Shortly afterwards, Laurel and Hardy signed a new contract with Roach, and were lent to the independent General Services Studio to shoot ‘The Flying Deuces’. On the set, Oliver fell madly in love with scriptgirl Lucille Jones. They were married in Las Vegas on March 7, 1940, and the marriage would last until his death.
In 1941, Laurel and Hardy’s professional career began to go downhill. After leaving Hal Roach, they signed with 20th Century-Fox, and later with MGM. Contrary to what they expected, they had little input and control over the films. They realized these films didn’t compare to their previous work at Roach, but they needed the money, as both Stan and Oliver had to pay a lot of alimony to their ex-wives.
Eventually, they didn’t renew their contracts, but in 1947 went to Europe for a six-week tour across England. The tour eventually lasted for seven months, and culminated in performances in Scandinavia, France, and Belgium.
Exhausted, they returned to America, where Stan Laurel was diagnosed with diabetes, and was prescribed a long rest. Oliver Hardy was offered a small part in a charity performance of ‘What Price Glory’ with John Wayne and directed gy John ford. John Wayne was impressed with Oliver’s acting performance, and invited him to costar in his next film ‘The Fighting Kentuckian’ (1949). At first, Oliver refused because he wanted to remain loyal to the Laurel and Hardy team, but Stan convinced him to accept the part. Frank Capra was also charmed by Oliver’s performanced, and in 1950 hired him for a cameo in ‘Riding High’ with Bing Crosby.
In 1951, Laurel and Hardy made their final film in France. ‘Atoll K’ was an international production, and the shooting schedule got completely out of hand because the actors and screenwriters spoke different languages and didn’t understand each other. To make matters even worse, both Stan and Oliver got ill. Stan had to undergo a prostate operation, and Oliver suffered from heart trouble.
After returning to America, both comedians needed to get their strength back. They had already reconciled to a well-earned retirement, when they were offered another British tour, which they did in 1953 and 1954, to great acclaim.
In 1955, the new medium television seemed to herald a new future for the team. Hal Roach, Jr. had offered them a contract for a series of television films based the Tales of Mother Goose. It wasn’t meant to be. Shortly before shooting of the first film ‘Babes in the Woods’ was to begin, Stan suffered a stroke, necessitating a long recovery period. Later that year, Oliver suffered two major heart attacks from which he would never recover.
After a series of heart attacks, Oliver ‘Babe’ Hardy died on August 7, 1957. His ashes were interred in the Masonic Gardon of Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood.
Oliver Hardy has a star on the ‘Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 1500 Vine Street.