Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century 8: Oliver Hardy, comedian

IT'S TRUE what they say. Look up Oliver Hardy in any film encyclopedia and you will find: "See Stan Laurel". And it's not just because people naturally think of "Laurel and Hardy" when they are thumbing though these books. By the time Stan received a special Academy Award in 1960 for his "creative pioneering in the field of cinema comedy", his reputation as the imaginative force behind Laurel and Hardy was pretty much as firmly set as those hand-prints on the sidewalk outside Graumenns' Chinese Theatre in LA.

It ought to be said that at the time of the award Ollie (born Norvell) had been dead three years from a stroke. But the division of labour was common knowledge within the industry from their earliest shorts.

David Thomson, in his A Biographical Dictionary of Film, quotes Leo McCarey, the duo's earliest and most creative director. "Laurel was remarkably talented, while Hardy wasn't. Throughout their lives, Laurel insisted on earning twice as much as Hardy. He said he was twice as good and twice as important... while Hardy was really incapable of creating anything at all. It was astonishing that he could even find his way to the studio."

Charming. Understandably, given the above - and despite their more than 100 films together - the two never socialised together. Ollie, it seems, was content just to turn up and have whitewash or custard, or whatever Stan had dreamt up, thrown over him.

There is something endearing about such a non-neurotic, non-driven approach to comedy. Turn up, take 50 custard pies in the face, wash, go home. Perhaps it had something to do with Stan's and Ollie's respective backgrounds.

Laurel was a Lancastrian by birth - a musical hall performer who went to the US in 1910 at the age of 20, spending the 17 years before he was eventually teamed with Hardy struggling his way through vaudeville and then as one of the comic hopefuls on the roster of the legendary silent producer Hal Roach. In later life, it seems, he could talk through all his films, move by move.

Hardy, however, had a much more leisurely upbringing in the American Deep South, attending music college and military academy before dropping out of law school to open up his own cinema in Harlem, Georgia. He was never known to talk about his movies. There was less grit in Ollie than in Stan. Ollie, as befits his bourgeois background, was always the one trying to keep up appearances. But the public did not love him any the less for it. If anything, they loved him more.

And Stan and Ollie were adored by all - including Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin - bridging the gap between the aspirational comedy of silent movies and the more chaotic knockabout of the talkie Thirties. In Germany, ironically given their respective talent and intelligence, they were known as "Dick and Doof" - fat and dumb.

And now the film critics, at last, are slowly but surely turning Ollie's way. "Presence is sometimes as creative as ideas," writes David Thomson. "In submitting endlessly to disaster, he took upon himself the mantle of suffering that has always earned more laughs..." And this is Leo McCarey again, this time describing Ollie playing the part of a maitre d' carrying a big cake:

"As he steps through a doorway, he falls and finds himself on the floor, his head buried in the cake. I shouted to him, `Don't move! Above all, don't move! Stay like that; the cake should burn your face!' And, for a minute and a half, the public couldn't stop laughing."

In truth, Laurel and Hardy needed each other. Ollie was the accidental hero, because he was the passive one - the canvas on which Stan's creativity was let rip.