John McCabe

Shakespeare scholar who wrote biographies of Laurel and Hardy
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The Independent Online

John McCabe was best known for his biographies, jointly and separately, of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. His first book about the comedy team, Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy, was published in 1961 and cemented the pair's reputation in critical and academic circles. In addition to his activities as a writer, McCabe was, variously, an actor (on stage from the age of seven), Shakespeare scholar and professor at the Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan, where for many years he headed the Department of Drama and Theatre Arts.

McCabe was born in 1920, in Detroit, and became one of many of his generation whose academic careers were interrupted by the Second World War. From 1943 to 1945 he served in Europe as a sergeant with the United States Army Air Forces, then returned to the University of Detroit, where he gained a degree in 1947. The following year he took a master's in Theatre from Fordham University and started his teaching career at Wayne State University, Detroit. In 1954 he received a PhD in English from the Shakespeare Institute, Birmingham University.

It was while in England that Jack McCabe first met Laurel and Hardy, who were on their third and final post-war variety tour of Europe. During 1953 McCabe was living in Stratford-upon-Avon and commuting weekly to the university library in Birmingham. On one such visit, he saw that the comedy duo were advertised at a local theatre in something called "Birds of a Feather". Rather than being one of their films - all of which he knew at least by title - McCabe discovered this to be a personal appearance in a new sketch.

After seeing the show, he decided to go backstage and meet them, a decision made - for the only time in his life - by the flip of a coin. McCabe admired the kindness and courtesies of the British, tenets to which he also adhered, and he recognised these attributes immediately in Laurel and Hardy, both in character and, as it turned out, in private, a revelation he later described as "rather like discovering that Santa Claus really existed".

Although McCabe's acquaintance with Oliver Hardy was to be cut short by the comedian's subsequent ill-health and death in 1957, he formed a lengthy, close friendship with Stan Laurel. McCabe had lost his father, an engineer, when still a child and Laurel came to fill that role for him. "I think all the things one looks for in a father, I certainly found in him," he said later, "above all, that glorious sense of humour."

Their association led in 1961 to the publication of McCabe's authorised biography of the comedians, Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy. The book was important in establishing belated critical appreciation of their work and, perhaps of equal value, drawing sufficient fan mail to suggest a need to provide a central focus for the team's admirers.

Following the pattern of the Sherlock Holmes society "The Baker Street Irregulars", of which he was also a member, McCabe established a group with "scholarly overtones" called the Sons of the Desert, after a fictitious lodge in the 1933 Laurel & Hardy film of that name (which also yielded a Laurel malapropism, bestowing upon McCabe the title "Exhausted Ruler"). McCabe drew up a tongue-in-cheek constitution, to which Laurel provided what the ever-meticulous McCabe insisted should be called "emendations". Sadly, Laurel died shortly before the group's inaugural meeting in 1965. The society in time became international and continues to thrive.

McCabe went on to write individual biographies of the two men, The Comedy World of Stan Laurel (1974) and Babe: the life of Oliver Hardy (1989), in addition to a 1975 volume called simply Laurel & Hardy, detailing their films together.

He was asked to write Charlie Chaplin (1978) on the strength of the extensive notes he had taken of Stan Laurel's comments on Chaplin, whom Laurel had understudied while in Fred Karno's music-hall troupe. Another of McCabe's biographical works was George M. Cohan: the man who owned Broadway (1973). He was brought in to ghost-write the memoirs of James Cagney (published in 1976 as Cagney by Cagney), who had portrayed Cohan in the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy. McCabe's own biography of the actor, Cagney, was published in 1997.

Jack McCabe wore his vast erudition lightly and applied it without pomposity. It was perhaps for this reason that he formed so many long-term friendships with people from varying walks of life. He was also a member of several theatrical clubs - the Players, the Lambs, the Shakespeare Association of America, Actors Equity Association and the Catholic Actors Guild. His exceptional vocabulary and sense of fun were combined into a group he co-founded at Lake Superior State University, the "Unicorn Hunters," among whose activities was the compilation of an annual list of "banned words", their selection governed by fashionable over-use.

In examining the parallels between Oliver Hardy and the producer Hal Roach - they were born only four days apart - McCabe once wrote that "both were big men; both had a zesty, Falstaffian respect for life". In these respects McCabe could just as easily have been describing himself. The same might be said of his description of Stan Laurel as a kind, generous man who was none the less capable, when justified, of "what the Old Testament calls righteous anger".

During his retirement, on Mackinac Island in Michigan, McCabe continued his interests in theatre by giving annual Shakespeare readings and through the staging of revivals. Among his many other books, several of them academic studies, was a novel, Unperfect Actor - its title drawn from Shakespeare's 23rd sonnet - blending autobiographical elements with fiction. Although he sent me a copy of the typescript in the mid-1990s, the novel remains unpublished.

McCabe's first marriage, in 1958, was to Vija Valda Zarina, a Latvian ballet teacher, and they had three children. A year after Vija's death in 1983, while in Britain for an international convention of the Sons of the Desert (the first to be held outside America), McCabe became acquainted with a fellow guest, Rosina Lawrence, who in the 1930s had appeared in films at the Roach studio (notably as the heroine of Laurel and Hardy's Way Out West), and they were married in 1987. Rosina died 10 years later; McCabe married his third wife, Karen, in 2003.

Glenn Mitchell