Oliver Hardy was born Norvell Hardy in Harlem, Georgia. His father Oliver was a Confederate veteran who had been wounded at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. After his demobilization as a recruiting officer for Company K, 16th Georgia Regiment, the elder Oliver Hardy assisted his father in running the vestiges of the family cotton plantation. He bought a share in a retail business and was elected full-time Tax Collector for Columbia County, Georgia. Norvell's mother Emily Norvell was the daughter of Thomas Benjamin Norvell and Mary Freeman, descended from Captain Hugh Norvell of Williamsburg, Virginia, who had arrived in Virginia before 1635. Hardy and Norvell had married March 12, 1890; it was the second marriage for the widow Emily, and the third for Oliver. He was of paternal English descent and maternal Scottish descent.
The family moved to Madison, Georgia in 1891, before Norvell's birth. Emily Hardy owned a house in Harlem, which was either empty or rented out to tenant farmers. Norvell was likely born in Harlem, though some sources say that his birth occurred in Covington, his mother's hometown. His father died less than a year after his birth. Hardy was the youngest of five children. His older brother Sam Hardy died in a drowning accident in the Oconee River. Hardy pulled his brother from the river but was unable to resuscitate him.
As a child, Hardy was sometimes difficult. He was sent to Georgia Military College in Milledgeville as a youngster. He was sent to Young Harris College in north Georgia in the 1905-1906 school year fall semester (September–January) when he was 13. He was in the junior high component of that institution of the time (the equivalent of high school today).
Hardy had little interest in formal education, although he acquired an early interest in music and theater, possibly from his mother's tenants. He joined a theatrical group and later ran away from a boarding school near Atlanta to sing with the group. His mother recognized his talent for singing and sent him to Atlanta to study music and voice with singing teacher Adolf Dahm-Petersen. Hardy skipped some of his lessons to sing in the Alcazar Theater, a cinema, for US$3.50 a week. He subsequently decided to go back to Milledgeville.
Sometime prior to 1910, Hardy began styling himself "Oliver Norvell Hardy", adding the first name "Oliver" as a tribute to his father. He appeared as "Oliver N. Hardy" in the 1910 U.S. census, and he used "Oliver" as his first name in all subsequent legal records, marriage announcements, etc.
Hardy was initiated into Freemasonry at Solomon Lodge No. 20 in Jacksonville, Florida. His membership is mentioned in the TV interview on an episode of This Is Your Life in 1954. Hardy's mother wanted him to attend the University of Georgia in the fall of 1912 to study law, but there is no evidence that he did.
In 1910, when a movie theater opened in Hardy's hometown of Milledgeville, he became the projectionist, ticket taker, janitor, and manager. He soon became obsessed with the new motion picture industry and was convinced that he could do a better job than the actors he saw. A friend suggested that he move to Jacksonville, Florida, where some films were being made. In 1913, Hardy did just that, working in Jacksonville as a cabaret and vaudeville singer at night, and at the Lubin Manufacturing Company during the day. It was at this time that he met Madelyn Saloshin, a pianist, whom he married on November 17, 1913, in Macon, Georgia.
The next year he made his first movie, Outwitting Dad (1914), for the Lubin studio. He was billed as O. N. Hardy. In his personal life, he was known as "Babe" Hardy, a nickname that he was given by an Italian barber, who would apply talcum powder to Oliver's cheeks and say, "nice-a-bab-y." In many of his later films at Lubin, he was billed as "Babe Hardy." Hardy was a big man at 6'1" tall and weighing up to 300 pounds. His size placed limitations on the roles he could play. He was most often cast as "the heavy" or the villain. He also frequently had roles in comedy shorts, his size complementing the character.
By 1915, Hardy had made 50 short one-reeler films at Lubin. He later moved to New York and made films for the Pathé, Casino and Edison Studios. After returning to Jacksonville, he made films for the Vim Comedy Company. That studio closed after Hardy discovered the owners were stealing from the payroll. He worked for the King Bee studio, which bought Vim. He worked with Bill Ruge, Billy West (a Charlie Chaplin imitator), and comedic actress Ethel Burton Palmer during this time. (Hardy continued playing the "heavy" for West well into the early 1920s, often imitating Eric Campbell to West's Chaplin.)
In 1917 Hardy moved to Los Angeles, working freelance for several Hollywood studios. Between 1918 and 1923, Hardy made more than 40 films for Vitagraph, mostly playing the "heavy" for Larry Semon. In 1919, he separated from his wife, ending with a provisional divorce in November 1920, which was finalized on November 17, 1921. On November 24, 1921, Hardy married again, to actress Myrtle Reeves. This marriage was also unhappy. Reeves was said to have become an alcoholic.
In 1921, he appeared in the movie The Lucky Dog, produced by G.M. ("Broncho Billy") Anderson and starring a young British comedian named Stan Laurel. Oliver Hardy played the part of a robber, trying to stick up Stan's character. They did not work together again for several years. In 1924, Hardy began working at Hal Roach Studios with the Our Gang films and Charley Chase. In 1925, he starred as the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. Also that year he was in the film Yes, Yes, Nanette!, starring Jimmy Finlayson and directed by Stan Laurel. (In later years Finlayson frequently was a supporting actor in the Laurel and Hardy film series.) He also continued playing supporting roles in films featuring Clyde Cooke and Bobby Ray.
In 1926, Hardy was scheduled to appear in Get 'Em Young. He was unexpectedly hospitalized after being burned by a hot leg of lamb. Laurel, who had been working as a gag man and director at Roach Studios, was recruited to fill in. Laurel continued to act and, later that year, appeared in the same movie as Hardy, 45 Minutes from Hollywood, although they did not share any scenes together.
In 1927, Laurel and Hardy began sharing screen time together in Slipping Wives, Duck Soup (no relation to the 1933 Marx Brothers' film of the same name) and With Love and Hisses. Roach Studios' supervising director Leo McCarey, realizing the audience reaction to the two, began intentionally teaming them together. This led to the start of a Laurel and Hardy series later that year.
They began producing a huge body of short movies, including The Battle of the Century (1927) (with one of the largest pie fights ever filmed), Should Married Men Go Home? (1928), Two Tars (1928), Unaccustomed As We Are (1929, marking their transition to talking pictures) Berth Marks (1929), Blotto (1930), Brats (1930) (with Stan and Ollie portraying themselves, as well as their own "sons", using oversized furniture sets for the "young" Laurel and Hardy); Another Fine Mess (1930), Be Big! (1931), and many others.
In 1929, they appeared in their first feature, in one of the revue sequences of Hollywood Revue of 1929, and the following year they appeared as the comic relief in a lavish all-color (in Technicolor) musical feature entitled The Rogue Song. This film marked their first appearance in color, yet only a few fragments of this film survive. In 1931, they starred in their first full-length movie, Pardon Us; they continued to make features and shorts until 1935. The Music Box, a 1932 short, won them an Academy Award for best short film — their only such award.
In 1937, Hardy and Myrtle Reeves divorced. In 1939, while waiting for a contractual issue between Laurel and Hal Roach to be resolved, Hardy made Zenobia with Harry Langdon. Eventually, however, new contracts were agreed upon and the team was loaned out to producer Boris Morros at General Service Studios to make The Flying Deuces (1939). While on the lot, Hardy fell in love with Virginia Lucille Jones, a script girl, whom he married the next year. They enjoyed a happy marriage until his death.
In 1939, Laurel and Hardy made A Chump at Oxford (1940) (which features a moment of role reversal, with Oliver becoming a subordinate to a temporarily concussed Stan) and Saps at Sea (1940) before leaving Roach Studios. They began performing for the USO, supporting the Allied troops during World War II. They teamed up to make films for 20th Century Fox and later Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Although they made more money at the bigger studios, they had very little artistic control; critics say that these films lack the very qualities that had made Laurel and Hardy worldwide names. Their last Fox feature was The Bullfighters (1945), after which they declined to extend their contract with the studio.
In 1947, Laurel and Hardy went on a six-week tour of the United Kingdom. Initially unsure of how they would be received, they were mobbed wherever they went. The tour was lengthened to include engagements in Scandinavia, Belgium, France, as well as a Royal Command Performance for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Biographer John McCabe said they continued to make live appearances in the United Kingdom and France for the next several years, until 1954, often using new sketches and material that Laurel had written for them.
In 1949, Hardy's friend, John Wayne, asked him to play a supporting role in The Fighting Kentuckian. Hardy had previously worked with Wayne and John Ford in a charity production of the play What Price Glory? while Laurel began treatment for his diabetes a few years previously. Initially hesitant, Hardy accepted the role at the insistence of his comedy partner. Frank Capra later invited Hardy to play a cameo role in Riding High with Bing Crosby in 1950.
During 1950–51, Laurel and Hardy made their final film. Atoll K (also known as Utopia) was a simple concept; Laurel inherits an island, and the boys set out to sea, where they encounter a storm and discover a brand new island, rich in uranium, making them powerful and wealthy. However, the film was produced by a consortium of European interests, with an international cast and crew that could not speak to each other. In addition, the script needed to be rewritten by Laurel to make it fit the comedy team's style, and both suffered serious physical illness during the filming.
Oliver Hardy, along with Stan Laurel, made two live television appearances: In 1953, on a live BBC television broadcast of the popular show "Face the Music" with host Henry Hall and in December 1954, on NBC's This Is Your Life. They also appeared in a filmed insert for the BBC-TV show This Is Music Hall in 1955, their final public appearance together.
Partly due to the overwhelmingly positive response to the This Is Your Life telecast, the pair contracted with Hal Roach, Jr., to produce a series of TV shows based on the Mother Goose fables in 1955. According to biographer John McCabe, they were to be filmed in color for NBC, but the series was postponed when Laurel suffered a stroke and required a lengthy convalescence. Later that year while Laurel was recovering, Hardy had a heart attack and stroke from which he never physically recovered.
In May 1954, Hardy suffered a mild heart attack. During 1956, he began looking after his health for the first time in his life. He lost more than 150 pounds in a few months, which completely changed his appearance. Letters written by Laurel refer to Hardy having terminal cancer. Some readers have thought this was the real reason for Hardy's rapid weight loss. Both men were heavy smokers. Hal Roach said they were a couple of "freight train smoke stacks".
Hardy suffered a major stroke on September 14, 1956, which left him confined to bed and unable to speak for several months. He remained at home, in the care of his beloved Lucille. He suffered two more strokes in early August 1957 and slipped into a coma from which he never recovered. Hardy died from cerebral thrombosis on August 7, 1957, at the age of 65. Hardy was cremated and his ashes are interred in the Masonic Garden of Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery in North Hollywood.
Stan Laurel was too ill to attend the funeral of his friend and film partner, stating, "Babe would understand."Hardy's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located at 1500 Vine Street, Hollywood, California.Along with Laurel, inducted into the Grand Order of Water Rats.In 1999, merchandiser Larry Harmon produced the direct-to-video film The All New Adventures of Laurel & Hardy in For Love or Mummy, starring Bronson Pinchot and Gailard Sartain as the comedy duo.There is a small Laurel and Hardy Museum in Hardy's hometown of Harlem, Georgia, which opened on July 15, 2000. Every year, the first Saturday in October, Oliver Hardy is celebrated and remembered with the Oliver Hardy Festival in this town.An upcoming film, Stan & Ollie, will see Hardy played by American actor John C. Reilly, and Laurel played by English comedian Steve Coogan. Developed by BBC Films, the film is set in the twilight of their careers and will focus on their farewell tour of Britain's variety halls in 1953.