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The imagined life of a movie icon

Portland writer John Connolly gets inside Stan Laurel.

PORTLAND, Maine — Long before John Connolly achieved success as a novelist, he worked as a dogsbody at Harrods, the most famous department store in London. A dogsbody, you may be disappointed to learn, is simply a gofer. It sounds as though it should be more… exotic.

An Irishman who was born in Dublin and worked there as a journalist, Connolly now divides his time between Ireland and Portland, which he fell for many years ago. His latest book, “he,” is a departure from his usual crime fiction, an “imagining” of the life of Stan Laurel, whose films with Oliver Hardy are comedy classics. The movies, made between 1921 and 1950, were a staple of Connolly’s television diet as a boy in Ireland. “I had a huge affection for them, much more than Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton,” he told me. “And I think it was partly to do with that friendship and loyalty between them. Kids latch onto that very quickly.”

Many of the films of Laurel and Hardy were silents, and they appealed to audiences far beyond America. The popularity of the two men befuddled by the world around them was universal. In many countries, they’re known as The Fat and The Skinny. In Finland, Thick One, and Thin One. In India, Stout, and Worrywart.

As is often the case, says Connolly, the public images of these two movie stars were far different from their private lives. “Between them, they ratcheted up eight marriages, about three mistresses, one common law marriage. And that was what fascinated me.”

It took Connolly about ten years to write the book, with some of that time spent on research, much of it on thinking about how to tell the story. “I had to wait a while to do it justice,” he says. “I’m very glad it’s done.”

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