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John C. Reilly hopes 'Stan & Ollie' helps fans discover duo

Actor, Coogan star in biopic about classic team

John C Reilly and Steve Coogan in "Stan and Ollie"
John C Reilly and Steve Coogan in "Stan and Ollie" (Sony Pictures Classics)

While the names of classic comedy actors Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy may only be vaguely familiar to the newest generation of comedy fans as the new biopic about them hits theaters, that doesn't mean audiences have never seen the work of the dynamic duo. In fact, John C. Reilly, who stars as Hardy opposite Steve Coogan's Laurel in "Stan & Ollie," said fans have experienced more Laurel and Hardy comedy than they've realized.

"If you were to ask me even before I did this movie, 'Is Oliver Hardy a part of your acting?' I would have said, 'Absolutely.' I reference him all the time in 'Wreck-It Ralph.' There's tons of Laurel and Hardy in that, from the sounds I make when I get clonked over the head or whatever it is," Reilly said in a recent phone conversation from Los Angeles.

Reilly, who is coming off the global success of his "Wreck-It Ralph" sequel "Ralph Breaks the Internet," added that comedians and actors all over the world really appreciate Laurel and Hardy to this day because they "figured out some universal truths about comedy."

"If you look at their work, they don't talk about who is the president at that time or whatever little story of the day is going on, they talk about the human experience. The quandaries they get in are not tied to a place and time; they're just the eternal struggles of human being," Reilly observed. "Even though comedy can be very hard to translate from one culture to another, these guys were world famous at a time when it was not so easy to cross borders with your work … there was a real sweetness and humanness to their work that made it really relatable to people."

In a separate phone conversation, "Stan & Ollie" director Jon S. Baird said he hopes the film will launch a new appreciation of Laurel and Hardy's work.

"The love of these guys has gone back a long, long way … Laurel and Hardy's DNA is throughout comedy," Baird said. "If you look hard enough for it, it's there in every act … If you ask all the main comedians working at the moment who their influences are, Laurel and Hardy would be in there. So hopefully this film will reintroduce people to them or introduce people to them because they've been so influential and so important to comedy since they started."

Opening in theaters in limited release Friday and expanding next month, "Stan and Ollie" is not a standard biopic in that it largely focuses on Laurel and Hardy in the twilight of the comedy duo's career, as the two embarked on a theater tour across Europe in the 1950s. With their career in film seemingly behind them, Laurel and Hardy throughout the tour have their hopes pinned on meeting with a financier they believe will bankroll their comeback picture years after the duo dominated the silver screen.

Oddly enough, Coogan and Reilly's working relationship on "Stan & Ollie" mirrored Laurel and Hardy's in that they've never worked together before when they signed on to do the film.

"If you know their history, they were plucked from obscurity. They were thrown together and didn't know each other and didn't have an act," said Reilly, who has already earned Critics' Choice and Golden Globe nominations for his role. "They came from very different backgrounds -- Stan was from England and Oliver was from Georgia. The fact is, it was almost a decision of convenience on the part of Hal Roach when he lost Harold Lloyd when Harold went off to start his own studio. He was desperate for another act and said, (let's put together) a fat guy and the skinny guy. It didn't have any more subtlety than that when he made the decision."

As a result of that decision, however, Reilly said Roach created "one of the most miraculous performing partnerships in the history of the world."

"I can't think of another partnership that was exclusive and had the level of quality over the number of films that these guys had," Reilly said. "They really created something for the ages."

Reilly was clearly humbled by the opportunity to play Hardy, and while he didn't go so far as to say he channeled the comedy great (audiences will likely beg to differ when they see how the actor virtually disappears into the prosthetics used to create Hardy), he felt there were times when he felt the magic coming through. He said he finally had the confidence that his portrayal of Hardy was working when he and Coogan performed the duo's routines in front of the 400 extras for film's live theater scenes.

"I looked out at the audience I could see this woman's face just lit up with joy. We brought so much joy to that person that when I came off-stage, I got really emotional and started crying," Reilly said. "I was thinking, 'I may never be Oliver Hardy -- and no one ever will -- but at least I'm carrying the torch for him, and I'm bringing the same kind of joy that he brought to people.' That was a moment that I felt, 'Well, we're doing something right. We made that lady really happy today.'"

Baird said if Coogan and Reilly had any doubts of whether they could pull off playing Laurel and Hardy, those doubts were erased when "Stan & Ollie" screened for some very discerning audience members.

"One of the major successes of the film was not only showing it to fans, but super-fans; people who have dedicated their lives to Laurel and Hardy. Trust me, there are plenty of them out there," Baird said. "Also, there are surviving family members, like Stan's great-granddaughter, Cassidy Cook, who we had at the London premiere. When they say to you, 'I forgot I was watching actors. I thought I was watching my great-grandad,' that's an incredible thing to hear."