Charles Laughton was an English-American stage and film actor, screenwriter, producer and two-time director.
Laughton was best known for his historical roles in films, but he started his career as a remarkable stage actor, during a time when many serious stage actors despised the motion picture medium, seeing it only as a source of income. Laughton showed keen and serious interest in the pioneering possibilities of film, and later other media, such as radio, recordings, and TV, proving that quality work could be made available to audiences other than theatre-goers. He became an American citizen in 1950.
Laughton was born in Scarborough, Yorkshire, England, the son of Robert Laughton, a Yorkshire hotel keeper, and his wife Elizabeth. His mother was a devout Roman Catholic and he attended Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit school, in Lancashire, England. He served during World War I first with the 2/1st Battalion of the Huntingdonshire Cyclist Regiment and later with the 7th Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment.
He started work in the family hotel business, while participating in amateur theatricals in Scarborough. Finally allowed by his family to become a drama student at RADA in 1925, Laughton made his first professional stage appearance on April 28, 1926 at the Barnes Theatre, as Osip in the comedy The Government Inspector, in which he also appeared at the London Gaiety Theatre in May. Despite not having the looks for a romantic lead, he impressed audiences with his talent and played classical roles in two plays by Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard and The Three Sisters. He played the title role in Arnold Bennett’s Mr Prohack, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot in Alibi, the title role in Mr Pickwick after Charles Dickens, Tony Perelli in Edgar Wallace’s On the Spot and William Marble in Payment Deferred. He took this last play across the Atlantic and in it he made his debut in the United States on September 24, 1931, at the Lyceum Theatre. He returned to London for the 1933-34 Old Vic Season and was engaged in four Shakespeare roles. In 1936, he went to Paris and on May 9 appeared at the Comédie-Française as Sganarelle in the second act of Molière’s Le Médecin malgré lui, the first English actor to appear at that theatre, where he acted the part in French and received an ovation.