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John McCabe, 84; Professor Championed Laurel and Hardy

September 30, 2005|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

McCabe also wrote 10 other books, including "Cagney by Cagney," an autobiography of the actor that the professor ghost-wrote in 1976. He followed it with an authorized biography in 1997 called "Cagney," which the New York Times review said was "unashamedly written from the point of view of a devoted fan."

Among the other biographies he wrote are "George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway" (1973) and "Charlie Chaplin" (1978).

But the first of his four books about Laurel and Hardy remained his most important published work.

"It changed my life," said Maltin, who repeatedly checked it out from the library when he was a child. "It helped steer me on the path toward my lifelong love of film history."

John Charles McCabe III was born in Detroit on Nov. 14, 1920, the son of an engineer. He was a professional actor from the age of 7, appearing with stock companies in Detroit.

During World War II, he served as a sergeant in the Army Air Forces in Europe with what he called "the melancholy job" of compiling casualty and killed-in-action lists.

He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Detroit, a master's in fine art from Fordham University in New York and a doctorate from the Shakespeare Institute of the University of Birmingham in England. McCabe began his teaching career at Wayne State University in Detroit as a theater instructor in 1948.

In 1958, he married Vija Valda Zarina, a Latvian ballet teacher who died in the early 1980s. The couple had three children.

She once told him, "You can have kids or a clean house but not both," recalled John Rabe, a reporter at KPCC-FM (89.3) who is a family friend. "Jack chose the former and never regretted it."

At the Sons' first international convention, McCabe met his second wife, Rosina Lawrence, who had co-starred in the Laurel and Hardy film "Way Out West."

They were married 10 years, until her death in 1997.

With his third wife, Karen, he lived on Mackinac Island, Mich., which does not allow cars. McCabe rode his bike daily until he started having heart trouble about a year ago.

Visitors to the island knew him as the Shakespearean in Residence, where every summer for 27 years he gave a series of readings at a local hotel. His final performance was July 6.

In addition to his wife, McCabe is survived by three children, Linard, Sean and Deirdre.

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