Born in 1899 at Scarborough, Yorkshire, Laughton at first went into the family business, not making his first stage appearance until 1926. Despite not having the looks for a romantic lead, he impressed audiences with his talent and played many classical roles before making his film debut in 1932. His association with the director, Alexander Korda, began with The Private Life of Henry VIII (loosely based on the life of King Henry VIII of England), for which Laughton won an Academy Award.
Later films included The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). In 1937 he was to have starred in an ill-fated film version of the book, I, Claudius, by Robert Graves, which was abandoned only part-way into filming. He also received an Academy Award nomination for his role in Witness for the Prosecution (1957).
Despite his homosexual inclinations, he had a long and resilient marriage to the British-born American actress, Elsa Lanchester, possibly because she had her own such inclinations according to contemporary gossip. Lanchester appeared opposite him in several films, including Rembrandt (1936). In 1950, he took American citizenship.
Laughton had one stint as a director, and the result was the legendary The Night of the Hunter (1955), starring Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish. This movie is often cited among critics as one of the best movies of the 1950s; unfortunately, it was a box-office flop. Laughton never had another chance to direct his own movies.