He played a wide range of classical and modern parts, making an impact in Shakespeare at the Old Vic. His film career took him to Broadway and then Hollywood, but he also collaborated with Alexander Korda on notable British films of the era, including The Private Life of Henry VIII, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the title character. He portrayed everything from monsters and misfits to kings. Among Laughton's biggest film hits were The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Mutiny on the Bounty, Ruggles of Red Gap, Jamaica Inn, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Big Clock. Daniel Day-Lewis cited Laughton as one of his inspirations, saying: "He was probably the greatest film actor who came from that period of time. He had something quite remarkable. His generosity as an actor; he fed himself into that work. As an actor, you cannot take your eyes off him."
In his later career, he took up stage directing, notably in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, and George Bernard Shaw's Don Juan in Hell, in which he also starred. He directed one film, the thriller The Night of the Hunter, which after an initially disappointing reception is regarded today as an acclaimed film classic