He was born in New York City and after studying at Cornell University and a stint in the Army, he began writing scripts for radio, and in 1945 wrote his first play, Home of the Brave, a drama set during World War II. Other plays by Laurents include Time of the Cuckoo, Invitation to a March, The Enclave, and Jolson Sings Again. He also has written the books for several musicals, including West Side Story, Gypsy, Anyone Can Whistle, and Do I Hear a Waltz?, which was based on his play Time of the Cuckoo. Laurents has directed several Broadway productions as well, including the musicals I Can Get It for You Wholesale and La Cage Aux Folles.
Laurents has also written two novels, The Way We Were, and The Turning Point, both of which became successful films for which Laurents wrote the screenplays. He also wrote the screenplays for Alfred Hitchcockís film Rope, The Snake Pit, and Anastasia.
In 2000 Laurents published a memoir, Original Story By.