Whether you have seen their comedic movies, hilarious acts, or just their black and white photos, almost everyone has heard of the Three Stooges. They are originals when it comes to comedic cinema and have had a huge impact on comedy today. The stooges are a silly trio, and their clumsy shenanigans have made the world smile for over half a century. However, behind the gags and gimmicks, some darker things were going on.
These guys went through a lot: They got picked on in school, endured tragic family deaths, battled severe health conditions, and followed a deep, dangerous path of substance abuse. Needless to say, the smiles we see in their classic films are far from the seriousness of the reality of the stooges.
Today we’re going to take a look behind the curtains at the true story of the Three Stooges — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Technically, There Are Six of Them
So, the first thing you need to know about The Three Stooges is that there are actually six of them! The reason they are known as The Three Stooges is that there were only three of them around at any given moment. But only two of them stayed around for the ensemble’s fifty-year run! So, who are they exactly?
The originals and mainstays throughout the five decades were the ring leader Moe (Moses Harry Horwitz) and his friend Larry Fine (Larry Feinberg). The third stooge was first played by Moe’s brother Shemp Howard (Samuel Horwitz), and then his other brother “Curly” Howard (Jerome Horwitz). Then Joe Besser stepped in and, last but not least, “Curly Joe” (Joe DeRita).
Jewish Boy from Brooklyn
Moses Harry Horwitz was born in a small Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York, and was known as Moe Howard around town. He had four brothers, and two of them later partnered up with him in showbiz as part of their “Three Stooges” act.
Moe always had dreams and aspirations of making it in the entertainment industry. After attending high school for two months, he dropped out to focus on his love of theater and pursue performing. But his entertainment career started before he was even a teenager.
A Little Taste of Hollywood
Moe Howard got his first taste of the industry in the most classic, old school way possible. Back in 1909, when Moe was just 12 years old, he started working his way up the Hollywood ladder. He began running around like an intern, taking care of errands for actors and all kinds of entertainers.
His work ethic and dedication at Brooklyn’s Vitagraph studios certainly paid off. He pushed on to stardom by becoming a performer himself. Soon enough, the upcoming, eager entertainer started landing movie roles with hilarious stars like John Bunny and Flora Finch. His dreams were finally starting to come true.
Moe’s Signature Bowl Cut
One of the key things that made Moe iconic was his signature “bowl cut” hairstyle. There are many different theories of what inspired the haircut, but a popular one suggests it’s his mother’s fault. Apparently, when Moe was born, his mom was hoping to have a girl, so she didn’t cut his hair.
Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, Moe was bullied by some of the kids at school. So, he snuck into a shed with some friends, and they chopped off his long locks, using a bowl to guide the haircut. Apparently, he was scared to show his mom his new look, but she actually loved it.
Meeting Ted Healy
The “Three Stooges” gimmick came years later. Luckily, Moe met one essential person that helped him get the ball rolling, the one and only Ted Healy. A few years after they met, they landed a role together in Annette Kellerman’s aquatic act as diving girls. Once they met, the two immediately became good friends. But they didn’t become the iconic group until years later.
The dynamic duo joined forces once again in 1922 and formed The Three Stooges with Moe’s brother, Shemp. The act made these guys iconic, and their name and black and white photos have become a staple in American culture and entertainment.
The Multi-Talented Stooge
Basically, “The Three Stooges” act is based around one “Boss Stooge” (Moe) had a timeless comedy style giving orders to the other two stooges with a comedic twist of silly insults, slap fights, pie-to-the-face pranks, and other childish but hilarious gags. It was classic comedy.
Larry Fine, the long-lasting middle Stooge, could certainly handle his own. Growing up, he trained in boxing, and, as a teenager, he turned it into a job and made a living out of it. What he didn’t know was that his fighting skills would come in handy as a comedian when he was required to throw some clumsy punches or get knocked out during his various Three Stooges acts. But how did he become an original stooge?
At an extremely early age, Larry Fine worked on his performance skills by playing the violin. Growing up, his interest in music expanded, and, as a teenager, he became more interested in singing. He also made some extra cash from that, in addition to his boxing skills.
Once he reached the ripe age of 18, he transitioned his energy to on-stage performances, particularly with vaudeville. In 1925, approximately five years later, he met Moe and Ted, and he temporarily replaced Moe playing his “stooge” role in their acts. He obviously did a great job because they decided to keep him.
“Ted Healy and His Stooges”
The whole Stooges concept began in the 1920s with Ted Healy, Moe, Larry, and Shemp playing in a theatrical comedy act called Ted Healy and His Stooges. At the time, Healy was already a pretty famous vaudeville comedian, which was a huge advantage that really helped advance the stooges’ comedy careers.
All four guys toured around for about a decade, performing their vaudeville act together. Then, in the ‘30s, they were featured in the popular film, Soup to Nuts. Things seemed to be going great for them. However, after the film, the team ventured off in different directions, for some juicy reasons.
The ‘30s Breakup
So basically, the character Healy played in Ted Healy, and His Stooges act was very similar to Moe’s part in The Three Stooges act, where he berates and insults his stooges the entire time. But in the 1930s, whatever was happening on stage seemed to slip into reality. It appeared to be a case of life imitating art.
Because of all the behind-the-scenes drama, Healy started to show signs of substance abuse. The Stooges thought it would be better for everyone if they parted ways. They understandably felt like Healy was too much to handle, and, on top of it, he underpaid them considerably.
Shemp also really wanted to chase a career in the entertainment industry, just like his brother Moe. In 1933, he was the first to leave Ted Healy and his Stooges to pursue a solo career. Luckily, he was pretty successful, appearing in multiple movies.
Despite his blossoming solo career, he ended up finding his way back to The Three Stooges. Awkwardly, it wasn’t under the greatest circumstances. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, when Shemp ventured off into his movie career, the stooges needed to replace him. That’s when they brought in Moe’s other brother, Jerome “Curly” Howard.
From “Ted Healy and His Stooges” to “The Three Stooges”
It ended up being a good thing for the stooges to leave Ted Healy. About two years after they walked away from him, Moe, Larry, and Curly got signed by Columbia pictures for a short-comedies deal. It eventually became famously known as The Three Stooges.
The crew produced more than 200 short films that would change the entire comedic industry, all filled with their humorous shenanigans. They were funny, lovable, and, most important, entertaining. Audiences were drawn to the three performers because, despite being a group, they were each unique in their own way—especially Curly Howard, their newest addition.
But Curly Is Bald
If you’re like me, you are probably wondering why Jerome Howard is named Curly, even though his head is shaved! Well, supposedly, it was referring to his “curly” personality. Each Stooge came with a signature look. Curly was what you would call one-of-a-kind, and he got his unique look interestingly.
Before joining the ensemble, Curly rocked a wavy, chestnut-brown fro and a waxed stache’. But reportedly, Ted Healy wouldn’t hire him unless she shaved off his hair. He was hoping he would chicken out. To Ted’s surprise, Curly was up for the challenge and committed to his role and his funny signature look.
Curly’s Memorable Sayings
Although he was the fourth stooge to join the group, it was evident that Curly’s contribution to the act was one of the most memorable ones. He made up for his missing hair with his great personality and entertaining skills.
Who could forget his “Nyuk-nyuk-nyuk!” and “Woo-woo-woo!” calls? They are classics, and just as endearing as they are annoying. That’s what gave his character the extra clumsy spice that is still beloved to this day. Thanks to his high pitched voice and unique expressions, it didn’t take long for Curly to become the most popular of all the stooges. He had so much talent that it didn’t even matter if he had hair or not.
Doing Their Own Stunts
These days, everyone in Hollywood has a stunt double for the dangerous physical stunts that happen in movies and TV shows. Nobody wants to risk the safety of their bankable actors. But the Three Stooges were completely old-school. They performed all of their own stunts themselves.
Even though it was hilarious for audiences to watch them getting slapped, poked, or hit with props, we have to give them extra credit and respect for performing their own risky stunts. That’s not to say that they didn’t get injured plenty of times on set, but the dedicated performers powered through.
Stiffing the Stooges
Ted Healy wasn’t the only guy to screw over the stooges when it came to money. Unfortunately, their contract with the studio also stiffed them. For the entire 24 years that they were working with Columbia Pictures, none of the three stooges ever got a raise.
On top of all that, the guys were unaware of how big and famous they actually were. They were under the impression that their short films weren’t doing too well and were losing popularity. It wasn’t until years later that they finally realized how famous their act was. Yikes! If only Google and social media were a thing back then… then they definitely would have known!
The Clever Contract Trick
The ignorantly famous stooges may have gotten stiffed by Columbia Pictures despite being admired actors. It was obvious that they deserved more than they got. But, as it turned out, the head of the group, Moe, conjured up a sneaky little trick. He was pretty smart when it came to their deals.
Moe made sure that their contracts had a clause that granted them the right to receive all of the profits from their personal appearances. Considering they weren’t given a raise, this was a smart move and provided them with a whole lot more money than the studio would have given them for over 200 short films. Very clever!
Little Brother, Big Problems
The man we all remember as the beloved “Curly” is Jerome Lester Horwitz. He was Moe’s little brother and six years younger than him. Even though the youngest stooge was funny and clumsy on set, his behind-the-scenes behavior was far from innocent.
Like many entertainers, Curly fell down the dangerous rabbit hole of substance abuse, compulsive spending, and overeating. His brother, of course, tried to help him get his life back on track, but Curly wasn’t able to take the steps necessary for him to get better. In May 1946, on his last day of filming Half-Wits Holiday, Curly suffered a terrible stroke, which sadly ended his career.
The Historically Classic Comedy
Luckily, Curly didn’t die and managed to recover from his stroke. However, the 43-year-old comedian was in no condition to continue performing. That is… until one last movie appearance in 1947 for the film, Hold That Lion! It turned out to be the last movie that all three brothers, Curly, Moe, and Shemp, appeared in together.
It was an exciting project, and the film eventually became a historically classic comedy. Curly was really hoping that this gig would help him make his way back into the ensemble. Sadly, it didn’t work, but something even more devastating was about to happen.
Guess Who’s Back?
The three-man-act was down a stooge and needed a replacement. Moe thought that instead of teaching someone new the ropes, they should bring back an original stooge, Shemp. Remember him? He was Moe’s brother, who had ditched the group to pursue a solo career. Curly was definitely an audience favorite, but Shemp had his own quirks and characteristics that made him just as lovable.
For example, standing at 5’7,” he was the tallest stooge- out of all six of them. Plus, he was known for his memorable, quirky ways of yelping out “Gee-gee-gee-gee-gee!” He managed to separate himself with his own special personality, and it certainly reflected on stage.
Becoming a Stooge Again
In the fifteen years since he had left the stooges, Shemp had worked extremely hard to make it in the cut-throat showbiz industry. He was honorably dubbed the “Ugliest Man in Hollywood.” In fact, he even had his own silly series of shorts in the ‘40s, produced by Columbia Pictures. During that time, The Three Stooges were also signed with them.
Initially, Shemp was understandably hesitant about leaving his successful solo career to reunite with the comedic ensemble. He finally decided to save the day and returned to the Three Stooges spotlight to replace poor Curly, who wasn’t doing too well.
Towards the late ‘40s, Curly’s health wasn’t getting any better. After he finished shooting Hold That Lion! with his brothers, he suffered a number of additional strokes. Sadly, it caused his health to decline even faster. Unfortunately, there was nothing anyone could do.
On January 18th, 1952, Curly passed away due to his health conditions and medical issues. He was only 48 years old. The news of his death was devastating to everyone: family, friends, and fans. No one wanted to lose their favorite stooge in such a terrible way. Sadly, The Three Stooges endured another loss during this difficult time.
The Show Must Go On
After the horrible loss of their brother, the group knew that the show must go on. Plus, they didn’t have much of a choice, considering they were still under contract with Columbia Films. Shemp continued to step in for Curly, but some more changes were made after he passed.
Rumors were flying about Columbia Pictures cutting down their short film department. As soon as the ‘50s rolled around, the speculations finally came true. Since their careers were based on making short films, what did this big change mean for the hilarious trio who was still under contract?
The Big ‘50s Change
If you’ve watched the Stooges’ films, you’ve probably noticed a significant difference between the ‘30s and ‘40s episodes compared to the ones in the ‘50s. I’m not talking about casting; I mean the quality of the actual episodes. The new decade came with changes in the film and TV industries. After the department downsized, the production team needed to make all kinds of cuts to stay on budget.
In an attempt to compensate, they switched up the way the episodes were written since they had different directors and writers. They started to spend more time editing old footage to recycle and less time shooting new stuff. Later on it the ‘50s, it seemed like their act was reaching retirement, but not before some major cast changes.
Recasting in the ‘50s
It’s crazy how some of the most influential comedians in entertainment history, who brought so much joy and laughter to the world, suffered so much pain. Unfortunately, the bad news kept coming in the 1950s. Throughout the decade, there were various casting changes, and the reasons were heartbreaking.
After Curly’s untimely death in 1952, Shemp took over. What no one expected was that a mere three years later, Shemp would be the one who needed a replacement. In the fall of 1955, Shemp suddenly passed away, in a surprising way that left everyone in complete and utter shock. So, what happened?
An Unexpected Loss
It was an ordinary evening, and Shemp went out for a fun night out with the boys to watch a boxing match. After hanging out with his friends, 60-year-old Shemp suffered a massive heart attack on his way home from the match. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it.
I can’t even imagine how terrible that family must have felt. I mean, losing one brother is tragic enough, but two? And in such a short amount of time. Of course, these losses also saddened their fans. At this point, Moe was feeling a lot of pain, and he was ready to leave the limelight and put an end to The Three Stooges. Who could blame him? He needed a break, at the very least.
Stooge Number Five
Moe was obviously shattered and distraught after the sudden passing of his brother. However, that didn’t change the fact that they were still under contract with Columbia Pictures. Just like after Curly’s passing, the show must go on. This is when the fifth stooge finally joined the group.
Joe Besser was the newest stooge. Besser was already a comedian with a pretty successful solo career. He starred in Hour Glass and then in The Abbot and Costello Show and The Joey Bishop Show. The performer was already signed to Columbia Pictures, so the production company thought it would be a perfect fit. But how did the actors feel about this decision?
Awkwardly enough, Moe and Larry wanted to continue their activities as The Two Stooges instead of replacing their dear Shemp. Unfortunately, they needed to shoot four more films, and the production company made it very clear that a third stooge was required. Joe was actually really nervous at first about getting injured on the job.
We mentioned how the stooges performed all their own stunts. Getting hurt was just part of the job because of their jesting storylines and clumsy scenes. That’s when Larry came to the rescue and said he would step in when slap stunts were required. As time went on, Joe eventually felt more comfortable with the whole thing and agreed to participate in the “dangerous” parts.
Saying that Columbia Pictures wasn’t good at goodbyes would be an understatement. The Three Stooges completed their contract with the studio after shooting their last short film in 1957, Sappy Bull Fighters, but they would continue to have their films released throughout the next year and a half.
Even after being under contract for over two decades, they didn’t get a formal goodbye or any celebration at all from the company. In fact, once their contract was up, Moe wanted to go back to the studio just to say goodbye to some of the executives he had been working with for years, and they actually refused to let him on the premises since he no longer had a studio pass. How rude!
Goodbye to the Fifth Stooge
After finally parting ways with Columbia in the late ‘50s, the stooges needed to come up with a new way to keep their act alive and relevant. Since their films continued to come out over the upcoming months, they were still in the spotlight and making a profit. But they knew it wouldn’t last forever, so they had to find a way to keep the show going.
That’s when they thought it would be a good idea to take the show on the road and embark on a personal appearance tour. Joe was so excited to be included, but he had to opt-out of the opportunity. Sadly, his wife’s health wasn’t very stable, and he wanted to take local gigs so that he could take care of her.
The Ultimate Original
At this point, Larry and Moe were back at square one. The dynamic duo was ready to perform, but now they needed to find a replacement for the third stooge. The two discussed bringing back the ultimate original member, Ted Healy. But surprisingly enough, his audition went terribly.
Larry and Moe had come a long way since they last worked with Healy. They were hoping he would slip right back in, but he botched the audition Larry and Moe had developed skills throughout the years, and, unfortunately, Healy hadn’t. After searching for another couple of weeks, they finally found the perfect fit.
The Sixth Stooge
Larry stumbled upon Joe DeRita in 1958. He was a funny burlesque entertainer who fit the bill flawlessly. His style and sense of humor fit the role. Plus, the 5’4” comedian even looked like Curly, which is how his character got the name “Curly Joe.” As it turned out, Joe DeRita was certainly someone that Larry and Moe were interested in working with.
It took them forever to find a replacement for Shemp, but he was already under contract somewhere else. Luckily, when Larry approached him, he only had one week left on his contract and accepted the new offer. Can you say perfect timing?
The Big Comeback
The ‘50s were evidently hard and tragic years for the famous ensemble. Thankfully, their luck was about to change in the ‘60s. The stooges quickly started to gain more popularity and earned a lot of opportunities, including the chance to make a huge comeback with their feature films.
They also had some TV breaks and got an offer to make an animated cartoon series, live-action colored movies, and live traveling tours. Not bad. They worked incredibly hard during that time. Until this day, the trio is sometimes called “Larry, Moe, and Curly Joe,” in addition to their original name, The Three Stooges.
Larry Leaves the Stage, but Not His Fans
Throughout their personal lives and professional careers, the group had all sorts of ups and downs. It was certainly a rollercoaster that came with incredible successes along with terrible tragedy. The ‘60s was a strong decade for The Three Stooges, but when the ‘70s rolled around, the gang had to deal with more losses.
Larry had been experiencing a series of strokes, which lead to severe physical complications, like partial paralysis. He was confined to a wheelchair and basically immobilized; yet, he continued to appear on stage whenever he could. He went on to visit schools, show his film work, and he even stayed in contact with the public.
Another Big Opportunity
Larry Fine stuck it out through it all. He and receding hairline (messy, unkempt hair) is still his distinctive signature look and has remained in fans’ memories. But, in 1975, the highly admired and beloved stooge passed away from the health conditions caused by his strokes. His death had an impact on his family and fans alike.
Shortly before his heartbreaking loss, The Three Stooges signed a deal for a huge opportunity to costar in the R-rated movie Blazing Stewardess. Alas, they wouldn’t be able to fulfill their contract for a different tragic reason.
The Last One Standing
At the age of 73, the lovable Larry Fine passed away, but not without leaving a comedic legacy behind him. That meant Moe was the last one left of the original trio. One week before Blazing Stewardess was supposed to begin filming, Moe received some difficult news about his own health.
The hilarious and legendary comedian was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The terrifying diagnosis forced Moe to pass up the chance to star in the film. As much as he loved performing, he knew his health was more important. After a long and successful career in entertainment, Moe left the spotlight to focus on his health.
A few months later, the Howard family and the rest of the world would experience yet another depressing loss. The magnificent Moe passed away on May 4th, 1975. The entertaining icon was 77 years old, and, after his death, The Three Stooges act came also came to an end.
However, they will never be forgotten. A Hollywood staple, the trio will always be remembered through their funny films. In August 1983, The Three Stooges were honorably inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Their impactful legacy continues to be significant half a century later. They helped shape the film industry as we know it.