The Three Stooges

Born - Jan 1, 1895   |   Died - Jan 1, 1974   |  

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Biography by Hal Erickson

The dictionary definition of "stooge" is "foil for a comedian or the butt of his jokes." When the American comedy team known as The Three Stooges came together in 1925, they were doing stooging for stage and vaudeville comedian Ted Healy. The team consisted of Healy's lifelong friend Moe Howard, who'd unsuccessfully pursued a dramatic acting career in his youth; Moe's brother Shemp, who'd previously teamed with his sibling in a fifth-rate blackface act; and Larry Fine, fresh from a vaudeville turn in which he played the violin while doing a Russian dance. Healy preferred his stooges short, stupid-looking and adorned with bizarre hairstyles -- Moe, Shemp and Larry fit the first two qualifications naturally, meeting the third requirement by having Moe wear a Beatles-style trim, Shemp an unkempt mop of hair split down the middle, and Larry a frizzy Einstein-like hairdo. Ted Healy and his Stooges hit Broadway in the late 1920s in Earl Carroll's Vanities, and when Healy made his first film, Soup to Nuts (1930), the Stooges appeared (with a fourth member, Fred Sanborn), as "the Racketeers." Shemp disliked Healy and dropped out of the act to become a solo. He was replaced by younger brother Jerry, who'd been doing a comedy "orchestra" act. Casting about for a distinctive haircut for Jerry, Healy decided to shave his new stooge's hair to the bone; thereafter, Jerry was known as Curly. Continuing to work with Healy in films and on stage until 1934, Moe Howard decided to strike out with Larry and Curly in a separate act. As "Howard, Fine and Howard," the threesome signed with Columbia Pictures' short subject unit in 1934 as "The Three Stooges." They'd stay with Columbia to make 190 slapstick comedies until 1957. Moe took over Ted Healy's role as the abusive "boss" off the group, hitting and poking his partners at the slightest provocation; Curly was the patsy of the trio, famed for his squeals, grunts, "Nyuk nyuks," "Woo woos," and sociopathic behavior; Larry was the nebbish middleman, whose only line seemed to be "I'm sorry, Mo, it was an accident." The Three Stooges' contract at Columbia called for eight two-reelers a year, to be filmed within 40 weeks; the rest of the time, the Stooges were permitted to make all the personal appearances they wanted. As it turned out, the Stooges made more money on tour than they did with Columbia's tight-wad $60,000 per year contract. In 1946, when Curly suffered a severe stroke that rendered him a virtual invalid, Curly was replaced by the man he'd replaced back in 1933, older brother Shemp. Though purists prefer the Stooge shorts with Curly, Shemp was in fact a more talented comedian, given to zany adlibs and nonsequiturs. Shemp worked with the team during the 1950s, a time in which Columbia cut back budgets and began relying heavily on stock footage from earlier two-reelers. Shemp died suddenly in 1955, compelling the studio to film that year's remaining manifest of Stooges shorts with Moe and Larry alone; Shemp appeared only in stock footage, replaced in the newly-shot scenes by actor Joe Palma, who kept his back to the camera. Columbia replaced Shemp in 1956 with Joe Besser, who was at the time starring in his own two-reelers for the studio. Besser's "fat sissy" characterization didn't mesh well with the rougher antics of Larry and Moe, but he gave a welcome energy boost to the team's otherwise mediocre final 16 two-reelers. The Stooges were let go by Columbia in late 1957, though enough film had been shot to continue releasing shorts until 1959. Besser left the team because of his wife's illness, to be replaced by burlesque comic Joe DeRita. A derivative performer whose style resembled that of Lou Costello, DeRita was made over into a reincarnation of Curly Howard; he shaved his head and changed his name to "Curly Joe." The act wasn't doing so well by 1958, and there was talk of breaking up the team when Columbia's Screen Gems TV subsidiary released the old Stooge shorts to television. Eagerly devoured by millions of kiddie viewers, the Three Stooges became the hottest TV commodity of 1959, thrusting the team back into the limelight. Full-fledged (and high-priced) stars again, the Stooges supplemented their personal appearances with a new string of low-budget feature films. As always, the Stooge humor was a matter of taste, but even nonfans enjoyed such nonsensical outings as The Three Stooges Meet Hercules (1963) and The Outlaws is Coming (1965). In 1965, the team provided voices and live-action vignettes for a series of 156 Three Stooges cartoons, but by this time the initial euphoria had worn off; within a few years the Stooges were unemployable again. Some of the kids who'd enjoyed the Stooge comedies in the 1950s grew up to become film historians and cultists, and the early 1970s found the Three Stooges being exalted as comic geniuses (an assessment disputed by many, including the Stooges). However, this time there would be no reteaming -- Larry Fine suffered a debilitating stroke in 1970; Moe retired, but made the rounds on lecture tours and talk show appearances (though he made it clear he'd take any and all film work); and Curly Joe tried unsuccessfully to form a "new Three Stooges" act on his own. Both Moe and Larry died in 1975, putting an end to a 50-year era.