Real Name: Harry Moses Horwitz
Stooge years: 1922, 1926, 1929-1975
Real Name: Laurence Feinberg
Stooge years: 1925-1926, 1929-1975
Real Name: Jerome Lester Horwitz
Stooge years: 1932-1946
Real Name: Samuel Horwitz
Stooge years: 1922-1925, 1929-1932, 1947-1955
Real Name: Clarence Nash
Stooge Years: 1922-1925, 1929-1934
Stooge Year: 1956 (Body double for Shemp)
Stooge years: 1956-1957
Real Name: Joseph Wardell
Stooge years: 1958-1975
Stooge year: (1975)
Sitka was officially named a member of the Stooges following Larry Fine's stroke, but never got to perform with the group.
Ted Healy and His Stooges
The boys with Ted Healy in the 1933 film, Dancing Lady. Joan Crawford looks on.
The Three Stooges started in 1925 as a raucous vaudeville act called Ted Healy and His Stooges (previously called "Ted Healy and His Southern Gentlemen" and "Ted Healy and His Racketeers"). Healy would try to sing or tell jokes while his noisy assistants kept "interrumping" him. Healy would respond by abusing his stooges verbally and physically. Brothers Harry Moses Horwitz (Moe) and Samuel Horwitz (Shemp) were joined later that year by violinist Larry Fine (born Louis Feinberg). In 1930, Ted Healy and His Stooges appeared in their first Hollywood feature film: Soup to Nuts, released by Fox Studios. The film was not a critical success but the Stooges' performances were considered the highlight and Fox offered the trio a contract on their own, without Healy. This upset Healy, who told studio executives that the Stooges were his employees. The offer was withdrawn, and after Howard, Fine, and Howard learned the reason, they left Healy to form their own act. Their act quickly took off, and they toured the theatre circuit. Healy attempted to stop the new act with legal action, claiming they were using his copyrighted material. There are accounts of Healy threatening to bomb theatres if Howard, Fine, and Howard performed there, and these incidents worried Shemp so much that he almost left the group; reportedly, only a pay raise kept him on board. Healy tried to save his act by hiring replacement stooges, but they were not as well-received as their predecessors had been. With Moe acting as business manager, in 1932 Healy reached a new agreement with his former stooges, and they were booked in a production of J.J. Shubert's The Passing Show of 1932. Joe Besser, a future member of the Three Stooges, was a member of the cast. During rehearsals, Healy received a more lucrative offer and found a loophole in his contract allowing him to leave the musical. Shemp, reportedly was fed up with Healy's abrasiveness and decided to leave the act but ultimately, he was offered Healy's role.
When Shemp left, Ted and the two remaining stooges (Moe and Larry) needed a third Stooge, so Moe suggested his youngest brother Jerry (Jerome Lester Horwitz). Ted reportedly took one look at Jerry, who had long chestnut red locks and facial hair, and stated that he did not look like a character, as did Moe and Larry. Jerry left the room and returned a few moments later with with his head shaved (the mustache stayed on for a time); and thus, 'Curly' was born. (There are varying accounts as to how Curly actually came about. Some publications maintain that Moe, Larry, Ted Healy, and even Shemp, actually came up with the concept of shaving Jerry's head and dubbing him 'Curly.') Several sources have incorrectly stated that Curly made his first film appearance in a Hollywood On Parade short (entry #B-9), released by Paramount Pictures in 1932. The film in question was one of the last film appearances of Ted Healy, Moe, Larry and Curly together, released 1934-06-01. (The Hollywood On Parade shorts were later released to television, and replaced opening title sequences carried the same date, 1932, for every segment of the series, which led to the confusion.) Although the Stooges' characterizations initially were less distinct and more interchangeable, over time Moe’s character transformed, starting to duplicate Healy’s role as straight man.
In 1933, Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) signed Healy and his Stooges to a movie contract to appear in film shorts and features. They appeared in feature films and short subjects, sometimes together, sometimes individually, and other times with various combinations of members. The group were featured in a series of musical comedy shorts, beginning with Nertsery Rhymes, released 1933-07-06. Nertsery Rhymes was one of a few shorts to be filmed in an early two-strip Technicolor process; the shorts were built around recycled film footage of production numbers cut from M-G-M musicals, some of which had been filmed in Technicolor, so some shorts (including Roast-Beef and Movies, Hello Pop and Jailbirds of Paradise) were filmed in color to match the reused footage. Nertsery Rhymes and Roast-Beef and Movies are the only two color Stooge-related M-G-M shorts to have survived the years; the others are presumed lost. Incidentally, Jailbirds of Paradise featured Moe and Curly without Larry or Ted Healy, while Roast-Beef and Movies featured Curly (billed as Jerry Howard) as part of a trio with two other comics, George Givot and Bobby Callahan. Other M-G-M shorts to feature the team included Beer and Pretzels, Plane Nuts' (which recreates the Stooges' vaudeville act of the time), and The Big Idea. They also appeared in the feature films Turn Back the Clock, Meet the Baron, Dancing Lady, Fugitive Lovers, and Hollywood Party. Larry appeared solo in Stage Mother, while Moe and Curly played a pair of clowns in Broadway to Hollywood. Healy and the Stooges also appeared together in Universal's Myrt and Marge. In 1934, the team's contract with M-G-M expired, and the Stooges parted professional company with Healy. According to Moe Howard in his autobiography, the Stooges split with Ted Healy in 1934 once and for all because of Healy's alcoholism and abrasiveness. Their final film with Healy was MGM’s 1934 film: Hollywood Party. He set the slaps-and-pokes pattern that the Stooges would follow throughout their careers.
Columbia Short Subjects, 1934-1957
The same year, the Three Stooges (as the Howard brothers and Fine renamed their act) signed on to appear in two-reel comedy short subjects for Columbia Pictures. (In Moe Howard and the Three Stooges, Moe said they each got $600 per week on a one-year contract with a renewable option; in the Ted Okuda-Edward Watz book The Columbia Comedy Shorts, the Stooges are said to have gotten $2,500 per film, to be split by the team.) According to Moe, Columbia Pictures studio head Harry Cohn would always wait until the last minute to renew the contract: the Stooges, too worried about keeping their jobs to ask for a raise, didn't get one during the entire two decades they worked for him. The Stooges appeared in 190 film shorts and five features under the "original" contract with Columbia. Their first Columbia short was the 1934 release of Woman Haters. Del Lord directed more than three dozen of the Three Stooges shorts. Jules White directed dozens more, and his brother Jack White directed several under the pseudonym "Preston Black."
According to a published report, Moe, Larry, and director Jules White considered their best film to be You Nazty Spy! (1940). This 18-minute short subject starring Moe as an Hitler-like character satirized the Nazis in a period when America was still neutral and isolationist about WWII. You Nazty Spy was the first Hollywood film to spoof Hitler, and was released nine months before the more famous Charlie Chaplin film The Great Dictator.
With Shemp on board, the Stooges went on to appear in 73 more shorts and a quickie Western feature entitled Gold Raiders (1951). During this period, Moe, Larry, and Shemp also made a pilot for a Three Stooges television show called Jerks of All Trades in 1949. The series was never picked up, although the pilot is today in the public domain and is available on home video, as is an early TV appearance from around the same time on a vaudeville-style comedy series starring Ed Wynn (Camel Comedy Caravan, originally aired live on CBS-TV on 1950-03-11). Shemp and Joe Besser appeared together in the 1949 Abbott and Costello comedy Africa Screams. Video markets now promote the film as having "two of the Three Stooges," though Besser was not a stooge until Shemp's passing.
The quality of the Stooge shorts declined after Columbia's short-subject division downsized in 1952. Producer Hugh McCollum was discharged and director 'Edward Bernds resigned out of loyalty to McCollum, leaving only Jules White to both produce and direct all of the remaining Columbia comedies. As a cost-cutting measure, White created "new" Stooge shorts by borrowing footage from old shorts and filming a few new scenes, often with the same actors in the same costumes. This is the major reason that many Stooge shorts resemble each other.
Death paid the Stooges another visit just three years after Curly's demise. Shemp Howard died of a sudden heart attack at age 60 on 1955-11-22. Archived footage of Shemp, combined with new footage of his stand-in, Joe Palma (filmed from behind or with his face hidden), were used to finish the last four films on Shemp's contract (Rumpus In The Harem, Hot Stuff, Scheming Schemers and Commotion On The Ocean).
Joe Besser replaced Shemp in 1956 and 1957, appearing in 16 shorts. Besser, noting how one side of Larry Fine's face seemed "calloused", had a clause in his contract specifically prohibiting him from being hit too hard (though this restriction was lifted as Besser's tenure continued. Ironically, Besser was the only "third" Stooge that dared to hit Moe back in retaliation and get away with it on a regular basis; Larry Fine was also known to hit Moe on occasion, but always with serious repercussions). Actually, Besser simply continued playing the same "whiny sissy" character he had used throughout most of his career (with such catch-phrases as "Not so louuuuuuud!" and "You craaaaaaaazy, youuuuuu!") and tried to play that character alongside Larry's and Moe's established Stooge characterizations. "I usually played the kind of character who would hit others back," Besser recalled. Unfortunately, the market for short subjects had declined by the time Besser joined the trio. Television was the new popular medium, and the Stooges were practically considered dinosaurs. Columbia Pictures, the last studio still producing shorts, opted not to renew the Stooges' contract, which expired at the end of 1957, following production of their final short, Flying Saucer Daffy. Because of a production backlog, the last short released, Sappy Bullfighters, did not reach theatres until June 4, 1959.
In 1959, Columbia syndicated the entire Stooges film library to television (through its TV subsidiary, Screen Gems), and the Stooges were rediscovered by the baby boomers. A "Stooge fandom" quickly developed, and Howard and Fine found themselves back in demand again with the public. Moe and Larry discussed plans for a personal appearance tour; meanwhile, Besser's wife had had a heart attack, and he preferred to stay local, leading him to withdraw from the act. Moe quickly signed Joe DeRita as his replacement; DeRita shaved his head and became "Curly-Joe" because of his resemblance to the original Curly Howard; "Curly-Joe" also made it easier to distinguish him from Joe Besser, the previous Stooge called Joe.
This version of the Three Stooges went on to make a series of moderately popular full-length films during the late 1950s and through the 1960s. The trio also filmed 41 short comedy skits that were broadcast as introductions and closings for The New Three Stooges, an animated television series based upon the comedy team, consisting of 156 short cartoons which also featured the voices of the Stooges. Throughout the 1960s, The Three Stooges were one of the most popular, and highest paid live acts in the country.
In 1969, the Three Stooges filmed a pilot episode for a new TV series entitled Kook's Tour which would have been a combination travelogue and sitcom that would have seen the "retired" Stooges travelling around the world, with the episodes filmed on location. On 1970-01-09, during production of the pilot, Larry suffered a paralyzing stroke, ending his acting career, as well as future plans for the TV series. A 50-minute version of Kook's Tour was edited together from usable material and initially only made available for the home movie market (years before the popularity of home video); it has subsequently been released to DVD, though unrestored.
End of Lives
Larry Fine suffered another stroke in December 1974. The following month, he suffered a more serious one, and slipped into a coma. He died on 1975-01-24, at the age of 72. Devastated by his comrade's passing, Moe decided that the Three Stooges would continue, and long-time Stooge supporting actor Emil Sitka would replace Larry, and be dubbed "The Middle Stooge". Sitka later said he accepted the offer after receiving Larry's blessings.
Several movie ideas were considered, including one called Blazing Stewardesses according to Leonard Maltin, who also uncovered a pre-production photo (the film was ultimately made with the last surviving Ritz Brothers). However, long-life smoker Moe had fallen ill from lung cancer, and died on 1975-05-04. With Moe gone, it was inconceivable that the Three Stooges continue without a Howard, although Curly-Joe did do some live performances with a new group of Stooges in the early 1970s.
Joe Besser died on 1988-03-01, followed by Curly-Joe on 1993-07-03, and Emil Sitka on 1998-01-16, making him the last "Stooge" (he never appeared on film as a member of the trio, only in a few publicity shots) to die. Curly-Joe was often reported as stating that his time with the Three Stooges was the 'best years of his life.'
Throughout their career, Moe was the heart and soul of the troupe, acting as both their main creative force and business manager. Comedy III Productions, Inc., formed by Moe, Larry, and Curly-Joe DeRita in 1959, is today the owner of all of the Three Stooges' trademarks and merchandising (the company is currently operated by DeRita's two stepsons and Larry Fine's grandson, majority owner Eric Lamond).
In Spring of 2000, long time Stooge fan Mel Gibson produced a TV movie about the life and careers of the Stooges. It was produced for and broadcast on ABC. This movie was based on Michael Fleming's authorized biography of the Stooges, The Three Stooges: From Amalgamated Morons to American Icons. The film regularly runs on the AMC (American Movie Classics) channel.
AMC had held the rights to the Three Stooges shorts until Spike TV picked them up in 2004, airing them in their Stooges Slap-Happy Hour. By 2006, however, Spike had discontinued airing the shorts. However, WCIU-TV in Chicago currently airs all 190 Three Stooges shorts on Stooge-A-Palooza, hosted by Rich Koz. WSBK in Boston also airs The Three Stooges shorts.
Some of the Stooges films have been colorized by two separate companies. The first colorized DVD releases, distributed by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, were prepared by West Wing Studios in 2004. The following year, Legend Films and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment colorized the shorts Malice in the Palace, Sing a Song of Six Pants, Disorder in the Court and Brideless Groom. Four more DVDs will be released by Legend in 2007; episodes to be announced. Disorder in the Court and Brideless Groom also appear on two of West Wing's colorized releases.