Contrary to popular belief, the lives of The Three Stooges weren’t all fun and games. Between health scares, shady management and limitations on their comedic reach, the trio experienced their fair share of disappointment and grief during their career. This is the untold history of the beloved comedy trio…
Turn that Frown Upside-Down
The Three Stooges’ rise to fame happened during the Great Depression, considered one of the darkest times in United States History. In an attempt to lighten the doom and gloom of society, the trio’s slapstick comedy made an effort to mock the aristocracy which had previously been glamorized in film. By aligning themselves with the common man and his struggles, the Three Stooges’ hilarious antics taught people to laugh in the face of adversity.
An Eye for an Eye
One of the many physical gags the Three Stooges had up their sleeves was the “eye poke” which was actually based on a real-life incident. While playing cards, Shemp Howard accused Larry Fine of cheating and became so enraged that he jabbed Fine in both eyes. Howard’s brother Moe witnessed the scene and decided to steal the move for his own use.
Hiding the Pain
Often the butt of every joke, Curly warmed his way into audience’s hearts as the fan favorite of the trio. However, this lovable Stooge hid many insecurities including a dependency on food and alcohol and intense need for companionship. In 1945, he married Marion Buxbaum and entered into a unhealthy relationship where he attempted to earn her affection through expensive gifts. The two ended up divorcing nine months later in an extremely bitter legal battle. In his despair, Curly sought comfort in his old habits leading to weight gain, increased hypertension, retinal hemorrhages and ultimately a stroke.
Walking the Walk
Curly’s signature way of walking was actually due to a childhood incident and not clever improvisation. When he was twelve, Curly (birth-name Jerome) accidentally shot himself in the ankle while cleaning out a rifle. Frightened of surgery, he decided to forgo the corrective measure which “resulted in a noticeably thinner left leg” and a limp he eventually hid with “his famous exaggerated walk.”
Heartbreak Ended Larry’s Life
Larry Fine also suffered his fair share of misfortune before his death in 1975. Following his termination from Columbia Pictures, he ended up bankrupt due to his gambling addiction and reckless spending habits. In November 1961, his son passed away in a car accident and several years later, his wife whom he adored unexpectedly died of a heart attack while he was on tour. Three years later, Fine suffered a stroke that left him confined to a wheelchair before his death.
Curly Learned Violin as Physical Therapy
Curly wasn’t the only one who experienced a childhood accident. At four years old, Larry suffered a chemical burn in his father’s jewelry shop when he spilled oxalic acid on his arm which burned its way through his skin, exposing his muscles. Receiving a skin graft, doctors suggested he take up boxing to strengthen the damaged tissues but his mother pursuaded him to take violin instead. He later became a gifted musician by the age of nine when he played for the Philadelphia Orchestra.
That Signature ‘Do Was An Act of Rebellion
Moe Howard’s iconic bowl-cut was actually the result of childhood rebellion. As a boy, Howard’s mom refused to cut his hair, keeping it shoulder-length which caused him to be a target of frequent teasing at school. During an interview on the Mike Douglas Show, he revealed “I used to fight my way to school, in school and back home from school.” Fed up with the constant bullying, Moe stole a pair of scissors and cut his hair in his backyard’s shed.
Laughed Himself to Death
Moe’s brother Shemp, a member of the original Three Stooges from 1920 to 1932, passed away unexpectedly in November 1955 after attending a boxing match with associates Al Winston and Bobby Silverman. During the taxi ride home, Shemp had just finished telling a joke and began lighting a cigar when he suffered a massive heart attack. Slumping over into Winston’s lap, Al was burned by the cigar and believed Shemp was playing a joke on him before he realized the awful truth behind the unfortunate situation.
They Seldom Used Body Doubles— And Payed the Price
The Three Stooges were no strangers to physical comedy, often injuring themselves or each other to trigger a laugh. However, during one short, the trio flat out refused to participate unless they received stunt doubles for a certain scene. While filming “Three Little Pigskins,” the group is meant to be tackled by a group of football players while taking paparazzi photos. Fearing they would receive grave injuries from professional athletes, Larry pleaded with the director to hire doubles for the scene. Their decision to opt out of filming was reinforced by the fact that Larry and Curly had already suffered injuries on set (a lost tooth and broken leg) and didn’t want to further risk more harm.
Kept in the Dark
During the first twelve years of their career, the Stooges were completely unaware of how popular their comedy had become. Columbia Pictures President Harry Cohn never revealed to the trio just how close to success they really were and lied about audience’s reactions to their films. Believing their days were numbered, the Three Stooges kept quiet when it came to asking for a pay increase (reportedly they were paid $1,000 a week as a whole to be split evenly between the three) or a better contract.
The Last Laugh
Among Cohn’s other scare tactics to keep the Stooges in line was denying exhibitors from showing the trio’s performances unless they also agreed to showcase some of the studio’s lesser-quality B films. The trio’s contracts with the studio “included an open option” with a yearly renewal which Cohn would always do at the last minute. Intending to keep the Stooges from reaching their highest comedic potential, he would constantly remind them that “the market for comedy shorts is dying out, fellas.”
Not only were the Stooges treated poorly by Columbia Pictures, they were also given the leftovers from previous productions. Instead of chipping in to pay for the shorts’ scenery and cast wardrobe, Columbia reused sets, costumes and props from finished feature projects.
Curtain Call During Filming
During Curly’s steady decline in health, his greatest fears were confirmed after he checked himself into the hospital after filming “Rockin in the Rockies.” Fearing for his friend’s well-being, Moe pleaded with Cohn to allow Curly to rest after being released from the hospital but was denied due to Columbia Pictures’ fear of losing money. After a two month tour with live performances seven days a week, Curly’s health took a turn for the worst with him looking like “a former shell of himself.” He began to lose considerable weight, forget his lines and slur his speech. On May 6, 1946, he suffered a stroke while waiting to film the last scene of “Half-Wits Holiday.”
Exit Stage Left
The day of his stroke in 1946, Curly was sitting in director Jules White’s chair and hadn’t responded to his cue to take the stage. Moe found his costar “with his head dropped to his lap” and unresponsive except for a few muffled cries. In 1948, he suffered a second major stroke that left him partially paralyzed and wheelchair bound until 1950. In 1951, a third stroke landed him in North Hollywood Hospital and Sanitarium where they later attempted to discharge him for his unruly behavior due his severe mental decline. He was then moved to Baldy View Sanitarium where he died at age 48, having “lived the shortest life of the Stooges.”
A Slap in the Face
In December 1957, Columbia Pictures decided to fire the Three Stooges after their 24 year contribution to comedy. While the studio profited off the trio’s antics, the actors themselves only reaped minor success when it came to their income. After being kicked out, Moe attempted to return to the studio weeks later to give the executives a proper goodbye but was stopped at the gate and denied entry for not having a current studio pass.
On Hitler’s Hit List
The Three Stooges’ rising popularity and anti-fascist themes threatened to undermine the credibility of Hitler’s Third Reich and caused them to be on the Fuhrer’s “personal death list.” The films “You Natzy Spy!” and “I’ll Never Heil You Again” mocked the Nazi regime and involved the Stooges’ taking on the personas of the party’s leaders. The films caused controversy due to their political leaning and instigation of America declaring war with Germany and were in complete violation of the Hayes Code which declared any representation of foreign countries but be done in a respectful and fair manner.
A Lovers’ Quarrel
Under the name “Ted Healy and his Southern Gentlemen,” Healy is credited for pushing the Stooges toward stardom. While he did wonders for their career, Healy earned himself a questionable reputation. His love for the bottle being well-known, the comedian would often get blind drunk and engage in frequent fights. In 1922, he marred singer Betty Brown only to divorce in 1932 after his beloved attempted to sue heiress Mary Brown Warburton for “alienation of her husband’s affections.”
Though mainly remembered as the founder of The Three Stooges, Ted Healy had an impressive career on his own as an actor and comedian. After starring in a few films with the trio, they parted ways due to a conflict regarding a movie contract and Healy went on to pursue a solo acting career. The night of his death- December 21, 1937- is still to this day steeped in controversy and believed to be among Hollywood’s infamous celebrity murder cover-ups.
After a celebration at the Trocadero nightclub, Healy got into a dispute with three “unidentified” men (some sources state they were Wallace Beery, Pat DiCicco, and an unknown assailant believed to be Albert R. Broccoli) which led to Healy’s brutal beating in the club’s parking lot. Succumbing to convulsions, Healy died a day after the attack with autopsy reports stating his death was due to either a heart attack or inflamed kidneys from “chronic alcoholism” and not from injuries sustained in the assault. Some believe the conflicting medical reports and short police investigation were movie mogul Louis B. Meyer’s attempts to protect his prized star Beery from scandal and public suspicion.
Reliving the Past
Many attempts to make a film tribute to The Three Stooges were plagued by director doubts and casting mishaps. In 1976, Mel Brooks abandoned plans to make a film starring himself, Dom DeLuise and Marty Feldman as the lovable trio. In 2005, Mel Gibson released a television biographical film that delved into the private and somewhat painful lives of the actors that left audiences sobbing in their seats rather than crying with laughter. For the 2012 film, the original cast was meant to be Sean Penn (Larry), Jim Carrey (Curly) and Benicio del Toro (Moe) before they each dropped out.
Up in Smoke
During the initial stages of planning a Three Stooges movie, Variety reported that in 1993, Columbia Pictures was using the film’s funds for “illicit activities” though they never elaborated on such a claim. Two months before the report, Heidi Fleiss was arrested for “servicing Columbia’s executive suites” and rumors began to emerge regarding the money being used for prostitution and cocaine smuggling.
Kicked to the Curb
During the 1940s, the Stooges attempted to venture to the small screen in the form of an ABC pilot called “Jerks of All Trades” where the trio would attempt various jobs during each episode hoping to find success. The pilot took only one day to film but never aired due to Columbia Pictures’ vice president of business affairs halting the broadcast. The Stooges were warned that their contract stipulation restricted them from television performances that might compete with the success of their film shorts. Columbia Pictures also threatened to sue the trio should they attempt to sell the television series so the pilot was shelved and production of the series was abandoned out of fear.
Wish Upon a Star
Having been led to believe their comedy was underappreciated by audiences, The Three Stooges gave up on their dream of having a star on the infamous Hollywood Walk of Fame. It was only after the passing of Larry and Curly that the trio finally got their wish and earned their rightful spot in 1983 on 1560 Vine Street.
Appealing to the Masses
A theory surrounding The Three Stooges is that while men whole-heartedly enjoy the trio’s wild antics, the vast majority of women don’t. It’s believed that women don’t enjoy slap-stick comedy and “respond to seeing someone they dislike suffering pain with empathy” while men find amusement in their rival’s misfortune. Other opinions on the theory suggest women find the Stooges to “represent[s] almost everything [they] find[s] repulsive in a man” and believe the physical gags were to violent to be considered funny.
An Unfortunate Miscommunication
The Three Stooges’ comedy reached international heights. However, despite the recognition, the trio’s namesake suffered unfortunate translations across the globe. In Chinese, they are known as “Three Smelly Shoemakers” while in Japan, they’re “Three Idiot Generals.” The Spanish translation amounts to “The Three Crackpots” while in Turkish, they’re known as “The Three Cronies.”