Few artists have suffered more for their art than Moe Howard, Curly Howard, and Larry Fine, the most recognizable members of the revolving comedy troupe billed as The Three Stooges. For decades, the former vaudeville performers filmed a series of shorts that used pain, pies, and misunderstandings as the basis for their unique style of physical comedy. Check out some facts about their early days, their surprisingly economical salaries, and why Adolf Hitler wanted them dead.
1. THEIR ORIGINAL RINGLEADER DIED OF UNNATURAL CAUSES.
Having an eye for stage work since their childhood days in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn, brothers Moses “Moe” Horwitz, Jerome “Curly” Horwitz, and Samuel “Shemp” Horwitz—who were all billed under the last name “Howard”—got their big break when childhood friend and vaudeville performer Ted Healy enlisted them to be slapstick-heavy “stooges” for his comedy act in 1922. (Another performer, Bozo-haired Larry Fine, would join them; Curly was added to the show following Shemp’s departure.) Though they toured with Healy for years, the men grew tired of his abrasive attitude and excessive drinking and eventually parted ways in 1934 to pursue film stardom independent of his influence.
In 1937, Healy’s volatility caught up to him: Following an argument with an associate of mobster Lucky Luciano named Pasquale DiCicco, Healy was beaten to death outside of a bar on the Sunset Strip. Actor Wallace Beery was also believed to be part of the melee, and future James Bond producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli was an eyewitness. No one was ever charged with the crime, though, and allegations that Shemp may have had information about the violent encounter were never confirmed, possibly out of fear of reprisal from criminal figurehead Luciano.
2. THEY CO-STARRED WITH LUCILLE BALL.
For a 1934 short titled Three Little Pigskins, the Stooges found themselves starring alongside a new Columbia contract player named Lucille Ball. Ball, who would later become a comedy legend in her own right, was once asked what she learned from working with the formidable comedy team. “How to duck,” she replied.
3. HITLER WANTED THEM DEAD.
Having established their comic personas on film, the Stooges proceeded to make some accidental history. Their 1940 short, You Nazty Spy!, was the first American production to openly make a mockery of Adolf Hitler’s regime. (Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator opened nine months later.) The short was perceived as a great insult by the Führer, who listed the Stooges as favored casualties on his own personal death list. (It’s not known whether he named each one individually.)
4. THEIR SIGNATURE EYE POKE WAS CULLED FROM A REAL-LIFE INCIDENT.
In Stooge body language, nothing says “I despise you” more efficiently than jutting out the ring and index fingers in a “V” formation and jabbing them into someone’s eyes. This trademark maneuver was apparently based on a real incident. Once, when the gang was playing cards, Shemp became enraged when he believed Larry Fine was cheating. Shemp stood up and poked Larry in both eyes. An observant Moe filed it away for future use onscreen.
5. THEY WORKED CHEAP.
Despite their incredible popularity starring in a series of shorts for Columbia Pictures—they worked a total of 23 years for the studio—Columbia boss Harry Cohn was notoriously stingy. Every year, the Stooges would be forced to renegotiate their one-year contract, with Cohn asserting that the shorts division of the company was not profitable. Believing the spin and fearing Cohn’s alleged criminal connections could be problematic if they made waves, the Stooges worked for a relative pittance most of their careers. When Columbia shut down their shorts department in 1957, the men were fired.
6. THEY MADE LIVE APPEARANCES.
Today’s Stooge fan has to be content with the over 200 shorts circulating on television, but there was once a time the group could be seen live and in all their nose-tweaking glory. During and following their stint at Columbia, the gang had time to tour, taking their live act on the road to different cities throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Following the passing of Curly Howard in 1952, the trio’s live show made use of replacement Stooge Joe DeRita. This sometimes confused kids who came out for the shows, and Larry Fine was apparently a little curt in explaining it. One young guest recalled that he had been puzzled by Curly’s absence and asked Fine about it while the performer was shaking hands. “Where’s Curly?” the seven-year-old asked. “Curly’s dead,” Fine replied.
7. A REPLACEMENT STOOGE HAD A NO-VIOLENCE CONTRACT CLAUSE.
Sorting out the musical chairs of Stooges enrollment can be difficult: While Moe and Larry were largely engrained, the trio was originally rounded out with Shemp before he departed for a solo career: Curly was his replacement. Following Curly’s departure due to illness, Shemp stepped back in, but he died in 1955. After briefly considering a run as the Two Stooges, Moe and Larry recruited Joe Besser, a comic actor who already had a deal with Columbia, in 1956. But Besser wasn’t quite as game for the physical comedy as his predecessors. He insisted his contract contain language prohibiting him from being abused to excess, including anything pastry-related. “I never was the type of comic to be hit by a pie,” he said, a mentality that calls into question the decision to become part of The Three Stooges. Following Besser’s departure in 1959, the group roped in Joe DeRita for live shows and several feature films, including 1961's Snow White and the Three Stooges.
8. THERE WAS A LOST STOOGE.
A familiar face in 35 of the Columbia shorts, Emil Sitka played a perennial foil for the Stooges, standing aghast at their manic behavior and uncouth manners. When Larry Fine died in 1974, the remaining original Stooge, Moe Howard, decided to mount a new feature film production and asked Sitka to fill Fine’s shoes. Sitka signed a contract, but Moe died in 1975 before filming could commence.
9. SEAN PENN ALMOST PLAYED LARRY.
For years, filmmakers Bobby and Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber) attempted to mount a big-budget continuation of the Stooges that would replicate their comedy rather than attempt a behind-the-scenes chronicle of their careers. The two came close in 2009, when Sean Penn agreed to play Larry, Benicio del Toro was cast as Moe, and Jim Carrey agreed to play Curly. Carrey even began putting on 40 pounds of extra weight before the project fell apart. The Farrellys eventually made the movie in 2012, with Sean Hayes as Larry, Will Sasso as Curly, and Chris Diamantopoulos as Moe.
10. THERE’S A STOOGES MUSEUM IN PENNSYLVANIA.
The Stooges’ vital contributions to pop culture have always deserved some archival recognition. They got it in 2004, when The Stoogeum opened its doors in Ambler, Pennsylvania, about 25 miles outside of Philadelphia. The museum’s founder is Gary Lassin, who married Larry Fine’s great niece in 1981. A Stooges fan, Lassin acquired over 100,000 items related to their careers and displays roughly 3500 pieces at a time. There’s a Hall of Shemp, a game area (with Whack-a-Moe), as well as countless artifacts.