Few faces are as instantly identifiable as the legendary Three Stooges. The Stooges are arguably the most popular and influential comedy team in the history of Hollywood. Even more than half a century after the end of their respective careers, Larry, Moe, Curly, and Shemp’s goofy mugs can still make even the most stone-faced schmuck crack a smile.
But as we’ve learned in the last five or so decades, behind the scenes, the Stooge’s lives weren’t exactly a laughing matter. Despite what their countless fans saw onscreen, the Stooges were real live people who got trapped in the messed-up, chaotic, and complicated world of Old Hollywood. Despite being some of the money-makers of their time, they never received the recognition or reward they deserved. In fact, their story is one of exploitation, addiction, bodily harm, and even murder!
For every humorous onscreen gag, there was always some kind of twisted story unfolding behind the scenes. Join us as we dive deep into the dark, sordid, and tragic world of the kings of slapstick.
Facts Verse Presents: The Three Stooges Were Suffering the Whole Time
Hitler Put The Stooges On His Death List
History’s most sinister villain, Adolf Hitler, saw the Stooge’s immense popularity in the 1940s as a possible threat to the credibility of the Third Reich. What really got under the Nazi leader’s skin was the Stooge’s short called ‘You Nazsty Spy!’. This hilarious two-reeler was a ruthless no-holds-barred critique of the fuhrer and his fascist regime.
The film was released nine months before Charlie Chaplin put out his well-known film, The Great Dictator, thus earning him a spot on Hitler’s death list as well, and a full year before America entered World War II. The film was produced in direct defiance of both the Hays code and the prevailing attitude in Hollywood at the time, which was to not rock the boat too much by going after the Nazis. Simply put, the only thing that Hollywood seemed to care about was not jeopardizing the overseas market.
So while many might not think of them as such, the Stooges ended up becoming courageous, anti-fascist crusaders. They were willing to put their livelihood and personal safety on the line for the sake of liberty. That’s something that the Marx Brothers, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, or any other icon embedded in the American zeitgeist could claim.
The Stooges Rose To Fame During Great Depression
During some of the darkest years in American history, The Three Stooges rose out of the ashes as the country and the world was falling deeper and deeper into despair. The Stooges were somehow able to force a smile onto the faces of their struggling fans with their dim-witted shenanigans. They refused to give up in the face of economic turmoil, and that came to be one of their defining features.
A recurring theme in their act was that of anti-aristocracy and anti-wealth. While audiences were used to seeing depictions of glitz and glamour onscreen, the Stooges weren’t afraid to mock the wealthy and their highfalutin lifestyles.
Society’s elites were often the target of the trio’s antics and tomfoolery. By making the elites look like a bunch of total clowns, the Stooges helped uplift the downhearted masses.
Their Profits Were Stolen
Joe DeRita, aka Curly Joe, the last surviving Stooge, joined the comedy trio in 1958 and remained a member for well over a decade. While he was laying on his deathbed in 1993, DeRita’s share of the Stooge’s merchandising profits which he had been receiving continuously for over a quarter century, suddenly dropped.
Curly Joe’s wife, Jean, and Larry Fine’s granddaughter ended up filing a suit against Moe’s Daughter and Grandson, claiming that they had cheated them out of a whopping $5 million. The families got involved in a very public and bitter feud and DeRita and Fine sought a court injunction to put a freeze on all funds until Moe’s heirs could account for the missing profits.
If this story couldn’t get any stranger, Bella Lugosi Jr, son of the famous Hollywood vampire, was hired on to represent DeRita and the Fine Family. In the end, Moe’s grandson and daughter were both found guilty of a breach of contract and were ordered to pay DeRita and Fine $2.6 million.
Tragedy Struck Early On
Initially, Larry Fine’s name was ‘Louis Feinberg’. He grew up in a working-class Russian-Jewish family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When he was still a child, Fine’s family suffered a tragic loss when his infant brother suddenly passed away.
The grief of that incident would haunt the Fine family forever, but that wasn’t the only time that Larry ended up experiencing a catastrophe.
Fine’s parents supported their family by operating a jewelry store. On one occasion, Fine was hanging around the store when he spotted something that he assumed was a scrumptious beverage. He picked up the bottle and almost started guzzling it down. Saving the day, his father abruptly smacked the bottle out of his hands, spilling the liquid onto Larry’s arm.
As he quickly discovered, albeit too late, the liquid was actually a poisonous acid used to test jewelry for it’s gold content. Fine may have gotten a bit of a chemical burn, but thanks to his father’s quick thinking, his life was saved.
If it weren’t for the acid incident, the Three Stooges as we know and love them might not have ever existed. After burning his forearm with the acid, Fine’s parents signed him up for violin lessons in an attempt to rebuild his arm’s strength. This musical training is what first sparked Fine’s interest in show business.
Another Close Call
Larry wasn’t the only Stooge to survive a horrid childhood accident. When Jerome Howard, the comic who would later be known as Curly, was 12 years old, his life was almost cut short, thus depriving the world of his talents, when he was involved in an accident with a firearm.
Howard was in the process of cleaning the gun when he accidentally caused it to fire. When he looked down, he saw blood – and lots of it. Fortunately, the accident only resulted in him receiving a flesh wound in the leg, and it luckily didn’t cause any serious damage. Even so, it did result in him walking with his signature wobble of a walk which he would later come to be famous for.
Moe’s First Gig’s Unexpected Ending
As an adolescent, Moe took just about every theater-related job that he could find. It didn’t matter what he had to do, as long as he got to be close to real live actors, he was happy. Eventually, working odd jobs like running errands for actors finally paid off when a local film company offered him bit parts in their movies.
In 1910, while he was still a teen, however, the studio that Moe worked for suffered a massive fire. All known copies of every film that he appeared in during this period in his pre-Stooge acting career ended up getting permanently destroyed in the blaze.
The Stooge’s Unceremonious Exit
In December of 1957, The Three Stooges were shocked when they were suddenly fired from Columbia Pictures. Even though they had just spent the last 24 years making low-budget shorts for the studio for essentially chump change while those same shorts ended up netting Columbia millions, they didn’t even have the courtesy to send them off with a fitting farewell or so much as a ‘thank you’.
To add insult to injury, a couple of weeks later, when Moe arrived at the studio to bid farewell to several studio execs, he was barred entry at the gates by a security guard due to the fact that he didn’t have that year’s studio pass.
When the Stooges were given their unceremonious and insulting exit, Columbia Pictures had enough films completed to keep Stooge releases coming for another year and a half.
Harry Cohn Couldn’t Have Cared Less
While he was president and chief of production for Columbia, Harry Cohn transformed the studio into one of the most prominent money-making movie factories in Tinseltown. There’s no denying that Cohn was enormously talented, but he had a nasty reputation for being combative and unlikeable. It’s known that he would boss his employees around like they were worthless scum, and he always prioritized profit over everything else.
Even after Curly suffered a string of minor strokes, Cohn reportedly forced him to continue working with no regard for his health or well-being. Not only was Cohn demanding and heartless when it came to expectations of his actors and staff, but he was also notorious for being shockingly manipulative. He seemed to thrive on taking advantage of the Stooges financially. In fact, he kept them underpaid throughout their entire acting careers. Even when the Stooge’s films experienced a sudden surge in popularity after appearing on television, Cohn sat back and collected millions off their hard work while leaving them with next to nothing.
Though the Stooges are known for their slapstick humor, not many know about the actual violence that took place on set.
Director Julius White seemed to pay the least regard to the health and safety of the Stooges. In his films, he injected heavy amounts of violence and senselessly grotesque gags. Upon his insistence, items like scissors, saws, and mallets were incorporated to heighten the amount of violence featured in each scene.
These selfish and cruel demands frequently resulted in the Stooge’s injuries. On numerous occasions, the Stooges sustained physical injuries such as fractured ribs, broken bones, sprained ankles, and cracked teeth.
The Murder Of Ted Healy
The founder of the Three Stooges, Ted Healy, was arguably one of the most influential comics of the 1920s and ’30s. He’s been described by historians as possessing a volatile Jeckyll-and-Hyde-like personality in addition to being a brilliant comic.
On the evening of December 20l, 1937, a very drunk Healy hobbled into a Hollywood nightclub called Trocadero. There, he ran into fellow film star Wallace Beery and New York City mobster Lucky Luciano’s top grunt, Pat DiCicco. After the three had a rather heated exchange, they made their way out to the back parking lot, where Healy was beaten savagely.
Dipping in and out of consciousness, Healy managed to call Shemp up to tell him about what had just happened. Not long after that, he fell into a coma and died a day later. The police investigation into the homicide was quickly shut down, leaving many to believe that Louis B. Mayer covered up the murder to shield his biggest star, Wallace Beery, from repercussions.
Curly’s Final Years Were Heartbreaking
Curly had the most tragic life of all the Stooges. He was betrayed by virtually everyone that he loved and trusted. He also fell heavily into substance abuse to mask his pain. In his final years, as we’ve already touched on briefly, Curly suffered a succession of strokes. These left him paralyzed, hopelessly depressed, and confined to a wheelchair.
When he was 47, since his family was unable to care for him and his health was rapidly declining, Curly was placed into the care of a nursing home. Due to his mental deterioration, Curly became very problematic for the nursing staff. In time, his family was advised that they should commit him to a psychiatric hospital.
Moe refused the physician’s suggestions, but none-the-less, his brother ended up getting sent off to the Baldy View Sanitarium in San Gabriel, California. Curly died there bedridden and utterly alone at the age of 48 in January 1952.
The Three Stooges will be forever remembered for their unique brand of knockabout comedy, but as we’ve just seen, behind the scenes, their lives were far from funny. It’s a shame that they were treated as cruelly as they were, but hopefully, no star will ever have to receive that kind of treatment again.
Before you move on to watching another one of our facts-packed videos, take a moment to share your thoughts on this one in the comments. Who was your favorite of The Three Stooges, and did you know that they never received the compensation or recognition they deserved? Let us know, and as always, thanks for watching!