Few faces are as instantly recognizable as the Three Stooges. Even over a half-century after the end of their careers, Moe, Larry, Curly, and Shemp’s can still make even the stoniest faces crack. But behind all the laughs and fun were real people trapped in the messed-up world of Old Hollywood. For every gag, there’s some kind of twisted story behind the scenes, so let’s dive into the dark history of the kings of slapstick.
1. Some Of Them Are Related
Some like to paint the Three Stooges as a family act—but were they really? The answer is…sort of yes, and sort of no. Essentially all incarnations of the group consisted of Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and a third stooge. While Moe and Larry shared no real-life familial relation, the two most famous “third” stooges—Curly Howard and Shemp Howard—were both real-life brothers of Moe’s (and of each other’s).
When you go through what the Stooges did, it’s good to have family by your side…
2. They Built New Identities
Moe, Shemp, and Curly were all brothers in real life, but their last name was not really Howard. As brothers, they all took on the last name “Howard” as a shared stage name—despite their brotherly relationship not playing any overt part in their act. Their real last name was Horwitz, and they had two other brothers in addition to the ones in the act.
But life for the boys wasn’t always fun and games growing up.
3. Tragedy Struck Early On
Larry Fine’s original name was “Louis Feinberg.” He grew up in a modest, working-class Russian Jewish family in Philadelphia. Tragically, the family suffered a horrific loss during Fine’s childhood. The future lost his infant brother when he was still just a boy—a grief that would haunt his family forever. And the misfortunes didn’t end there.
4. He Had A Horrific Accident
Fine’s parents supported the family by running a jewelry store. On one occasion, young Larry was hanging around the store and spotted something he assumed to be an appetizing beverage. He didn’t realize his terrible mistake until it was too late. He picked up the bottle and was about to start drinking when his father abruptly smacked it out of his hands—spilling some of the liquid onto the future star’s arm.
As it turns out, this liquid was a poisonous acid used to test jewelry for its levels of gold content. Larry’s father narrowly saved his life—but as the acid burned up the boy’s arm, I doubt he had time to feel grateful.
5. The Incident Changed His Life—And History
If not for the acid incident that nearly claimed Larry’s young life, the Three Stooges as we know them might never have existed. In response to the damage the acid did to his forearm, his parents signed him up for violin lessons to help rebuild the arm’s strength. This musical training is what first inspired Larry’s interest in show business and performing.
I wonder if he ever looked at the horrible scar on his arm and thought about silver linings…
6. There Was Another Close Call
Fine wasn’t the only future Stooge to survive his childhood by the skin of his teeth. Jerome Howard, later to be known to the world as Curly, nearly deprived the world of his talents when he had an accident with a firearm at the age of 12. The youngster was in the process of cleaning the weapon when he accidentally caused it to go off. Curly looked down—and saw blood.
Luckily, the incident only wounded him in the leg and did not cause any more serious damage—but it also created the unmistakable silly-looking walk with which he would later come to be associated.
7. They Weren’t All That Studious
Moe Howard had a fascination with the world of performing since early childhood. Although this eventually paid off for him, it caused a lot of problems with his schooling. Young Moe’s hobby distracted him from his studies, resulting in poor grades. The poor grades then demotivated him from taking school seriously, resulting in him skipping class and spending more time in local theaters.
Moe ultimately dropped out of high school for good just two months after enrolling. But no one could have predicted where it would lead him next.
8. He Had A Strange Path To Show Business
As an adolescent, Moe took on any kind of theater-related odd job he could find—anything to be close to real live actors. He even ran errands for actors without getting paid, all just to get on their good side. Eventually, this paid off for him in a huge way. A local film company started giving him bit parts in their movies as a gesture of gratitude.
But even that would prove to be both a blessing and a curse.
9. His First Gig Had An Abrupt Ending
If you’re surprised to hear about young Moe’s pre-Stooges film career, there’s a perfectly good reason why you’ve never encountered any of these works before. In 1910, when the future comedian was still just a teenager, the film studio that he worked for suffered a devastating fire. All known copies of every movie Moe had appeared in during this era got permanently destroyed as a result.
I guess our 21st-century eyes were never meant to behold these gems.
10. His Hair Really Looked Like That
One of the most easily identifiable aspects of the Stooges is their wacky hairstyles. But as funny as their hair is, it wasn’t part of the act—in one case, at least. Moe’s famous “bowl cut” is the way his hair really looked both on and off the screen. As a young man, his mother refused to cut his hair, since she liked to see it grown out nice and long. Her preferences had terrible consequences for young Moe.
The other kids at school teased him mercilessly. So, the mischievous youngster tried giving himself a makeshift haircut in his backyard shed, not really caring what it came out looking like. And the rest is history.
11. He Had A Surprising Side Gig
Before developing the “bowl cut,” Mama Howard kept Moe’s hair long in part because she had always wanted a daughter, and the long hair made him look more feminine. As awkward as that experience might be for many children, Moe used it to his advantage—his long hair helped get him a summer job as a “diving girl” in the aquatic show of Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman.
Hey, when you’re a struggling actor, a job’s a job.
12. It’s Unclear How The Group Started
So just how did this school-skipping, theater-loving child’s youthful misadventures morph into a legendary comedy troupe? Well, the true answer is a mystery. We know that the Three Stooges act began when Ted Healy, a childhood friend of Moe and Shemp’s, began using the moniker to describe the goofy sidekicks in his Vaudeville performances.
But accounts of the group’s history still argue to this day over whether Moe or Shemp was the first to join and work alongside him. Either way, it wasn’t long before one brother recruited the other—and the epic story had begun.
13. It May Have All Been An Accident
According to one version of the story, it all started one night when Moe spotted Shemp in the audience and the pair began jokingly shouting back and forth at each other. They say Healy found this so amusing that he hired Shemp to be a permanent part of the act. And things were about to develop quickly from there.
14. One Of Them Had Other Plans
When Healy’s crew first discovered Larry Fine, his performing repertoire could not possibly have been more different from the slapstick comedy stylings we know him for today. Quite the contrary—he was a serious violinist and dancer. He had no intention of ever doing anything in the comedy arena. Nevertheless, the other stooges saw the potential in Fine and convinced him to join their troupe. There was no going back now.
15. Larry’s Hair Also Goes Way Back
One of the most instantly recognizable aspects of the Three Stooges is Larry Fine’s bizarre hairstyle—bald on top, with completely wild curly hair emerging off both sides of his head. As it turns out, this too originated from the troupe’s early vaudeville days with Healy. In fact, they got the idea on the very first night they all met.
16. The Story Behind It Isn’t What You’d Expect
As George Costanza once observed, “No one walks into a beauty parlor and says ‘Gimme the Larry Fine.’” So just where did this unique hairstyle come from? As the story goes, Healy came backstage to Fine’s dressing room, trying to convince him to join the Stooges. During this meeting, Larry innocently washed his hair while listening to the conversation, and his curls happened to form an awkward shape as they dried.
Healy thought the look was hilarious and insisted that Fine keep it that way from then on. Time would prove that many fans liked it too.
17. They Encountered Hatred
Larry had several reasons to celebrate when the Stooges added him to their troupe. Before that, his life as a traveling musician was mostly miserable. In some small, not-so-diverse towns where he performed, he often faced discrimination due to his Jewish heritage. On the worst nights, it was humiliating. An antisemitic stage manager once denied him access to his own dressing room backstage, and instead made him prepare for his show in a bathroom.
But that jerk would be eating Larry’s dust before long.
18. They Had Forgotten Co-Stars
Despite having the number “three” in their name, there were originally supposed to be four Stooges—Moe and Shemp Howard, Larry Fine, and a man named Fred Sanborn. On top of that, they were never meant to be anything more than a team of sidekicks in Ted Healy’s touring stage shows. But quickly, Ted realized hiring the Stooges was a big mistake. It didn’t take long for them to completely outshine him.
19. They Went Through A Marketing Change
The two Howard brothers and Larry Fine eventually left Healey and formed their own act. They soon found success getting gigs of their own—but they originally went for a totally different image. They initially called themselves things like the “Three Lost Souls” and “The Southern Gentlemen”—not quite conjuring up the same image of insane comedy as the name “Stooges” evokes.
But, as you might have guessed, the story doesn’t end there.
20. Their Reunion Didn’t End Well
Not long after the Stooges parted ways with Healy, their old boss tried to win them back over. Healy had secured a stint in a Broadway revue, and this was enough to entice the boys to rejoin him. But not only did this arrangement not last, it also forever changed the course of the group’s history. After endless contract disputes and episodes of Healy’s heavy drinking causing trouble, Shemp Howard decided that he’d had enough.
He angrily quit the show and left the group—meaning that the guys suddenly needed a new “third” stooge to complete their routines.
21. Someone Stepped Up—And Changed Everything
The very next day after Shemp quit the act, Moe had an idea. He knew how much his and Shemp’s younger brother, Jerome, looked up to them, and he thought this might be a great opportunity to let Jerome try his hand at being part of the show. Without hesitation, Jerome enthusiastically shaved his hair and mustache to show off how funny he could be—he didn’t even have to be asked.
Jerome quickly joined the act full-time, and began using the nickname “Curly.” And with that, a whole new era in comedy history was about to begin.
22. Curly Replaced Shemp—Not The Other Way Around
For those keeping track, this does indeed mean that Shemp—not Curly—was the original third Stooge until the latter replaced him. This is surprising to most fans, as most of us primarily know the Stooges from their epic Columbia short films starring Larry, Curly, and Moe. Shemp only came along in the later films, right? Well, that wasn’t quite the case.
As it turns out, this innocent little misconception is more than just a fun piece of trivia—it’s connected to a much darker chapter in the troupe’s history. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…
23. Curly Almost Got Rejected
When Moe first proposed his brother Jerome as a possible replacement for Shemp, Healy thought it was a terrible idea. During his first meeting with Jerry, the future comedian looked very different than the way we all remember him now—he had a full head of red hair and a handlebar mustache. Upon meeting this younger Howard brother, Healy immediately remarked that the boy did not “look funny.”
Undeterred, the future star left the room and returned moments later with his entire head shaved. Apparently, this stunt was enough to change Healy’s mind.
24. They Had A Little Secret
The boys developed a lot of their signature violent slapstick style of comedy during these early days—but you’ll be happy to know, there was a twist. As painful as the eye pokes, slaps, and ear-twisting always seemed, Moe never actually physically hurt his fellow Stooges in the act. In reality, he used a combination of optical illusions and speed to make it appear as though he was smacking the other fellas around.
But while this pain was fake, someone very close to them was about to find out that violence can often be all too real.
25. Their Old Boss Wasn’t Happy
When it became clear that the Three Stooges were achieving success on their own, the group’s founder, Ted Healy, became jealous and angry. He began routinely threatening to use lawyers against the group—to the point where Shemp almost quit show business out of fear. Luckily, the team’s newfound success made it possible for the others to offer him enough of a pay raise to stick around. But what were they going to do about their old boss?
26. He Tried To Replace Them
Still determined to not be outdone, Healy decided that if he couldn’t win back the Stooges, he would try to compete with them. Unfortunately, he only managed to embarrass himself. He hired a team of lookalikes to imitate the mannerisms and styles of the original Stooges, and took them out on the road as his new act. They went by the names “Mousey,” “Dick, and “Sammy.” Unfortunately for Healy, this imitation would never match the magic of the original.
But this would soon prove to be far from Healy’s biggest problem.
27. He Met A Tragic End
The saga of Healy’s unsuccessful efforts to win back the Stooges abruptly ended in 1937 when he suddenly passed at the age of 41. To this day, no one is exactly sure what brought about his mysterious and untimely demise. Conflicting reports at the time claimed both that he’d had a heart attack, and elsewhere that he’d been fatally wounded in some kind of altercation at a club.
It was a dark time in the Stooges’ history—but things still got even stranger than that.
28. Vastly Different Stories Emerged
Moe Howard would later relate having heard several first-hand witness accounts of what went on that night—but even these stories were totally inconsistent. One mutual friend claimed Healy had been accosted by a group of college students, while a wrestler claimed to have seen Healy emerge from a taxi that night—bleeding and confused.
But one shocking allegation surpassed all the rest.
29. Someone Unexpected Got Involved
Years later, a new allegation would emerge about what happened on the night Ted Healy lost his life—and no one saw it coming. A mysterious new source emerged, claiming that the “college boys” the one witness mentioned weren’t college boys at all—they were a group of Hollywood moguls. They either had some beef with Healy, or simply got into an intoxicated fight with him.
Either way, they were not the kind of men you wanted to mess with. This new claim seemed far-fetched—but there was more proof than just one whistle-blower.
30. A Movie Star Was Involved
The source claimed that one of the assailants was a true heavy-hitter: Oscar-winning actor Wallace Beery. And wouldn’t you know it, producer Albert Broccoli later admitted to having had a physical altercation involving Healy and Beery that very same night. While no direct evidence of this theory has ever been demonstrated, this adds yet another layer of strange mystery to the story.
The Stooges were free from Healy’s meddling—but it came at a terrible price.
31. Someone Didn’t Like What They Saw
Despite all the bizarre controversy surrounding his passing, investigators eventually recorded the Stooges’ boss’ official cause of death as complications from his years of heavy drinking—leaving a whole slew of questions forever unanswered. The circumstances surrounding Healy’s passing were so bizarre that his own personal doctor refused to sign his death certificate.
But as shocking as this already is, things still somehow got even sadder.
32. The Timing Could Not Have Been Worse
As you’d expect, the Stooges were shocked and disturbed by the sudden and tragic loss of their former boss. But according to Moe, the timing of Healy’s passing could not possibly have been worse. The Stooge pointed out that the reason Healy was out on the town that night in the first place was because he was celebrating the birth of his first child.
Apparently, Healy had been jealous of the Stooges for years, due to the fact that they all had children. This night should have been one of the happiest of his life—instead of the darkest and most tragic.
33. Things Got Even Worse
Sometimes, life just seems to have no chill. When word got out to the public that Healy had croaked, and that his wife was still in the hospital nursing their newborn child, some heartless crook out there realized this meant their house would be unattended—and took the opportunity to burglarize it. This added thousands of dollars more that his widow now had to recover, even on top of the medical bills and emotional trauma. Talk about adding insult to injury!
While the Healy saga came to an end, it would be far from the last tragedy to hit the Stooges.
34. Their Career Really Took Off
The 1930s and 1940s saw the Stooges release their biggest hits. They made a total of 190 shorts during their time with Columbia—and the studio gave them lots of leeway in developing their on-screen characters. Without a doubt, the breakout star of these films was Curly. His now-iconic antics and zany mannerisms quickly catapulted him to national fame—but there was more to the story that the public didn’t see.
35. Some Things Were Not As They Appeared
Despite being the center of attention on screen, Curly was actually extremely shy in real life—to the point where some of his co-stars say he never even spoke a word to them outside of the dialogue they were filming. He often blushed, kept to himself, and exhibited many common signs of being an introvert—the exact opposite of the image most of us have of him.
And, as you can imagine, Curly’s shyness caused him no end of trouble.
36. He Had A Troubled Love Life
Perhaps related to his shyness, Curly had many ongoing problems in his intimate relationships with women. Despite only living to the age of 48, he had four marriages—only the last of which lasted longer than three years. Not only that, but having to keep his head bald for the Stooges’ films made him extremely insecure about whether women found him attractive—causing him to turn to heavy drinking.
Sadly, time would prove that these struggles were too much for him to handle.
37. Their Bits Had Their Challenges
Despite being experts at faking beatings, slaps, and eye pokes from all the years of practice, filming violent comedy stunts still had its dangers. During the filming of one Columbia short, Moe mistimed a fall and accidentally slammed into the ground, breaking his ribs. Amazingly, it only took him one week to recover and get right back to filming.
Unfortunately, some health concerns would not be so easy for the boys to recover from.
38. They Took A Stand
Prior to Pearl Harbor, the United States remained neutral towards what was going on in Europe during WWII—but the Stooges chose not to remain silent. Controversially, they became one of the first acts in Hollywood to openly mock the evil German regime that was wreaking havoc across the Atlantic—including making fun of Adolf Hitler himself. Well, if their goal was to anger the dictator, it certainly worked—he apparently felt so enraged over the films that he placed the beloved comedy team on his personal hit list.
Later on, the Stooges considered these anti-Nazi shorts to be among the projects they were most proud of from their long and storied career.
39. A Major Change Had To Take Place
In 1946, Curly suffered a massive stroke and was forced to retire. Luckily, Shemp agreed to step in and return to his old stage role as the third Stooge. He had only ever intended to rejoin the act temporarily, as he had spent the past 15 years developing a solo career. Nevertheless, fate would have other plans—Curly never recovered, and tragically passed just six years later.
Meanwhile, Shemp would become a staple of the act for the next decade.
40. They Caught A Beautiful Moment On Camera
In a more pleasant twist of fate, a recovering Curly visited the set one day while the Stooges were filming a short with Shemp. As a joke, they decided to give Curly a cameo—playing a passenger on a train. Thanks to this spontaneous idea, the world now has one small moment caught on camera where Moe, Larry, Curly, and Shemp all performed alongside each other.
While they tried to plan other little cameos for Curly before his passing, none of them ended up panning out—except for this one, lucky moment that fans can now enjoy forever.
41. They Suffered Another Major Loss
Bad luck continued to strike the Stooges. In 1955, Shemp suffered a massive heart attack while in the middle of telling a joke. He did not survive the episode, once again leaving the family heartbroken and the future of the act uncertain. For a while, Moe and Larry considered going on as a duo—but ultimately, the studio rejected this idea.
So what would become of the beloved group with two of its key members gone?
42. They Created A Strange Innovation
Not knowing who to replace the late Shemp with, the gang came up with an interesting idea—not replacing him at all. For four films, the boys simply reused old footage of Shemp while also having a lookalike pretend to be him in new scenes, where his face wouldn’t need to be seen up close. For obvious reasons, this tactic for replacing an actor part-way through a film project has since become known in Hollywood as the “Fake Shemp” technique.
43. The New Guy Didn’t Quite Work Out
Eventually, the studio insisted on a permanent replacement for Shemp—but the person they chose didn’t work out so well. Joe Besser, the actor who Columbia chose, had a clause in his contract insisting that he not be hit excessively—which makes life a little bit difficult when the role you’re playing is normally all about getting smacked around.
Many fans consider this the beginning of the end of the Stooges’ Columbia career.
44. It Came To A Crashing Halt
After 24 years of success at Columbia, the studio abruptly fired the Stooges in 1957—citing the fact that the demand for short films had decreased. The news hit the Stooges like a bombshell. In a classic Hollywood move, they had been given no warning at all. Despite all those years of loyalty, Moe was not even permitted to enter the building to say goodbye to his former colleagues.
He was heartbroken—but that’s not even the worst thing their old boss did to them.
45. Their Boss Treated Them Horribly
After their firing, it became clear that studio head Harry Cohn had been taking advantage of the Stooges and mistreating them for years. In the entire 24 years that the team worked there, Cohn did not give them a single pay raise. He also routinely hid from them just how financially successful their films had been, and used this against them during salary negotiations—often lying and playing tricks to keep them underpaid.
And another big obstacle also prevented them from fixing the situation.
46. They Had Legitimate Fears
You may be wondering what the Three Stooges did when they realized just how badly Cohn had been taking advantage of them—but you may find the answer less than satisfying. Despite wanting to fight back and claim what they were owed, the group learned that Cohn had connections to shady underworld figures. Still scarred by the sketchy loss of Ted Healy, the fear of becoming a target of Cohn’s friends stopped them from pursuing anything against him.
But as bad as everything seemed for the boys in the late 1950s, their story wasn’t quite over yet.
47. They Made An Epic Comeback
With television becoming more widespread in the 1960s, a whole new generation of fans discovered the Stooges—and, seemingly out of nowhere, new demand for the group exploded. After hiring a new third named “Curly Joe DeRita,” the group capitalized on this newfound popularity and starred in a series of new feature films, public appearances, and even a cartoon show.
At one point, hopefuls were even working on a travel documentary series to be hosted by the Stooges. What couldn’t the boys do at this point? Unfortunately though, just as things were going so well, life threw another curveball.
48. One Of Them Had Some Terrible Luck
Sadly, despite the group’s newfound success, personal issues began to plague Larry Fine in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In addition to the terrible debts brought on by his gambling addiction, the comedian also lost his son in a tragic car accident. And the pain wasn’t over yet. In 1967, just as he was about to take the stage with his fellow Stooges, he received a call informing him that his wife of 40 years had passed from a sudden heart attack.
This would already be enough to ruin someone’s life—but things still got worse for poor Larry.
49. He Gave Back To His Fans
Larry suffered a stroke in early 1970 that paralyzed the left half of his body. This meant he could no longer perform and would be confined to a wheelchair. He moved into a retirement home for aging actors—and developed an interesting hobby while living there. Larry began to befriend young Stooge fans, often inviting them over for personal visits, developing pen pal relationships with them, and even asking them to bring him snacks from different parts of the country.
He continued this habit until 1975, when a series of additional strokes finally claimed his life.
50. Their Last Hurrah Never Happened
In the mid-1970s, Moe’s grandson wrote a dark comedy for the team to star in, titled Make Love, Not War. With Larry gone, they announced that Emil Sitka would be replacing Larry as the middle stooge, taking on the persona of “Harry.” Stooge fans would remember Sitka as the actor who played a lot of the background roles in their classic Columbia shorts.
Despite this announcement of a brand new lineup, and despite filming also being planned for an additional new movie featuring the group, Moe tragically received a cancer diagnosis just a week before they had planned to start taping. He passed in the spring of 1975, finally bringing the group’s run to an end.
51. Fans Bid Them An Epic Goodbye
By 1983, all of the original Stooges had passed—but that didn’t mean the public stopped caring about them. When the team’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was unveiled, the boys made history yet again—by drawing the largest crowd in the history of this Hollywood tradition. This meant that more people showed up for the Stooges than for names like Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne.
After all those years of struggle and hardship, one thing remained abundantly clear with this fitting farewell—the world loves the Three Stooges and continues to cherish the legacy they left behind.
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17