The Three Stooges were an American vaudeville and comedy team active from 1922 until 1970, best known for their 190 short subject films by Columbia Pictures that have been regularly airing on television since 1958. Their hallmark was physical farce and slapstick. In films, the stooges were commonly known by their actual first names. Six stooges appeared over the act's run (with only three active at any given time): Moe Howard and Larry Fine were mainstays throughout the ensemble's nearly fifty-year run and the pivotal "third Stooge" was played by (in order of appearance) Shemp Howard, Curly Howard, Shemp Howard again, Joe Besser, and Curly Joe DeRita.
The act began in the early 1920s as part of a vaudeville comedy act billed as "Ted Healy and His Stooges", consisting originally of Healy and Moe Howard. Over time, they were joined by Moe's brother Shemp Howard, and then Larry Fine. The four appeared in one feature film, Soup to Nuts, before Shemp left to pursue a solo career. He was replaced by his younger brother, Jerome "Curly" Howard, in 1932. Two years later, after appearing in several movies, the trio left Healy and signed on to appear in their own short-subject comedies for Columbia Pictures, now billed as "The Three Stooges". From 1934 to 1946, Moe, Larry and Curly produced over 90 short films for Columbia. It was during this period that the three were at their peak popularity.
Curly suffered a debilitating stroke in May 1946, and Shemp returned, reinstating the original lineup, until his death of a heart attack on November 22, 1955. Film actor Joe Palma was used as a stand-in to complete four Shemp-era shorts under contract (the maneuver thereafter became known as the "fake Shemp"). Columbia contract player Joe Besser joined as the third Stooge for two years (1956–57), departing in 1958 to nurse his ailing wife after Columbia terminated its shorts division. The studio then released all the shorts via Screen Gems Columbia’s television studio and distribution unit. Screen Gems then syndicated the shorts to television, whereupon the Stooges became one of the most popular comedy acts of the early 1960s.
Comic actor Joe DeRita became "Curly Joe" in 1958, replacing Besser for a new series of full-length theatrical films. With intense television exposure, the act regained momentum throughout the 1960s as popular kids' fare, until Fine's paralyzing stroke in January 1970. Fine died in 1975 after a further series of strokes. Attempts were made to revive the Stooges with longtime supporting actor Emil Sitka in Fine's role in 1970, and again in 1975, but this attempt was cut short by Howard's death on May 4, 1975.
The Three Stooges began in 1922 as part of a raucous vaudeville act called "Ted Healy and His Stooges" (also known as "Ted Healy and His Southern Gentlemen" and "Ted Healy and His Racketeers"). Moe Howard (born Moses Harry Horwitz) joined Healy's act in 1922, and his brother Shemp Howard (Samuel Horwitz) came aboard a few months later. In 1925, violinist-comedian Larry Fine (Louis Feinberg) also joined the group. In the act, lead comedian Healy would attempt to sing or tell jokes while his noisy assistants would keep "interrupting" him, causing Healy to retaliate with verbal and physical abuse. Ted Healy and His Stooges (plus comedian Fred Sanborn) appeared in their first Hollywood feature film, Soup to Nuts (1930), released by Fox Film Corporation. The film was not a critical success, but the Stooges' performances were singled out as memorable, leading Fox to offer the trio a contract, minus Healy. This enraged Healy, who told studio executives that the Stooges were his employees, and the offer was withdrawn. Howard, Fine and Howard learned of the offer and subsequent withdrawal and left Healy to form their own act (billed as "Howard, Fine & Howard" or "Three Lost Souls"). The act quickly took off with a tour of the theater circuit. Healy attempted to stop the new act with legal action, claiming that they were using his copyrighted material. There are accounts of Healy threatening to bomb theaters if Howard, Fine and Howard ever performed there, which worried Shemp so much that he almost left the act; reportedly, only a pay raise kept him on board.
Healy tried to save his act by hiring replacement stooges, but they were inexperienced and not as well-received as their predecessors. Healy reached a new agreement with his former Stooges in 1932, with Moe now acting as business manager, and they were booked in a production of Jacob J. Shubert's The Passing Show of 1932. During rehearsals, Healy received a more lucrative offer and found a loophole in his contract allowing him to leave the production. Shemp, fed up with Healy's abrasiveness, decided to quit the act and toured in his own comedy revue for several months, and then landed at Vitaphone Studios in May 1933, appearing in movie comedies produced in Brooklyn, New York, for the next four years.
With Shemp gone, Healy and the two remaining stooges (Moe and Larry) needed a replacement, so Moe suggested his younger brother Jerry Howard. Healy reportedly took one look at Jerry, who had long chestnut-red hair and a handlebar mustache, and remarked that he did not look like he was funny. Jerry left the room and returned a few moments later with his head shaved (though his mustache remained for a time), and then quipped "Boy, do I look girly." Healy heard "Curly", and the name stuck. (There are varying accounts as to how the Curly character actually came about.)