Ted Healy and His Stooges (1922–1934)
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 1928, 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 This enraged Healy, who told studio executives that the Stooges were his employees, and the offer was withdrawn.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, bad temper, and heavy drinking, 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.
Healy and Joan Crawford with the Three Stooges in MGM's Dancing Lady
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.)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) signed Healy and his Stooges to a movie contract in 1933. They appeared in feature films and short subjects, either together, individually, or with various combinations of actors. The trio was featured in a series of musical comedy shorts, beginning with Nertsery Rhymes. The short was one of a few shorts to be made with an early two-strip Technicolor process, including one featuring Curly without Healy or the other Stooges, Roast Beef and Movies (1934). The shorts themselves were built around recycled Technicolor film footage of production numbers cut from MGM musicals, such as Children of Pleasure, Lord Byron of Broadway and the unfinished March of Time (all 1930). Soon, additional shorts followed (sans the experimental Technicolor), including Beer and Pretzels (1933), Plane Nuts (1933), Hello Pop! (1933), Jail Birds of Paradise (1934) and The Big Idea (1934).
Healy and company also appeared in several MGM feature films as comic relief, such as Turn Back the Clock (1933), Meet the Baron (1933), Dancing Lady (1933) (with Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Fred Astaire and Robert Benchley), Fugitive Lovers (1934) and Hollywood Party (1934). Healy and the Stooges also appeared together in Myrt and Marge for Universal Pictures.
In 1934, the team's contract expired with MGM, and the Stooges parted professional company with Healy. According to Moe Howard's autobiography, the split was precipitated by Healy's alcoholism and abrasiveness. Their final film with Healy was MGM's Hollywood Party (1934). Both Healy and the Stooges went on to separate successes, with Healy dying under mysterious circumstances in 1937.
Moe, Larry, and Curly (1934–1946)
In 1934, the trio—now officially named "The Three Stooges"—signed on to appear in two-reel comedy short subjects for Columbia Pictures. Moe wrote in his autobiography that they each received $600 per week (equal to $11,237 today) on a one-year contract with a renewable option; in the Ted Okuda–Edward Watz book The Columbia Comedy Shorts, the Stooges are said to have received $1,000 among them for their first Columbia effort, Woman Haters (1934), and then signed a term contract for $7,500 per film (equal to $140,466 today), to be divided among the trio.
Within their first year at Columbia, the Stooges became very popular. Realizing this, Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn used the Stooges as leverage, as the demand for their films was so great that he eventually refused to supply exhibitors with the trio's shorts unless they also agreed to book some of the studio's mediocre B movies. Cohn also saw to it that the Stooges remained ignorant of their popularity. During their 23 years at Columbia, the Stooges were never completely aware of their amazing drawing power at the box office. Their contracts with the studio included an open option that had to be renewed yearly, and Cohn would tell them that the short subjects were in decline, which was not a complete fabrication (Cohn's yearly mantra was "the market for comedy shorts is dying out, fellas"). The Stooges thought that their days were numbered and would sweat it out each year, with Cohn renewing their contract at the last moment. This deception kept the insecure Stooges unaware of their true value, resulting in them having second thoughts about asking for a better contract without a yearly option. Cohn's scare tactics worked for all 23 years that the Stooges were at Columbia; the team never once asked for a salary increase – nor were they ever given one. It was not until after they stopped making the shorts in December 1957 that Moe learned of Cohn's tactics, what a valuable commodity the Stooges had been for the studio and how many millions more the act could have earned. Columbia offered theater owners an entire program of two-reel comedies (15–25 titles annually) featuring such stars as Buster Keaton, Andy Clyde, Charley Chase and Hugh Herbert, but the Stooge shorts were the most popular of all.
The Stooges were required to release up to eight short films per year within a 40-week period; for the remaining 12 weeks, they were free to pursue other employment, time that was either spent with their families or touring the country to promote their live act. The Stooges appeared in 190 film shorts and five features while at Columbia, outlasting every one of their contemporaries employed in the short-film genre. Del Lord directed more than three dozen Stooge films, Jules White directed dozens more and his brother Jack White directed several under the pseudonym "Preston Black". Silent film star Charley Chase also shared directorial responsibilities with Lord and White.
The Stooge films made between 1935 and 1941 captured the team at their peak, according to film historians Ted Okuda and Edward Watz, authors of The Columbia Comedy Shorts. Nearly every film produced became a classic in its own right. Hoi Polloi (1935) adapted the premise of Pygmalion, with a stuffy professor making a bet that he can transform the uncultured trio into refined gentlemen; the plotline worked so well that it was reused twice, as Half-Wits Holiday (1947) and Pies and Guys (1958). Three Little Beers (1935) featured the Stooges running amok on a golf course to win prize money. Disorder in the Court (1936) features the team as star witnesses in a murder trial. Violent is the Word for Curly (1938) was a quality Chase-directed short that featured the musical interlude "Swingin' the Alphabet". In A Plumbing We Will Go (1940)—one of the team's quintessential comedies—the Stooges are cast as plumbers who nearly destroy a socialite's mansion, causing water to exit every appliance in the home. Other entries of the era are considered among the team's finest work, including Uncivil Warriors (1935), A Pain in the Pullman and False Alarms (both 1936), Grips, Grunts and Groans, The Sitter Downers, Dizzy Doctors (all 1937), Tassels in the Air (1938), We Want Our Mummy (1939), Nutty but Nice (1940), and An Ache in Every Stake and In the Sweet Pie and Pie (both 1941).
With the onset of World War II, the Stooges released several entries that poked fun at the rising Axis powers. You Nazty Spy! (1940) and its sequel I'll Never Heil Again (1941) lampooned Hitler and the Nazis at a time when America was still neutral. Moe was cast as "Moe Hailstone", an Adolf Hitler-like character, with Curly playing a Hermann Göring character (replete with medals) and Larry a Joachim von Ribbentrop-type ambassador. The film is revered by Stooge aficionados as well as the Stooges themselves; Moe, Larry and director Jules White considered You Nazty Spy! their best film. Yet, these efforts indulged in a deliberately formless, non-sequitur style of verbal humor that was not the Stooges' forte, according to Okuda and Watz.
Other wartime entries have their moments, such as They Stooge to Conga (considered the most violent Stooge short), Higher Than a Kite, Back From the Front (all 1943), Gents Without Cents (1944) and the anti-Japanese The Yoke's on Me (also 1944). However, taken in bulk, the wartime films are considered less funny than what preceded them. No Dough Boys (1944) is often considered the best of these farces. The team, made up as Japanese soldiers for a photo shoot, is mistaken for genuine saboteurs by a Nazi ringleader (Vernon Dent, the Stooges' primary foil). The highlight of the film features the Stooges engaging in nonsensical gymnastics (the real spies are renowned acrobats) for a skeptical group of enemy agents.
The World War II era also brought on rising production costs that resulted in a reduced number of elaborate gags and outdoor sequences, Del Lord's stock in trade; as such, the quality of the team's films (particularly those directed by Lord) began to slip after 1942. According to Okuda and Watz, entries such as Loco Boy Makes Good, What's the Matador?, Sock-A-Bye Baby (all 1942), I Can Hardly Wait and A Gem of a Jam (both 1943) are considered to be lesser quality works than previous films. Spook Louder (1943), a remake of Mack Sennett's The Great Pie Mystery (1931), is sometimes cited as the Stooges' worst film because of its repetitious and rehashed jokes. Three Smart Saps (1942), a film considered to be an improvement, features a reworking of a routine from Harold Lloyd's The Freshman (1925), in which Curly's loosely basted suit begins to come apart at the seams while he is on the dance floor.
The Stooges made occasional guest appearances in feature films, though generally they were restricted to their short subjects. Most of the Stooges' peers had either made the transition from shorts to features films (Laurel and Hardy, The Ritz Brothers) or had been starring their own feature films from the onset (Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello). However, Moe believed that the team's firebrand style of humor worked better in short form. In 1935, Columbia proposed to star them in their own full-length feature, but Moe rejected the idea saying, "It's a hard job inventing, rewriting, or stealing gags for our two-reel comedies for Columbia Pictures without having to make a seven-reeler (feature film). We can make short films out of material needed for a starring feature and then we wouldn't know whether it would be funny enough to click."
Film critics have cited Curly as the most popular member of the team. His childlike mannerisms and natural comedic charm (he had no previous acting experience) made him a hit with audiences, particularly children and women (the latter usually finding the trio's humor juvenile and uncouth). Because Curly had to shave his head for the act, it led him to feel unappealing to women. To mask his insecurities, he ate and drank to excess and caroused whenever the Stooges made personal appearances, which was approximately seven months of each year. His weight ballooned in the 1940s, and his blood pressure became dangerously high. Curly's wild lifestyle and constant drinking eventually caught up with him in 1945, and his performances suffered.
During a five-month hiatus from August 1945 through January 1946, the trio committed themselves to making a feature film at Monogram, followed by a two-month-long live appearance gig in New York City, with performances seven days a week. Curly also entered a disastrous third marriage in October 1945, leading to a separation in January 1946 and divorce in July 1946. That unhappy union wrecked his already fragile health. Upon the Stooges' return to Los Angeles in late November 1945, Curly was a shell of his former self. They had two months to rest before reporting back to Columbia in late January 1946, but Curly's condition was irreversible. They had only 24 days of work over the next three months, but eight weeks of time off could not help the situation. In those last six shorts, ranging from Monkey Businessmen (1946) through Half-Wits Holiday (1947), Curly was seriously ill, struggling to get through even the most basic scenes.
During the final day of filming Half-Wits Holiday (1947) on May 6, 1946, Curly suffered a debilitating stroke on the set, ending his 14-year career. They hoped for a full recovery, but Curly never appeared in a film again except for a single cameo appearance in the third film after Shemp returned to the trio, Hold That Lion! (1947). It was the only film that contained all four of the original Stooges (the three Howard brothers and Larry) on screen simultaneously. According to Jules White, this anomaly came about when Curly visited the set one day, and White had him do this bit for fun. (Curly's cameo appearance was recycled in the remake Booty and the Beast, 1953.)
A thinner Curly (with a full head of hair and false handlebar mustache) as the cook in Malice in the Palace
(1949). His scene was deleted from the final release.
In 1949, Curly filmed a brief scene for Malice in the Palace (1949) as the restaurant's cook, but it was not used. Jules White's copy of the script contained the dialogue for this missing scene, and a production still of Curly does exist, appearing on both the film's original one-sheet and lobby card. Larry played the role of the cook in the final print.
Shemp's return (1946–1955)
The Stooges with Shemp (center) from Malice in the Palace
Moe asked older brother Shemp to take Curly's place, but Shemp was hesitant to rejoin the Stooges as he was enjoying a successful solo career. He realized, however, that not rejoining the Stooges would mean the end of Moe's and Larry's film careers. Shemp wanted assurance that rejoining them would be only temporary, and that he could leave the Stooges once Curly recovered. However, Curly's health continued to deteriorate, and it became clear that he could not return. Shemp resumed being a Stooge. Curly remained ill until his death of a cerebral hemorrhage from additional strokes on January 18, 1952.
Shemp appeared with the Stooges in 76 shorts and a low-budget Western comedy feature titled Gold Raiders (1951) in which the screen time was evenly divided with B-picture cowboy hero George O'Brien. Shemp's return improved the quality of the films, as the previous few had been marred by Curly's sluggish performances. Entries such as Out West (1947), Squareheads of the Round Table (1948) and Punchy Cowpunchers (1950) proved that Shemp could hold his own. New director Edward Bernds, who joined the team in 1945 when Curly was failing, sensed that routines and plotlines that worked well with Curly as the comic focus did not fit Shemp's persona, and allowed the comedian to develop his own Stooge character. Jules White, however, persisted in employing the "living cartoon" style of comedy that reigned during the Curly era. White would force either Shemp or Moe to perform similar gags and mannerisms originated by Curly, resulting in what appeared to be lackluster imitation. Most acutely, it created the "Curly vs. Shemp" debate that overshadowed the act upon Curly's departure. The Stooges lost some of their charm and inherent appeal to children after Curly retired, but some excellent films were produced with Shemp, an accomplished solo comedian who often performed best when allowed to improvise on his own.
The films from the Shemp era contrast sharply with those from the Curly era, largely owing to the individual directing styles of Bernds and White. From 1947 to 1952, Bernds hit a string of successes, including Fright Night (1947), The Hot Scots, Mummy's Dummies, Crime on Their Hands (all 1948), A Snitch in Time (1950), Three Arabian Nuts (1951) and Gents in a Jam (1952). Two of the team's finest efforts were directed by Bernds: Brideless Groom (1947) and Who Done It? (1949). White also contributed a few fair entries, such as Hold That Lion! (1947), Hokus Pokus (1949), Scrambled Brains (1951), A Missed Fortune and Corny Casanovas (both 1952).
Another benefit from the Shemp era was that Larry was given more time on screen. Throughout most of the Curly era, Larry was relegated to a background role, but by the time that Shemp rejoined the Stooges, Larry was allotted equal footage, even becoming the focus of several films, in particular Fuelin' Around (1949) and He Cooked His Goose (1952).
The Shemp years also marked a major milestone: the Stooges' first appearance on television. In 1948, they guest-starred on Milton Berle's popular Texaco Star Theater and Morey Amsterdam's The Morey Amsterdam Show. By 1949, the team filmed a pilot for ABC-TV for their own weekly television series, titled Jerks of All Trades. Columbia Pictures blocked the series from going into production, but allowed the Stooges to make television guest appearances. The team went on to appear on Camel Comedy Caravan (also known as The Ed Wynn Show), The Kate Smith Hour, The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Frank Sinatra Show and The Eddie Cantor Comedy Theatre, among others.
In 1952, the Stooges lost some key players at Columbia Pictures. The studio decided to downsize its short-subject division, resulting in producer Hugh McCollum being discharged and director Edward Bernds resigning out of loyalty to McCollum. Bernds had been contemplating his resignation for some time, as he and Jules White were often at odds. Screenwriter Elwood Ullman followed suit, leaving only White to both produce and direct the Stooges' remaining Columbia comedies. Not long after, the quality of the team's output markedly declined with White now assuming complete control over production. DVD Talk critic Stuart Galbraith IV commented that "the Stooges' shorts became increasingly mechanical...and frequently substituted violent sight gags for story and characterization." Production was also significantly faster, with the former four-day filming schedules now tightened to two or three days. In another cost-cutting measure, White would create a "new" Stooge short by borrowing footage from old ones, setting it in a slightly different storyline and filming a few new scenes often with the same actors in the same costumes. White was initially very subtle when recycling older footage: he would reuse only a single sequence of old film, re-edited so cleverly that it was not easy to detect. The later shorts were cheaper and the recycling more obvious, with as much as 75% of the running time consisting of old footage. White came to rely so much on older material that he could film the "new" shorts in a single day. New footage filmed in order to link older material suffered from White's wooden directing style and penchant for telling his actors how to act. Shemp, in particular, disliked working with White after 1952.
Three years after Curly's death, Shemp died of a heart attack at age 60 on November 22, 1955 during a taxi ride home with a friend after attending a boxing match. Moe was stunned and contemplated disbanding the Stooges. However, Cohn reminded him that the team owed Columbia four additional films with Shemp. Recycled footage, combined with new footage utilizing Columbia supporting player Joe Palma (see also Fake Shemp) as Shemp's double, filmed from behind, was used to complete the last four films originally planned with Shemp: Rumpus in the Harem, Hot Stuff, Scheming Schemers and Commotion on the Ocean (all released in 1956).
Joe Besser replaces Shemp (1956–1958)
After Shemp's death, Moe and Larry were again in need of a third Stooge. Several comedians were considered, including noted African-American actor Mantan Moreland, but Columbia insisted on a comedian already under contract. They decided on Joe Besser, who appeared in the final 16 Stooge shorts at Columbia. Besser had been starring in his own short-subject comedies for the studio since 1949 and appeared in supporting roles in a variety of movies, making his persona sufficiently well known.
Besser had noted how one side of Larry Fine's face appeared "calloused", so he had a clause in his contract specifically prohibiting him from being hit beyond an infrequent tap (though this restriction was later lifted). Besser was the only Stooge other than Curly who dared to hit Moe back in retaliation. "I usually played the kind of character who would hit others back," Besser recalled.
Despite Besser's prolific film and stage career, Stooge entries featuring him have often been tagged as the team's weakest. During his tenure, the films were assailed as questionable models for youth, and in response began to resemble television sitcoms. Sitcoms, however, were available for free on television, making the short film a throwback to a bygone era. Besser was a talented comic, and was quite popular as "Stinky" on The Abbott and Costello Show. However, his whining mannerisms and lack of slapstick punishment against him did not quite blend with the Stooges' brand of humor, though his presence did create a verbal friction between Moe and Larry that improved their mutually insulting banter. Times had changed, and Besser was not solely to blame for the quality of these final entries; the scripts were rehashes of earlier efforts, the budgets were lower and Moe's and Larry's advanced ages prohibited them from performing the physical comedy that was their trademark. Besser had suggested that Moe and Larry comb their hair back to give them a more gentlemanly appearance. Both Moe and Jules White approved of the idea, but used it sparingly in order to match the old footage in films that were remakes.
Despite their lukewarm reception, the Besser shorts did have their comedic moments. In general, the remakes had the traditional Stooges knockabout look and feel, such as 1958's Pies and Guys (a scene-for-scene remake of Half-Wits Holiday, which itself was a reworking of the earlier Hoi Polloi), Guns a Poppin (1957), Rusty Romeos (1957) and Triple Crossed (1959). In contrast, Hoofs and Goofs, Horsing Around and Muscle Up a Little Closer (all 1957) mostly resembled the sitcoms of the era. A Merry Mix Up (also 1957) and Oil's Well That Ends Well (1958) are also amusing, while the musical Sweet and Hot (1958) deserves some credit for straying from the norm. The American space craze also led to three entries focusing on space travel: Space Ship Sappy, Outer Space Jitters (both 1957) and Flying Saucer Daffy (1958).
Columbia was the last studio still producing live-action and two-reel short films (other studios were still making animated one-reelers well into the 1960s, but the Stooges' last live-action competition, one-reel series Joe McDoakes, had ended its run in 1956), and the market for such films had all but dried up. As a result, the studio opted not to renew the Stooges' contract when it expired in December 1957. The final comedy produced was Flying Saucer Daffy, filmed on December 19–20, 1957. Several days later, the Stooges were unceremoniously fired from Columbia Pictures after 24 years of making low-budget shorts.
No formal goodbyes or congratulatory celebrations occurred in recognition of their work and of the money that their comedies had earned for the studio. Moe visited Columbia several weeks after the dismissal to say goodbye to several executives. But without the current year's studio pass, Moe was refused entry, later stating that it was a crushing blow to his pride.
The studio had enough completed Stooge films to be released over the next 18 months, though not in the order in which they were produced. The final Stooge release, Sappy Bull Fighters, did not reach theaters until June 4, 1959. With no active contract in place, Moe and Larry discussed plans for a personal appearance tour. In the meantime, Besser's wife suffered a minor heart attack and he preferred to stay local, leading him to withdraw from the act.
After Besser's departure, Moe and Larry began looking for potential replacements. Larry suggested former Ted Healy stooge Paul "Mousie" Garner, but based on his tryout performance, Moe later remarked that he was "completely unacceptable". Weeks later, Larry came across burlesque performer Joe DeRita, and thought he would be a good fit.
Comeback with Joe DeRita (1958–1970)
The early days of television provided movie studios a place to unload a backlog of short films that they thought otherwise unmarketable, and the Stooge films seemed perfect for the burgeoning genre. ABC had even expressed interest as far back as 1949, purchasing exclusive rights to 30 of the trio's shorts and commissioning a pilot for a potential series, Jerks of All Trades. However, the success of television revivals for such names as Laurel and Hardy, Woody Woodpecker, Popeye, Tom and Jerry and the Our Gang series in the late 1950s led Columbia to cash in again on the Stooges. In September 1958, Columbia's television subsidiary Screen Gems offered a package consisting of 78 Stooge shorts (primarily from the Curly era), which were well received. An additional 40 shorts hit the market in April 1959; by September 1959, all 190 Stooge shorts were airing regularly. With so many films available for broadcast, daily television airings provided heavy exposure aimed squarely at children. Parents who had grown up seeing the same films in the theaters began to watch alongside their children and, before long, Howard, Fine and DeRita were in high demand. After it was discovered that the Curly-era shorts were the most popular, Moe suggested that DeRita shave his head to accentuate his slight resemblance to Curly Howard. He adopted first a crew cut and later a completely shaven head, thus becoming "Curly Joe".
The Stooges with Curly Joe DeRita (left) in 1959.
This lineup, now frequently referred to as "Larry, Moe and Curly Joe," starred in six full-length feature films from 1959 to 1965: Have Rocket, Will Travel (1959), Snow White and the Three Stooges (1961), The Three Stooges Meet Hercules (1962), The Three Stooges in Orbit (1962), The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze (1963) and The Outlaws IS Coming! (1965). The films were aimed at the kiddie-matinee market, and most were black-and-white farce outings in the Stooge tradition, with the exception of Snow White and the Three Stooges, a children's fantasy in color. They also appeared in an extremely brief cameo as firemen (a role that Larry, Moe, and Shemp had also played in the pre-"Three Stooges" film Soup to Nuts in 1930) in the film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and in a larger capacity that same year in 4 for Texas starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Throughout the early 1960s, the Stooges were one of the most popular and highest-paid live acts in America.
The Stooges also tried their hand at another weekly television series in 1960 titled The Three Stooges Scrapbook, filmed in color and with a laugh track. The first episode, "Home Cooking", featured the boys rehearsing for a new television show. Like Jerks of All Trades in 1949, the pilot did not sell. However, Norman Maurer was able to reuse the footage (reprocessed in black and white) for the first ten minutes of The Three Stooges in Orbit.
The trio also filmed 41 short comedy skits for The New Three Stooges in 1965, which features a series of 156 animated cartoons produced for television. The Stooges appeared in live-action color footage, which preceded and followed each animated adventure in which they voiced their respective characters.
During this period, The Stooges appeared on numerous television shows including The Steve Allen Show, Here's Hollywood, Masquerade Party, The Ed Sullivan Show, Danny Thomas Meets the Comics, The Joey Bishop Show, Off to See the Wizard and Truth or Consequences.
Final years (1970–1975)
In late 1969, Howard, Fine and DeRita began production on another half-hour pilot, this time for a syndicated 39-episode TV series titled Kook's Tour, a combination travelogue-sitcom that had the "retired" Stooges traveling to various parts of the world with the episodes filmed on location. On January 9, 1970, during production of the pilot, Larry suffered a paralyzing stroke, ending his acting career along with plans for the television series. The pilot was unfinished and several key shots were missing, but producer Norman Maurer edited the available footage and made the pilot a 52-minute special that was released to the Cartrivision videocassette home video market in 1973. It is the last film in which the Stooges appeared and the last known performance of the team.
Following Larry Fine's stroke, plans were made for Emil Sitka to replace him in a new feature film, written by Moe Howard's grandson, Jeffrey Scott [Maurer], titled Make Love, Not War. Moe Howard, Joe DeRita and Emil Sitka were cast as POWs in a World War II Japanese prison camp, plotting an escape with fellow prisoners. The film would have been a departure from typical Stooge fare, with dark-edged humor and scenes of war violence, but insufficient funding prevented production from advancing beyond the script stage.
Also in 1970, Joe DeRita recruited vaudeville veterans Frank Mitchell and Mousie Garner to tour as The New Three Stooges. Garner had worked with Ted Healy as one of his "replacement stooges" decades earlier and was briefly considered as Joe Besser's replacement in 1958. Mitchell had also replaced Shemp as the "third stooge" in a 1929 Broadway play and appeared in two of the Stooges' short subjects in 1953. The act fared poorly with minimal bookings. By this time, Moe's wife had prevailed on him to retire from performing slapstick due to his age. For the next several years, Moe appeared regularly on talk shows and did speaking engagements at colleges, while DeRita quietly retired.
Larry suffered another stroke in mid-December 1974, and four weeks later an even more massive one. After slipping into a coma, he died a week later from a cerebral hemorrhage on January 24, 1975.
Before Larry's death, the Stooges were scheduled to co-star in the R-rated film Blazing Stewardesses, featuring Moe and Curly Joe with Emil Sitka in the middle spot as Harry, Larry's brother. The team was signed and publicity shots were taken, but one week prior to March's filming date, Moe was diagnosed with lung cancer and the Stooges had to back out; he died on May 4, 1975. Producer Sam Sherman briefly considered having former Stooge Joe Besser appear in his place, but ultimately decided against it. The surviving Ritz Brothers replaced the Stooges and performed much of their act's schtick, including the precision dance routine first seen in Sing, Baby, Sing (1936), co-starring original Stooge leader Ted Healy.
As for the remaining original replacement stooges, Joe Besser died of heart failure on March 1, 1988, followed by Joe DeRita of pneumonia on July 3, 1993. Emil Sitka was announced as a Stooge but never performed as such; he died on January 16, 1998, six months after being disabled by a stroke.