The Tragic Death Of Moe From The Three Stooges

Show business wasn't necessarily in the family. Moses Harry Horwitz, born of Lithuanian-Jewish parents in Brooklyn, New York, wasn't even the oldest child — he was fourth of five boys, two of whom had nothing to do with the performing arts, according to his official Stooges bio. Ah, but Moses — who called himself Harry and whom the world knew as Moe Howard — caught the acting bug early. He finished grade school, but dropped out of high school after two months. He'd already been playing hooky in order to spend his day taking in plays. 

He and his brother Sam — later known as Shemp — picked up money for a time singing in saloons, but their father put a stop to it. Moe finally got his entry into performing when he was hired as part of Ted Healy's act — as a stooge, a fool and heckler whose job was to annoy the star — Healy — for laughs. Shemp joined the act and the heckling, as did a vaudeville violinist and former boxer, Louis Feinberg, working under the name Larry Fine. In time, Shemp was replaced by the baby of the Horwitz family, Jerome, who was dubbed Curly, as well as surnamed Howard. And like that, The Three Stooges act was born.

Offscreen, he was kind and caring

Moe Howard played the none-too-bright bully in nearly 200 short films for Columbia Pictures. First Moe, Larry, and Shemp, later Moe, Larry, and Curly, the act was incredibly successful in the 1930s and '40s, and while the performers did well, the studio did even better. The Stooges also performed live when they weren't cranking out studio shorts. There were feature films, too, including The Outlaws Is Coming in 1965, co-starring future Batman Adam West.

The three men had a combined gift for physical comedy that others tried to emulate, but couldn't ever quite match. Sometimes it came with a price. The studio was trying to make the short two-reel films as inexpensively as possible, so stunt doubles weren't always in the budget. All of the men had performed live and knew how to take a fall or throw a punch without landing it. For all the times Moe appeared to be poking someone in the eyes, he never actually missed and caused damage, though he admitted he came close a few times. In his autobiography, I Stooged to Conquer, he wrote, "As rough a character as I seemed to be in pictures, and as tough as I came across, I was hurt in our films more often than either Larry or Curly or any other member of the cast." Props might go wrong; set pieces break; a move was mis-timed. Over the years, Moe suffered a fractured ankle, cracked ribs, concussions, and more — all to make the public laugh. Hysterically.

When Curly was crippled by strokes, Moe saw to his care

Unlike his screen presence, Moe Howard was universally acclaimed as a generous and thoughtful man. Though not overly demonstrative, he donated time and money to a number of charities and assisted other performers who were down on their luck, per his biographical sketch at Find A Grave. He wrote hundreds of love poems to his wife, Helen, over the nearly 50 years they were married, and was known to play Santa Claus for hospitalized children. He also collected coins and stamps, and dabbled in ceramics. He loved to care for plants, including vegetables in his prolific victory garden during World War II. He served as an air raid warden, and he and the family would invite soldiers home for home-cooked meals and entertainment. The live version of the Stooges toured extensively during the war — on one trip alone, "we played every army, navy, and air force installation from Maine to Pensacola," he wrote.

Life has a way of intervening. Curly, the baby of the family, suffered a severe stroke in 1946. As his physical and mental health deteriorated, Moe took over his care — he'd already stepped in to straighten out the chaos of Curly's financial situation — refusing to institutionalize his brother, regardless of the severity of Curly's situation, and seeing to it that his baby brother was cared for in a series of nursing homes, rather than locked away in an asylum. Curly died in 1952 at the age of 48. Shemp followed three years later, age 60.

Moe's final years

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, Moe Howard went into real estate when the opportunities of show business began to evaporate. He had already done well with investments — he took pride in his money management skills — and still did the occasional cameo on TV or in movies and personal appearances on talk shows. 

He'd been a heavy smoker all his life, and that, more than the eye pokes, the slaps, and the rest of the on-screen brutality, brought down the curtain on his life. He died in Los Angeles at the Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital in 1975 of lung cancer, age 77, as reported by The New York Times, just a few months after Larry's death, and one month before both the 50th anniversary of his marriage to Helen and his 78th birthday. Moe was survived by his wife, Helen, and two children, Joan and Paul.