The Stooges Who Tried To Replace Curly

The Three Stooges was an act that went all the way back into vaudeville, the days of touring to provide live entertainment in theaters large and small, in towns large and small throughout the country. The act lasted nearly 50 years — a remarkable run in a business that isn't known for the longevity of careers and, especially, of partnerships. At its foundation it was a family business, eventually involving three of the Horwitz brothers: Moses, Samuel, and Jerome, known professionally as Moe, Shemp, and Curly Howard, according to the official Stooges website bios. The other constant was the Stooge in the middle, Louis Feinberg, a violinist and boxer who worked the vaudeville circuit as Larry Fine.

True Stooge fans all have their favorites. It's said that as kids mature, they start out identifying with Curly, then Moe, and then Larry. No question that the visuals were a huge part of The Three Stooges: not just the slapstick and the mayhem, but Moe's bowl cut, Larry's frizz, and Curly's buzz cut. And just as all three looked vastly different, all three personalities were set from the earliest days, with Moe as the bully, Curly as the effusive man-child, and Larry caught in the middle.

Shemp stepped back into the act when Curly became ill

It's that man-child, Curly, who's often singled out. Explosively cheerful, physically and verbally agile beyond any expectation of someone his size and apparent intellect, creative; Curly's screen character has given American pop culture reference points that immediately create connection between speaker and listener: "Nyuck-nyuck-nyuck!" and "soitenly!" instead of "certainly" and a host of others.

But when we talk about replacing Curly, we have to remember that Curly himself was a replacement. The original lineup for The Three Stooges was Moe, Larry, and Shemp. They worked with a performer of some star power, Ted Healy, a childhood friend of Moe's. Healy's popularity apparently went to his head, along with a growing dependence on alcohol, per Empire Online. The excessive drinking combined with a vicious temper drove Shemp to quit and strike out on his own solo career. Moe suggested they hire the baby of the family, Jerry. Healy thought Jerry was too handsome for a stooge — he had quite luxurious hair and a generous moustache — so Jerry shaved his face and his head and came back. Someone said, "Don't you look girly," which morphed into Curly.

Joe DeRita was dubbed "Curly Joe"

The act spent a year at MGM before splitting with Healy and signing a contract with Columbia Pictures. That was the heyday of the Stooges. While at Columbia they churned out "two-reelers" — short comedies, between 15-20 minutes long, featuring slapstick, word play, and broad comedic chaos. From 1934-46 the Stooges cranked out over 190 shorts, as well as appearing in five feature films. It was physically demanding work, and while audiences loved them, Curly didn't necessarily love himself. He was convinced that his shaved head made him unattractive to women. He drank heavily and ate to excess, gained enormous amounts of weight and suffered from hypertension. Quiet and reserved, even shy, offstage, Curly frequently partied excessively after work, particularly when the group was touring. It all caught up with him in 1946 when, waiting for the last shot of the day, he was found, slumped in a chair, the victim of a devastating stroke.

Family is family. Shemp stepped back into the act, replacing his baby brother. It was supposed to be temporary, just until Curly recovered enough to work again. Although Curly made one return to a Stooge short — more of a cameo — he was effectively unable to work again. Shemp ended up staying for nearly a decade, from 1946-55.

Joe DeRita stayed with the act for 12 years

The "Shemp Era" also ended in tragedy: Shemp died of a sudden massive heart attack at the age of 60. The four remaining films in their contract were completed by cutting in old footage of Shemp and using actor Joe Palma as Shemp's body double, shot from behind or with something obscuring his face. Moe tried to hire burlesque comedian Joe DeRita to replace Shemp. In his autobiography, Moe Howard and The Three Stooges, Moe wrote that DeRita "was fat and chubby with a round, jovial face, and, with his hair clipped close, he would look a great deal like my brother Curly." Unfortunately, DeRita was already under contract. Joe Besser, "another chubby burlesque comic," got out of his own contract to join Moe and Larry, but only lasted two years before dropping out to care for his sick wife. DeRita was available this time, dubbed Curly Joe. DeRita performed with the act for 12 years, in short films and on stage.

They filmed over 40 comedy skits to be used with a cartoon version of their act in the mid-1960s, and were preparing to launch a situation comedy based on their characters when Larry, a Stooge since the 1930s, was felled, like Curly, by a stroke and forced to retire. There were half-hearted attempts to re-form, with Moe as the lynchpin, but it was for naught.

Larry and Moe both died in 1975; Besser, in 1988; and DeRita in 1993.