After Shemp Howard died of a sudden heart attack in 1955, the remaining Stooges, Moe and Larry kept the act alive, recruiting comedian Joe Besser as the third Stooge. This, as any Stooge fan will tell you, was the beginning of the end. Besser was never happy as a Stooge and, wary of what had happened to Curly, had a clause in his contract forbidding Moe from hitting him.
By now, Columbia was the only studio in town producing shorts, and in 1957, with television taking over the market, the department was shut down. In December of ’57, the studio declined to renew the Stooges’ contract and, after 23 years’ service, they were unceremoniously fired. A few weeks later, Moe returned to the studio to say goodbye to some old friends. He was refused entry by a security guard. Shortly afterwards, amid negotiations for a live tour, Joe Besser left the act.
By rights, this should have been the end of the road. But, in a supremely ironic twist of fate, the Stooges were actually on the brink of a major comeback. In 1958 Columbia offered a package of 78 Curly-era shorts for TV broadcast. Picked up by a number of networks across the US, they were an instant hit, particularly with children, and soon all 190 Stooge shorts were in circulation and drawing huge audiences. Suddenly the Stooges were in big demand, and Moe and Larry once again revived the act with Joe ‘Curly-Joe’ DeRita stepping into the breach. With Moe and Larry now getting on in years, this was the Stooges’ last hurrah. But it was, in many ways, a triumphant one. From 1959 to 1965 they made a series of feature films in the classic Stooge vein, including the infamous Snow White And The Three Stooges (which is not nearly as bad as people would have you believe — well, not quite). They also recorded 41 live wraparound segments for The New Three Stooges cartoon series. In 1969, Moe, Larry and Curly-Joe shot a pilot for a proposed TV show called Kook’s Tour, a Stooge-style travelogue. It was not to be. In January 1970, Larry Fine suffered a debilitating stroke, ending his career. Longtime Stooge co-star Emil Sitka was contracted to replace him, but no footage was ever shot with Sitka as a Stooge.
In December 1974, Larry suffered another stroke and, the following month, he died at the age of 72. With near unbelievable fortitude, Moe vowed the Stooges would soldier on, approaching veteran Ted Healy-era Stooge Paul ‘Mousie’ Garner. Tragically, while negotiating a number of movie projects, Moe was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He died on May 4, 1975.
However, The Three Stooges live on. In the States it’s impossible to get through a week, a day even, without encountering a Stooge reference — images, clips, signature lines (“Calling Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard” from 1934’s Men In Black crops up continually in films and on TV), catchphrases (“I’m a victim of soicumstance!” etc), noises (particularly Curly’s trademark “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!” and “woo, woo, woo!”), even sound effects — the Stooges’ ‘frying pan’ is a classic for the ages, still famously used by Vic & Bob. The Stooges are all gone now but their memories and comedy will live on forever...