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The Last Poke in the Eye Was Real

Television * Tonight's ABC biopic about the Three Stooges tells the good and the sad of their careers.

April 24, 2000|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Those tuning in to see how well Ben-Victor, Handler and Chiklis can re-create the Stooges' physical comedy will likely be impressed. But more awe-inspiring are the personal struggles and professional slights the former vaudevillians from Brooklyn endured, principally at the hands of Harry Cohn, the Columbia Pictures studio boss who delighted in their comedy nearly as much as he enjoyed manipulating their careers to his financial advantage. Cohn kept the Stooges in the picture business across three decades, through 190 shorts. But he also kept them underpaid and, more significantly, left out in the cold when their shorts enjoyed a sudden renaissance on TV. While Columbia made millions, the Stooges made nothing.

The resurgence in popularity did prompt Moe and Larry to find another Stooge, "Curly Joe" DeRita, whereupon the trio embarked on personal appearances. They also made feature films, titles like "The Three Stooges in Orbit" and "The Three Stooges Meet Hercules." However, the group's artistic heyday, clearly, was over.

"We approached it from the point of view of a family drama, with Moe running things," says "Three Stooges" executive producer Meron, who saw dramatic fruit in the story of a brother whose compulsion to secure work, particularly as the country moved through the Great Depression, continually clashed with familial obligations. Taking the "emotional" approach, Meron says, enabled the producers to get around an age-old axiom: Men love the Stooges, but women just don't get them.

Adds Zadan: "If somebody had said to us, 'Do you want to do two hours of shtick?' I think we would have said, 'Pass.' "

To be sure, even those fans who grew up on a steady diet of their comedy shorts may only be dimly aware that the Stooges were even Jewish. Born to Solomon and Jennie Gorovitz (Lithuanian emigres who changed their name to Horwitz), Moe and older brother Shemp Howard were the first of the brothers to enter show business, becoming part of a vaudeville act fronted by comic Ted Healy. In the act, he slapped them around, giving rise to many of the Stooges' physical moves, but offstage Healy kept them under foot, at his mercy for bookings.

The two Stooges became three when dancing fiddler Larry Fine (born Larry Feinberg) joined the act in 1925. An attempt to break into Hollywood with the 1930 feature "Soup to Nuts" failed, and by the time the movies beckoned a second time Healy was out, studio bosses seeing more potential in his minions--Moe, Larry and Shemp--than in Healy himself. When Shemp left to pursue his own film career, Moe enlisted the youngest of the Horwitz clan, Jerome. He would later shave off his hair and call himself Curly.

The Stooges' career in Hollywood, in a sense, mirrored their vaudeville years, but on a larger scale. Trusted and tireless performers, they never made it in feature films, unlike more-respected peers such as Abbott & Costello and Charlie Chaplin. And they worked under onerous contracts that, while typical for the era, were destined to leave them cheated and embittered. As depicted in the film, it was Moe who guided the Stooges on financial matters, Moe who failed to challenge the too-cozy relationship between the Stooges' agent, Harry Romm, and Columbia's Cohn. And it was Moe who, struggling for work when the Stooges' run at Columbia ended in the 1950s, found himself fetching sandwiches for Romm.

Moe's Daughter Had an Objection

Joan Maurer, Moe's daughter, says she was heartened that the true, well-meaning nature of her father managed to come through in the film. But she did have one quibble.

"He was a very philanthropic man, and he was very loving of his brother. My dad would never have gone in and handed a legal paper to Curly when he was dying. Something like that most likely happened, but I know it didn't happen like that."

For Chiklis, however, that scene, factual or not, goes a long way toward explaining why he wanted to take on the all-important role of Curly, a comedy icon as indelible for some as Groucho Marx. Chiklis well understands the inherent danger in portraying legendary comedians; in 1989, he starred in the forgettable John Belushi biopic "Wired."

"I was reluctant to even meet [the producers] for the role because of my experience with 'Wired,' " he says. "I had been put through the mill so badly with that experience that I thought, all I need is to be put through that again with another biopic about a comedian."

But Chiklis, who characterizes the real Curly as "this brooding man-child who was essentially unknowable, even to his own brothers," says working on "The Three Stooges" allayed his fears, because the film fills in so many historical blanks.

"Some people are trying to bill it as the dark side of the Stooges," he says. "I don't think it's that at all. It's the rich life of the Stooges."

* "The Three Stooges" can be seen tonight at 8 on ABC. The network has rated it TV-PG-LV (may be unsuitable for young children with special advisories for coarse language and violence).

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