Moe Howard was an American actor and comedian best known as the de facto leader of the Three Stooges, the farce comedy team who starred in motion pictures and television for four decades. Howard was born Moses Harry Horwitz on June 19, 1897, in Bensonhurst, New York, to parents of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry. Howard’s parents and brothers Benjamin and Irving were not involved or interested in showbusiness. Moe and his older brother Shemp, and younger brother Curly, however, eventually found stardom as the Three Stooges.
Howard developed a keen interest in acting as a young man, causing his grades in academic subjects to slip. After attending Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush, Brooklyn for just two months, Howard dropped out to pursue a career in showbusiness. Howard started off running unpaid errands at the Vitagraph Studios in Midwood, Brooklyn, and was rewarded at first with bit parts in movies in production there until a 1910 fire destroyed most of Howard's work.
Howard continued his attempts at gaining showbusiness experience by singing in a bar with his older brother Shemp until their father put a stop to it. In 1914, he joined a performing minstrel show troupe on a Mississippi River showboat for the next two summers. In 1921, he joined Ted Healy in a vaudeville routine. In 1923, Moe saw Shemp in the audience during a theater performance and yelled at him from the stage. Shemp responded by heckling Moe, and the two brothers’ amusing bickering during the performance resulted in Healy immediately hiring Shemp Howard as a permanent part of the act.
Moe semi-retired in June 1925 after his marriage to Helen Schonberger and went into real estate with his mother. Meanwhile, Healy’s act with frequent stooge Shemp Howard went on to national fame in the Shubert Brothers’ A Night in Spain, which had a successful Broadway run, as well as a national tour. After the show ended in late November, Healy signed for the Shuberts’ new revue A Night in Venice and recruited Moe out of retirement to rejoin the act in December 1928. In rehearsals in early 1929, Howard, Larry Fine, and Shemp Howard came together for the first time as a trio. When A Night in Venice closed in March 1930, Healy and the trio toured for a while as “Ted Healy and His Racketeers” (later changed to Ted Healy and His Stooges).
Ted Healy and His Stooges were on the verge of hitting the big time and made their first movie, Soup to Nuts (1930) – featuring Healy and his four Stooges: Moe (billed as “Harry Howard”), Shemp, Larry, and Fred Sanborn (Sanborn had been with Healy’s troupe since January 1929, as one of the stooges in A Night in Venice) – for Fox Films. A disagreement with Healy led Moe, Larry, and Shemp to strike out on their own as “Howard, Fine and Howard” and, on August 28, 1930, they premiered that act at the Paramount Theater in Los Angeles.
Films and Later Life
In 1931, The Three Stooges signed with Columbia Pictures and had an incredibly successful run, making 190 short films by 1957. Moe Howard’s character, a short-tempered bully prone to slapstick violence, led the charge. Howard appeared in more than 250 films during his 66-year career.
In the 1940s, the Three Stooges became topical, making several anti-Nazi short films, including You Nazty Spy! (1940), Moe’s favorite Three Stooges film, I'll Never Heil Again (1941), and They Stooge to Conga (1943). Moe’s impersonation of Adolf Hitler highlighted these shorts, the first of which preceded Charlie Chaplin’s film satire The Great Dictator.
In the early 1950’s, Columbia sold the Three Stooges’ library of short films to television under the Screen Gems name. With this, the Three Stooges quickly gained a new audience of young fans. The Stooges continued to do live appearances and act in films, but by the late 1960’s they were all at an age where they could no longer risk serious injury while performing slapstick comedy.
Moe sold real estate when his showbusiness life slowed down, although he still did minor solo roles and walk-on bits in movies. The Stooges attempted to make a final film in 1969, Kook’s Tour, which was essentially a documentary of Howard, Larry, and Curly Joe out of character, touring the United States, and meeting with fans. Production abruptly halted when on January 9, 1970, Larry suffered a major stroke during filming, paralyzing the left side of his body. He died on January 24, 1975, at age 72. Enough footage of Larry was shot so that Kook’s Tour was eventually released in a 52-minute version to home video.
Moe Howard died of lung cancer at age 77 on May 4, 1975, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, a month before his 78th birthday. He was a heavy smoker for much of his adult life. The Three Stooges received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on August 30, 1983, at 1560 Vine Street.