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CURLY, MOE, LARRY -- THE LAWSUIT

LOS ANGELES — LOS ANGELES -- In the media derby now running here in the courts, where even Heidi Fleiss finishes a distant second to O.J. Simpson, the Three Stooges never had a chance.

While there is neither a bloody glove nor a little black book revealing names of shame-faced Hollywood executives, the civil matter of DeRita v. Scott is not without intrigue. The question before the jury: Did the heirs of Moe Howard illegally withhold merchandising income from the heirs of his fellow Stooges, Joe DeRita, AKA Curly Joe, and Larry Fine?

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It gets better. One of the plaintiffs' lawyers is Bela Lugosi Jr., who is well over six feet tall, with gray-white hair and a face that resembles his father's.

"When I first met him," said Donald Zachary, the chief lawyer for the defense, "I said: 'Let's get this out of the way right away. Are you?' He said yes. 'Grandson?' 'No, son.' That was it."

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Several obvious quips about bloodsucking lawyers come to mind, but Mr. Lugosi insists he's never heard any.

The Stooges' case began last year when Jean DeRita, the widow vTC of Joe DeRita, got in touch with two lawyers, who in turn brought in Mr. Lugosi, a business litigator with Hanna & Morton of Los Angeles. Three grandchildren of Larry Fine joined as co-plaintiffs later.

Over the many weeks of arguments, which may conclude as early as this week, the jury has received a thorough history of Stoogedom: Joining Moe and Larry over the years was a succession of third Stooges that included Moe's brother Jerome, who played the original Curly; another brother, Shemp, who took over after Jerome died; Joe Besser, who revived the Curly character after Shemp's death; and Mr. DeRita, who took Mr. Besser's place.

Moe appears to have been the business and creative leader of the comedy team, and by mutual agreement handled the financial arrangements for all, a job eventually given to his son-in-law, Norman Maurer.

Mr. Maurer successfully marketed an array of Stooges' licensed merchandise, and revenue was doled out to all parties. When he died in 1986, Mr. Maurer's widow, Joan, and their son, a writer named Jeffrey Scott, took over the administration of Stooge income.

It is at this point that the two sides diverge. Mr. Lugosi and his colleagues assert that Mr. Scott and Mrs. Maurer improperly administered the business, commingling funds and paying out to Mrs. DeRita and the Fine heirs only 7 percent of the roughly $2.5 million in income and interest that he estimates has been earned for the Stooges since 1986.

For the defense, Mr. Zachary, of Kinsella, Boesch, Fujikawa & Towle of Los Angeles, responds that the plaintiffs have wrongly included money that Mr. Maurer earned as a writer and producer for animated cartoon series on ABC, as well as Mr. Scott's income as a writer on shows like "Jim Henson's Muppet Babies."


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