HOLLYWOOD -- Who doesn't know those numskulls Moe, Larry and Curly? The Three Stooges -- whose pies in the face, punches in the gut, headlocks, insults and pratfalls have been embedded in popular culture since the 1930s -- are back.
But this time the Stooges are poignant, even sad. "The idea's that comedians have broken hearts, that's in some ways the story" of the comedy team, said James Frawley, the director of "The Three Stooges," a two-hour drama to be broadcast tonightby ABC.
What stamps the movie, which includes re-creations of original Stooges comedy routines, is the occasional bleakness of its portrait of the rise of some working-class boys who took their cheerful violence onto the vaudeville stage in the 1920s.
Their fame and success in Hollywood was extraordinary. They made nearly 200 shorts for Columbia Pictures in the 1930s, '40s and early '50s but were so exploited by Harry Cohn, the titan who ran the studio, as well as their longtime agent, Harry Romm, that they earned relatively little money for themselves and were left unemployed in 1958. At one point after that, Moe Howard, the group's leader, was working as a messenger at the studio, even though Columbia had earned a fortune off the Three Stooges. (In their years at the studio, they never made more than $20,000 each a year.)
"OK, they weren't high-art icons," said Evan Handler, the actor who plays Larry Fine in the film. "But you go up to anyone anywhere and tell them you're playing one of the Three Stooges, and they begin to laugh. They had that kind of impact. It's actually a bittersweet story."
If the story of the Stooges is hardly as tragic as that of Marilyn Monroe or Judy Garland, who have been depicted in recent books as victims of Hollywood as well as their own personal demons, the new drama is a bleak account of a group of men whose zany public personae were strikingly different from their troubled private lives. The account has a somewhat happy ending: In the early 1960s, television rediscovered the Stooges' old movies and a new group of fans emerged.
With the film, the Stooges seem to have come full circle. Not only is Stooges merchandising earning steady income for the comics' heirs, but the act has influenced comedians as varied as Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Steve Martin and Chevy Chase, directors like Robert Zemeckis and Quentin Tarantino and actors like Mel Gibson, an ardent fan who has credited some of the humor in his "Lethal Weapon" films to the Stooges. (Gibson's company, Icon Productions, produced the Stooges film along with, among others, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron.)
The Stooges film is based on Michael Fleming's book, "From Amalgamated Morons to American Icons: The Three Stooges" (Doubleday, 1999). It was adapted by Janet Roach and Kirk Ellis and stars Paul Ben-Victor as Moe and Handler as Larry, the two constants in the Stooge lineup; Michael Chiklis plays Moe's brother Curly and Jon Kassir is Shemp, their other brother, who preceded Curly in the act and replaced him after Curly's death. In later years, two other comedians, Joe Besser and then Joe DeRita, became Stooges. But Moe, Curly and Larry are most fans' favorites.
By all accounts, the Stooges were troubled men. Curly had an alcohol problem and fell in love with the wrong women; a series of strokes cut short his career. Larry was addicted to gambling and was broke most of his life. Moe, the group leader and the most stable, was despondent that Columbia had brushed him aside.
Susan Lyne, executive vice president of movies and mini-series at ABC, said the project began when the producers visited her about a year ago and said that they had a three-word pitch: the Three Stooges.
"It was so startling," Lyne said. "Frankly, I didn't love the Three Stooges like other people. I was never a fan as a kid. All I knew about them was they were guys bopping each other on the head and flopping their arms. But the story was so moving and surprising. They were guys who fell in love with the idea of show biz in the early days of vaudeville and went to Hollywood and never got their due. And only late in life did they realize the impact they had. I thought this story was great drama."
Happy to be working
Fleming, an author and a columnist for Variety, as well as Joan Howard Maurer, Moe's daughter, said that the financial insecurity of the Stooges, who grew up in poverty, had been exploited by Cohn, who ran Columbia, as well as by Romm, the group's talent agent. Romm had what Fleming called "a cozy relationship" with Cohn. The two men were close friends.
The Stooges "were always looking for their next jobs," Fleming said. "When they began making two-reelers, they were grateful. Moe was the businessman. But he was so nervous about making waves that he never tested the waters."
Maurer, who lives in Los Angeles, said: "My Dad was fearful. He didn't want to rock the boat. He didn't have the confidence to sit down with Harry Cohn and say, 'We need more money.' " The Stooges had been signed by Columbia in 1934. By 1958, the studio, giving up on comedy two-reelers and seeing no future with the trio, declined to renew their contact.
Robert Benjamin, Curly's stepson and general counsel of C3 Entertainment, which handles Stooges merchandising, said there were now about 100 Stooges licensees for apparel, toys and candy, which provides a steady income for their heirs. He declined to say how much money was involved, but he said that the yearly income from merchandising ranked with that of such figures as James Dean and Elvis Presley.
"They're as good as any classic property in the world, if not better," he said. "Their property is worth more now than it was in their lifetime."
Of the way the Stooges were treated, Benjamin said: "You have to keep in mind the context of the times. They didn't have sophisticated lawyers or agents." He added: "They never forgot the memory of the Depression. It was that generation -- their attitude was, 'I'm lucky to be working.' The sad part was that they never knew how popular they really were."
Virtually the entire cast of characters in the saga of the Three Stooges is dead. Moe Howard, whose original name was Moe Horwitz, died of lung cancer in 1975 at the age of 78. Larry Fine, born Larry Feinberg, also died in 1975, after a stroke. He was 72.
Curly Howard, originally Jerome Horwitz, died at 48 in 1952 after a series of strokes.
The act appeared in feature films in the 1960s including "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World," in which they had a cameo as firemen. But they are known almost entirely from their two-reel shorts, which have been replayed on television.
"After Harry Cohn died, my father went to the studio one day and the guard wouldn't even let him in," said Maurer, recalling Moe's humiliation. "That was a low point. He didn't want to see his acting career end. And then the first segment of their old comedy was released on television. And my father realized the fans were still there, a new generation. That was the most important thing to him. The fans were still there."
Who: Starring Paul Ben-Victor, Evan Handler, Michael Chiklis, John Kassir
When: 8 tonight. For more: The real Stooges are featured every Saturday from 8 a.m.-10 a.m. on AMC.