Moe was born Harry Moses Horwitz in the Brooklyn,
New York neighborhood of Bensonhurst to Solomon Horwitz and Jennie
Gorovitz. He was the fourth of the five Horwitz brothers and of
Levite and Lithuanian Jewish ancestry. In his younger years, he
got the nickname Moe. Although his parents were not involved in
show business, Moe, his older brother Samuel, and younger brother
Jerome, all eventually became world-famous as members of the Three
In school, Moe originally did quite well, aided
by a prolific memory, able to quickly memorize anything. In later
years, this helped him in his acting career, making memorizing his
lines quick and easy. Moe loved reading, as his older brother Jack
commented "I had many Horatio Alger books and it was Moe's
greatest pleasure to read them. They started his imaginative mind
working and gave him ideas by the dozen. I think they were instrumental
in putting thoughts into his head to become a person of good character
and to become successful."
Although his "bowl-cut" hairstyle is now
widely recognized, as a child his mother refused to cut his hair,
letting it grow to shoulder length. One day, he could not take his
classmates' years of teasing any longer, sneaked off to a shed in
his parents' back yard, and with the help of a friend and a mixing
bowl, cut his hair. Moe was so afraid his mother would be upset
(she enjoyed curling his hair) that he hid under the house for several
hours, causing a panic. He finally came out and his mother was so
glad to see him that she did not even mention the hair.
Moe began to develop an interest in acting and,
as a result, his schoolwork suffered. He began playing hooky from
school in order to attend theater shows. Moe said, "I used
to stand outside the theater knowing the truant officer was looking
for me. I would stand there 'til someone came along and then ask
them to buy my ticket. It was necessary for an adult to accompany
a juvenile into the theater. When I succeeded I'd give him my ten
cents — that's all it cost — and I'd go up to the top of the balcony
where I'd put my chin on the rail and watch, spellbound, from the
first act to the last. I would usually select the actor I liked
the most and follow his performance throughout the play."
Despite his decreasing attendance Moe graduated
from P.S. 163 in Brooklyn, but he dropped out of Erasmus Hall High
School after only two months. This was the end of his formal education.
To mollify his parents he took a class in electric shop, but quit
after a few months to pursue a career in show business.
Moe began by running errands for no fee at the Vitagraph
Studios in Midwood, Brooklyn (currently the home of the CBS daytime
serial As the World Turns), where he was rewarded with bit parts
in movies being made there. Unfortunately, a fire at the studios
in 1910 destroyed the film of most of Moe's work done there. In
1909 he met a young man named Lee Nash who would later provide a
significant boost to Moe's career aspirations. In 1912, they both
held a summer job working in Annette Kellerman's aquatic act as
Moe continued his attempts at gaining show business
experience by singing in a bar with his older brother Shemp until
their father put a stop to it, and in 1914 joining a performing
troupe on a Mississippi River showboat for the next two summers.
In 1921, he joined Lee Nash, who was now firmly established in show
business as Ted Healy, in a vaudeville routine. In 1923, Moe spotted
Shemp watching the show and yelled at him from the stage. Shemp
and Moe heckled each other to a large positive response from the
audience and Healy hired Shemp as a permanent part of the act. Next,
Healy recruited a vaudeville violinist, Larry Fine, in 1925, to
join the comedy troupe, which was billed as "Ted Healy and
His Racketeers" (later changed to Ted Healy and His Stooges).
On June 7, 1925, Moe Howard married Helen Schonberger,
a cousin of magician Harry Houdini. The next year, Helen pressured
Moe to leave the stage, as she was pregnant and wanted Moe nearer
to home. Moe attempted to earn a living in a succession of "normal"
jobs, none of which was very successful. He soon returned to working
with Ted Healy.
By 1930, Ted Healy and his Stooges were on the verge
of "the big time," and made their first movie, Soup to
Nuts — featuring Ted Healy, and his four Stooges (Moe, Shemp, Larry,
and one-shot Stooge Fred Sanborn) — for Fox Films (later Twentieth
Century-Fox). Shemp had never seen eye-to-eye with the hard-drinking
and sometimes belligerent Healy, and left the group shortly after
filming in order to pursue a solo film career. After a short search
for a replacement, Moe suggested his youngest brother, Jerome ("Jerry"
to his friends, "Babe" to Moe and Shemp). Healy originally
passed on Jerry, but Jerry was so eager to join the act that he
shaved off his luxuriant auburn mustache and hair and ran on stage
during Healy's routine. Healy hired Jerry, who took the stage name
Healy and the Stooges were hired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
as "nut" comics, to liven up feature films and short subjects
with their antics. After a number of appearances in MGM films, Healy
was being groomed as a solo character comedian. With Healy pursuing
his own career, his Stooges (now christened The Three Stooges) signed
with Columbia Pictures where they stayed until December 1957, making
190 short films.
With Healy's departure, Moe's character assumed
Healy's previous role of the aggressive, take-charge leader of the
Three Stooges: a short-tempered bully, prone to slapstick violence
against the other two Stooges. In many ways, this was the antithesis
of Moe Howard's real personality; he was quiet, loving, and generous
to his friends and family. He was also a shrewd businessman, and
invested the money made from his film career wisely. However, the
Stooges got no subsequent royalties from any of their many shorts:
they were paid a flat amount for each one and Columbia owned the
rights (and profits) thereafter.
In 1934, Columbia released its first Three Stooges
short, Woman Haters, where their stooge characters were not quite
finalized. It was not a Stooge comedy in the classic sense, but
rather a romantic farce; Columbia was then making a series of two-reel
"Musical Novelties" with the dialogue spoken in rhyme,
and the Stooges were recruited to support comedienne Marjorie White.
Only after the Stooges became established as short-subject stars
were the main titles changed to give the Stooges top billing. The
version seen on TV and video today is this reissue print.
Their next film, Punch Drunks, was the only short
film that was written entirely by the Three Stooges, with Curly
as a reluctant boxer who goes ballistic every time he hears "Pop
Goes the Weasel." Their next short, Men in Black (a parody
of the hospital drama Men in White) was their first and only film
to be nominated for an Academy Award (with the classic catchphrase,
"Calling Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard"). They continued
making short films at a steady pace of eight per year, such as Three
Little Pigskins (with a very young Lucille Ball), Pop Goes the Easel,
Hoi Polloi (where two professors make a bet trying to turn the Three
Stooges into gentlemen), and many others.
In the 1940s, the Three Stooges became topical, making several anti-Nazi
movies including You Nazty Spy! (Moe's favorite Three Stooges film),
I'll Never Heil Again, and They Stooge to Conga. Moe's accurate
impersonation of Adolf Hitler highlighted these shorts, the first
of which preceded Charles Chaplin's controversial film satire, The
Great Dictator, by months.
On May 6, 1946, during the filming of Half-Wits
Holiday, brother Curly suffered a stroke. He was replaced in the
Three Stooges by Shemp, who agreed to return to the group until
Curly would be well enough to rejoin. Although Curly recovered enough
to appear in Hold That Lion! in a cameo appearance (the only Three
Stooges film to contain all three Howard brothers; Moe, Curly, and
Shemp), he soon suffered a series of strokes which led to his death
on January 18, 1952.
The Three Stooges' series of shorts continued to
be popular through the 1950s; Shemp co-starred in 73 comedies. (The
Stooges also co-starred in a George O'Brien western, Gold Raiders,
in 1951.) Moe also co-produced occasional western and musical films
in the 1950s.
On November 22, 1955, Shemp died of a heart attack,
necessitating the need for another Stooge. Producer Jules White
used old footage of Shemp to complete four more films with Columbia
regular Joe Palma filling in for Shemp, until Harry Cohn hired Joe
Besser in 1956. According to Moe's autobiography, Howard wanted
a "two stooge" act, and that it was Cohn's idea, not Moe's,
to replace Shemp as part of the act. Joe, Larry, and Moe filmed
16 shorts through December 1957. With the death of Columbia head
Harry Cohn, the making of short subjects came to an end, and Howard
was forced to take a job as a gofer at Columbia.
Fortunately for the Stooges, Columbia sold the Three
Stooges' library of short films to television under the "Screen
Gems" brand. With this, the Three Stooges quickly gained a
new audience of young fans. Ever the businessman, Moe Howard put
together a new Stooges act, with burlesque and screen comic Joe
DeRita (dubbed "Curly-Joe" due to his resemblance to Curly
Howard) as the new "third Stooge." The revitalized trio
starred in several feature-length movies: Have Rocket, Will Travel,
Snow White and the Three Stooges, The Three Stooges Meet Hercules,
The Three Stooges in Orbit, The Three Stooges Go Around the World
in a Daze, and The Outlaws Is Coming!.
Moe, Larry and Curly-Joe continued to make live
appearances, many notable "guest appearances", notably
in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and 4 for Texas. The boys tried
their hand at a children's cartoon show titled The New 3 Stooges,
with the cartoons sandwiched between live action segments of the
boys. However, by 1965, the three had aged too much to continue
performing slapstick comedy. They did receive royalties from their
features with Curly-Joe, and income from the volume of Three Stooges
Moe sold real estate when his show-business life slowed down, although
he still did minor roles and walk-on bits in movies (Don't Worry,
We'll Think of a Title, Dr. Death: Seeker of Souls) and television
appearances (Here's Hollywood, Toast of the Town, Masquerade Party,
and several appearances on The Mike Douglas Show). The Stooges also
made several appearances on late night television, particularly
The Tonight Show.
The Stooges attempted to make a final film in 1969,
Kook's Tour, which was essentially an early "reality TV"
show of Moe, Larry and Curly-Joe, out of character, touring the
country and interacting with fans. On January 8, 1970, Larry suffered
a major stroke during filming, and died on January 24, 1975, at
age 72. Moe asked long-time Three Stooges supporting actor Emil
Sitka to replace Larry but this final lineup never recorded any
material before Moe's death on May 4, 1975, just a month shy of
his 78th birthday.
Moe and the Three Stooges received a Star on the
Hollywood Walk of Fame on August 30, 1983, at 1560 Vine Street.
A lifelong smoker, Moe Howard died of lung cancer on May 4, 1975.
He was interred at Hillside Memorial Park, Culver City, California.
His wife died of a heart attack in October 1975 and is buried next
Moe and Helen had two children: Joan Howard Maurer
(born 1927) and Paul Howard (born 1935).