Who was Curly Howard?
Jerome Lester “Jerry” Horwitz, more popular by his stage name ‘Curly Howard’, was an American comedian and vaudevillian. He is best remembered as a member of the American slapstick comedy team ‘The Three Stooges’, which also had his older brothers Moe Howard and Shemp Howard, and actor Larry Fine. Curly is often considered the most popular and recognizable of the Stooges. He was reputed for his high-pitched voice, vocal expressions, as well as his inventive physical comedy, improvisations and athleticism. Curly Howard, though an untrained actor, possessed a natural flair for comedy. He was heavily influenced by the soft-spoken comedian Hugh Herbert, from who he borrowed many phrases and expressions. Curly was generally known as Jerry before he began his career with the Three Stooges. In his entire career, he had appeared in over twenty features on radio and television and in over a hundred short films which were known as “short subjects” back in the day. Some of his well-known short films were ‘Punch Drunks’, ‘A Plumbing We Will Go’, ‘An Ache in Every Stake’ and ‘Cactus Makes Perfect’.
Childhood & Early Life
Curly Howard was born as Jerome Lester Horwitz on October 22, 1903 in New York City, to Jennie Gorovitz and Solomon Horwitz. He was the youngest of the five sons of his parents. His family was of Lithuanian Jewish descent.
Being the youngest in his family, he was affectionately called “Babe” by his brothers. He later acquired the nickname “Curly.” His full formal Hebrew name was ‘Yehudah Lev ben Shlomo Natan ha Levi.’
He was a quiet child growing up and he rarely caused any trouble for his parents. Though he was a mediocre student in class, he was a talented athlete. He admired his elder brothers and followed in their footsteps by not graduating from school and working odd jobs instead.
He was also a skilled ballroom dancer and singer. Aside from that, Curly grew up with a passion for comedy and acting.
When Curly was only twelve years old, he accidently shot himself in the foot with a loaded rifle. His brother Moe rushed him to the hospital and managed to save him from dying of bleeding. Later, during his time with the Stooges, he developed a famous exaggerated walk to mask the limp on screen.
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The Three Stooges
Curly Howard’s first onstage appearance was in 1928. It was as a comedy musical conductor for the Orville Knapp Band. His brother Moe acknowledged that his performances usually overshadowed those of the band. Meanwhile, Moe and Shemp were also making it big with Ted Healy’s Stooges, a very popular act in those times.
In 1932, Shemp was offered a contract at the Vitaphone Studios in Brooklyn and left the act. Moe then suggested that Curly fill the role of the third stooge in The Stooges. In the beginning Ted Healy was skeptical of Curly as he felt that Curly was far too attractive to have a funny presence on-screen. Thus Curly shaved off his thick hair to acquire a funny appearance.
In 1934, Healy became interested in pursuing his own career with MGM and dissolved the act. Moe, Curly, and Larry Fine renamed the act to ‘The Three Stooges’ and also signed to appear in two-reel comedy short subjects (short films) for Columbia Pictures. The Stooges eventually rose to become the most popular short-subject attraction with Curly mostly playing the significant part in the trio’s work.
Curly’s childlike mannerisms along with his natural flair for comedy made him a hit with the audiences, especially children. His skills in comedy and humor were so exceptional that many times directors let the camera roll freely to let Curly improvise. Jules White in particular, would leave gaps in the Stooges’ scripts in order to let Curly improvise for several minutes altogether.
Throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Stooges enjoyed great success with hits like ‘Punch Drunks’ (1934), ‘A Plumbing Will Go’ (1940), ‘We Want Our Mummy’ (1938) and ‘Cactus Makes Perfect’ (1942).
His brother Moe once stated that if Curly ever forgot his lines, he was allowed to improvise on the spot so that the ‘take’ could continue. Curly’s reactions and his expressions were imitated by the Stooges even long after he left the act.
One of the many short films that Curly Howard appeared in was ‘Saved by the Belle’ which was released in 1939. Directed by Charley Chase, it featured the Stooges as travelling salesmen who are stranded in a fictional South American country named Valeska. Other actors in the film, apart from the Stooges, were LeRoy Mason, Carmen LaRoux, Gino Corrardo, and Vernon Dent.
Illness & Stroke
By 1944, Curly’s energy level had started deteriorating. In his films ‘Idle Roomers’ (1944) and ‘Booby Dupes’ (1945), his actions can be seen slowing down, indicating his waning health.
In 1945, he was diagnosed with extreme hypertension, a retinal hemorrhage, as well as obesity. Due to his ill health, only five shorts could be released that year though he usually would do around eight per year.
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By mid-1946, Curly’s voice had become coarser than before, and it became hard for him to even recall simple dialogues. During the filming of ‘Half-Wits Holiday’ in May 1946, Curly suffered a severe stroke while he was sitting on the director’s chair. He was rushed to the hospital and the scene had to be done again with only Moe and Larry.
Curly had to spend many weeks at the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital, which was located in Woodland Hills, California.
After Curly suffered the stroke, his brother Shemp made the decision to return and replace him in the Columbia shorts. Curly made his reappearance with his brothers and Larry Fine (a first for them) in the film ‘Hold That Lion!’ which was released in the year 1947.
Later in June 1948, Curly played a cameo role in the short film ‘Malice in the Palace’. But his illness was continuing to affect him and therefore many of his scenes weren’t good enough and had to be removed in the final edit.
The off-screen personality of Curly Howard was interestingly the antithesis of his onscreen imagine. An introvert, he used to keep to himself mostly. He was rarely seen socializing with people unless he had been drinking. His drinking increased as his career progressed as he was unable to cope with the stress.
Curly married Elaine Ackerman on June 7, 1937. The next year, Elaine gave birth to a girl, Marilyn, who remained their only child. The couple divorced in June 1940, following which Curly not only gained a lot of weight but also developed hypertension.
He became an incessant alcoholic and was very insecure about his appearance as well. Though he never drank while acting in films or on stage as his brother Moe would never permit it, he spent lots of money on wine, food, women, and cars in the absence of his brother. He was near bankruptcy very often.
Curly was also known for his love of dogs and found companionship in his dogs and other strays whom he used to befriend. Often he would pick up homeless dogs and take them with him until he managed to find a home for them.
He later got married again, to a woman named Marion Buxbaum, on October 17, 1945. The marriage, however, lasted for less than three months. The divorce negatively affected his financial status and public image.
On July 31, 1947 he got married for a third time to Valerie Newman. They had one daughter named Janie who was born the following year. The couple remained together till his demise.
Retirement & Death
Curly Howard suffered his second massive stroke in late 1948, which paralyzed him partially. He was eventually confined to a wheelchair and put on a diet of boiled rice and apples. He had to be admitted to the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital again in August 1950.
He was placed in a nursing home the next year, where he suffered yet another stroke a month later. In April that year, he was sent to the North Hollywood Hospital and Sanitarium.
As his mental health was deteriorating, Curly started causing problems to the nursing staff at the sanitarium. His brother Moe later moved him to Baldy View Sanitarium in San Gabriel, California.
On January 18, 1952, Curly finally passed away. He was only 48. After being given a standard Jewish funeral, he was laid to rest at the Western Jewish Institute section of Home of Peace Cemetery in East Los Angeles.