The Shy Stooge

(I was only 15 when Elvis Presley died in 1977, and I remember everyone going on about what a tragedy it was for The King to have passed so young at age 42. At that time 42 seemed like a lot of years to be alive, and I didn’t see anything particularly tragic about someone so “old” dying.

Man have times changed!

I’ll turn 50 on the 4th of July this year, which means that I’ve outlasted Elvis by a solid eight years so far, and from where I stand, 50 ain’t old! Not one bit.

It also means that I’ve been circling with the earth for a couple of years longer than Jerome “Curly” Howard got on this side of the ground. Curly died sixty years ago this week, as a “youngster” of only 48.)

When the cameras weren’t rolling, Jerome “Curly Howard" Horwitz was very different from the hyper-manic slapstick “stooge” that he played on screen in nearly 100 shorts with Larry Fine and his brother Moe.

Curly, who died 60 years ago this coming Friday, was known as Jerry to his friends and Babe to his family. He was the youngest of the five Horwitz brothers, which included future Stooges Moe and Shemp.

A shy, unassuming boy, young Jerry did poorly in school, but excelled as a basketball player (!), ballroom dancer, and singer. He walked with a slight limp that resulted from an accidental gunshot wound he sustained as a child. (He would later develop his famous “Curly Shuffle” in part to hide his affliction.)

Jerry joined the Stooges in 1932 after his brother Shemp left the act to pursue a solo career. Comedian Ted Healy led the team at the time, and initially rejected him because he didn’t like his full-head of auburn hair. Jerry, needing the job, reappeared a few minutes later with a shaved head and was immediately hired and given the ironic nickname “Curly.”

Curly became the most popular Stooge out of the gate when the team began making shorts for Columbia two years later. A self-trained comic, Curly created most of his most famous routines on the spot. Often times, directors would give him the barest of plot outlines and simply turn on the camera and watch him create.

The Stooges kept up a grueling filming schedule for many years with Columbia head Harry Cohn demanding eight shorts a year from the team. When not filming, the Stooges toured non-stop, giving live performances. Curly, who felt more comfortable with dogs than people, would often spend his downtime on tour finding homes for strays.

When not on stage, Curly would morph back into the introverted Jerry, who was insecure around women because of his shaved head, and could only open up to strangers when intoxicated. This became an increasingly constant condition.

His health, both physically and mentally, declined drastically during the 1940s, as he suffered through a string of bad marriages and hypertension brought on by obesity. After he had a stroke in 1946 (Perhaps brought on by too many head slaps administered by brother Moe?), Shemp rejoined the team and Curly was sent to live out the remainder of his life in hospitals. He eventually died from a major stroke in a sanitarium in San Gabriel on January 18, 1952. He was only 48.

Curly was interred in East L.A.’s Home of Peace Cemetery where he would later be joined by brother Shemp, who died three years later. The cemetery houses the mortal remains of many Hollywood luminaries, including studio moguls Louis B. Mayer and the Warner brothers.

But by far, the most visited grave on the grounds belongs to a shy kid named Jerry, who – lucky for us – hid his introversion behind a persona with a shaved head, a high-pitched staccato Brooklyn accent, and a host of memorable catch-phrases and physical gags.

The grave is a bit tough to find, but you’ll know it when you see it. It’s the one with “Nyuk, Nyuk, Nyuk” written out in front in pennies.

(And in Deadwrite’s Dailies news: We passed 100,000 all-time hits just after New Year’s. Thanks everyone for stopping by.)

About deadwrite

Freelance writer, film historian, taphophile View all posts by deadwrite

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