Howard was born as Moses Harry Horwitz on June 19, 1897, in the Brooklyn, New York City neighborhood of Bensonhurst to Solomon Horwitz and Jennie Gorovitz, the fourth-born of five brothers of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry. He was named Moe when he was younger and later called himself Harry. Howard's parents and brothers, Benjamin and Irving were not involved in show business, but he, his older brother Shemp Howard, and younger brother Curly Howard all eventually became known as members of The Three Stooges. He loved to read as older brother Jack recalled: "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." This helped him in his acting career in later years, such as in memorizing his lines quickly and easily.
Howard's "bowl cut" hairstyle became his trademark, despite his mother initially refusing to cut his hair in childhood, letting it grow to shoulder length. He would secretly cut his hair in his backyard shed, after being frequently teased in school.
Howard began to develop an interest in acting to the point where his grades worsened and began to play hookey from school. He 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 waning attendance, Howard graduated from P.S. 163 in Brooklyn but dropped out of Erasmus Hall High School after only two months, ending his formal education. He took an electric shop course for his parents' wishes, but quit after a few months to pursue a career in show business.
Howard started off running unpaid errands at the Vitagraph Studios in Midwood, Brooklyn and was rewarded at first with bit parts in movies in production there, until a 1910 fire destroyed the films done there, and with it, most of Howard's work. But already in 1909, he had met a young man named Ernest Lea Nash (later known as Ted Healy), who was later to provide a significant boost for his career aspirations. In 1912, they both held a summer job working in Annette Kellerman's aquatic act as diving "girls".
Howard 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, by joining a performing troupe on a Mississippi River showboat for the next two summers. In 1921, he joined Ted Healy in a vaudeville routine. In 1923, Moe saw Shemp in the audience during a theater performance and yelled at him from the stage. Shemp responded by heckling Moe, and the two brothers' amusing bickering during the performance resulted in Healy immediately hiring Shemp Howard as a permanent part of the act.
Moe retired in June 1925 after his marriage to Helen Schonberger and went into real estate with his mother. Meanwhile, Healy's act with frequent stooge Shemp Howard went on to national fame in the Shubert Brothers' A Night in Spain (Jan. 1927 – Nov. 1928), which had a successful Broadway run as well as a national tour. It was during A Night in Spain, and the end of a 4-month run in Chicago, Illinois, that Healy recruited vaudeville violinist Larry Fine to join the troupe in March 1928.
After the show ended in late November, Healy signed for the Shuberts' new revue A Night in Venice and recruited Moe Howard out of retirement to rejoin the act in December 1928. In rehearsals in early 1929, Howard, Larry Fine, and Shemp Howard came together for the first time as a trio. When A Night in Venice closed in March 1930, Healy and the trio toured for a while as "Ted Healy and His Racketeers" (later changed to Ted Healy and His Stooges).
Ted Healy and His Stooges were on the verge of hitting the big time and made their first movie, Soup to Nuts (1930)—featuring Healy and his four Stooges: Moe (billed as "Harry Howard"), Shemp, Larry, and Fred Sanborn (Sanborn had been with Healy's troupe since January 1929, as one of the stooges in "A Night in Venice")—for Fox Films (later 20th Century Fox). A disagreement with Healy led Moe, Larry and Shemp to strike out on their own as "Howard, Fine & Howard," and on August 28, 1930 they premiered that act at L.A.'s Paramount Theatre. Joining the RKO vaudeville circuit they toured for almost two years, eventually dubbing themselves as "Three Lost Soles" and taking on Jack Walsh as their straight man.
In July 1932, Moe, Larry and Shemp were approached by Healy to rejoin him for the new Shubert Broadway revue "Passing Show of 1932," and the three accepted the offer. On August 16, 1932, during "Passing" rehearsals in New York, Ted walked out on the Shuberts over a contract dispute. On August 19, 1932, Shemp gave his notice having not seen eye-to-eye with the hard-drinking and sometimes belligerent Healy, and decided to remain with "Passing," which closed in September after pan reviews of its first roadshow performances in Detroit and Cincinnati. Shemp landed at Vitaphone Studios in Brooklyn in May 1933, where he stayed for almost four years.
On August 20, the day after Shemp's departure, Moe suggested adding his youngest brother Jerome ("Babe" to Moe and Shemp) to the act; contrary to some sources, there was no search for a replacement. 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. That finally got Healy to hire Jerry, who took the stage name of "Curly." The new lineup of Moe, Larry and Curly premiered with Ted on stage at Cleveland's RKO Palace on August 27, 1932. Early 1933 during appearances in Los Angeles, 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 in 1934, his Stooges (now renamed The Three Stooges) signed with Columbia Pictures, where they stayed until December 1957, making 190 comedy shorts.
With Healy's departure, Moe Howard assumed Healy's prior role as the aggressive, take-charge leader of the Three Stooges: a short-tempered bully, prone to slapstick violence against the other two Stooges. But despite his outwardly rather cruel demeanor towards his pals, Moe was also very loyal and protective of the other Stooges on film, keeping them from harm and, should it befall them, doing whatever it took to save them.
He emphasized in his 1977 book that the ill-tempered aspects of his on-screen persona did not reflect his real personality. He also boasted of being a shrewd businessman by wisely investing the money made from his film career. But the Stooges received no subsequent royalties (i.e., residuals) from any of their many shorts; they were paid a flat amount for each one, and Columbia owned the rights (and profits) thereafter. However, according to Larry Fine in the 1970s, Columbia allowed the Stooges to do live tours when they were not filming in exchange for half-salary during those months. Fine indicated that the profits from the tours substantially increased their yearly take.
Columbia released its first Three Stooges short, Woman Haters (1934), where their stooge characters were not quite fully formed. 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 comedian 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 (1934), was the only short film 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 (also 1934), a parody of the contemporary hospital drama Men in White, was their first and only film to be nominated for an Academy Award (with the classic catchphrases "Calling Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard" followed by their reiterated unison declaration as young doctors, "For Duty and Humanity!!"). They continued making short films at a steady pace of eight per year, such as Three Little Pigskins (also 1934) with a young Lucille Ball), Pop Goes the Easel (1935), and Hoi Polloi (also 1935), in which two professors make a bet trying to turn the Three Stooges into gentlemen.
In the 1940s the Three Stooges became topical, making several anti-Nazi short films, including You Nazty Spy! (1940) Moe's favorite Three Stooges film, I'll Never Heil Again (1941), and They Stooge to Conga (1943). Moe's impersonation of Adolf Hitler highlighted these shorts, the first of which preceded Charlie Chaplin's film satire The Great Dictator by months.
On May 6, 1946, during the filming of Half-Wits Holiday (1947), brother Curly suffered a stroke. He had already suffered a series of them prior to the filming of Beer Barrel Polecats (1946) and was replaced by Shemp who agreed to return to the group, but only until Curly would be well enough to rejoin. Although Curly recovered enough to appear in Hold That Lion! (1947) in a cameo appearance (the only Three Stooges film to contain all three Howard brothers; Moe, Curly and Shemp), he soon suffered a second series of strokes which led to his death at age 48 on January 18, 1952.
After Shemp rejoined the act, Moe, Shemp, and Larry shot a television pilot for ABC called Jerks of All Trades (1949), apparently intended to lead to a weekly sitcom series on the premise that the Stooges would try a different job or business every week, hoping that eventually one of their attempts would be successful. Anything they tried turned out to be a fiasco, which was the source of the comedy. The pilot took a single day to film and was never aired. It was actually a kinescope film of a three camera television production, most likely to replicate a proposed live broadcast.
B.B. Kahane, Columbia Pictures' Vice-President of Business Affairs, stopped the show from being broadcast. Kahane warned the Stooges that a contract stipulation restricted them from performing in a TV series that might compete with their two-reel comedies. Columbia further threatened to cancel the boys' contract and take them to court if they tried to sell the series. To avert a legal hassle, the pilot was shelved and the project abandoned. The kinescope film is now in the public domain and widely available.
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 (1951). Moe also co-produced occasional western and musical films in the 1950s.
On November 22, 1955, Shemp died of a heart attack at age 60, 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 (thus creating the Fake Shemp phenomenon), until Columbia head Harry Cohn hired Joe Besser in 1956. According to Moe's autobiography, Howard wanted a "two-stooge" act, and it was Cohn's idea, not Howard's, to replace Shemp as part of the act.
The Stooges replaced Shemp with Joe Besser, already an established Columbia comedy shorts star in his own right and frequent movie supporting player. Joe, Larry, and Moe filmed 16 shorts through December 1957. Shortly before Cohn's death in February 1958, the making of short subjects came to an end. Keeping himself busy, Moe was hired by Harry Romm as associate producer. According to Moe, stories (and later, scenes in a 2000 made-for-TV biopic) that he was forced to take a job as a gofer at Columbia are completely false.
Fortunately for the Stooges, Columbia sold the Three Stooges' library of short films to television under the Screen Gems name. 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" because of his vague resemblance to Curly Howard and to differentiate him from Joe Besser) as the new "third Stooge". DeRita, like both Shemp Howard and Joe Besser, had also starred in a series of his own comedy shorts.
The revitalized trio starred in six feature-length movies: Have Rocket, Will Travel (1959); Snow White and the Three Stooges (1961); The Three Stooges Meet Hercules; The Three Stooges in Orbit (both 1962); The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze (1963); and The Outlaws Is Coming (1965).
Howard, Larry, and Curly Joe continued to make live appearances, many notable "guest appearances", particularly in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) as three firemen who appear for only a few seconds, and a longer appearance in 4 for Texas (also 1963) starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. The men tried their hand at a children's cartoon show titled The New Three Stooges, with the cartoons sandwiched between live action segments of the Stooges filmed in color.
During this period, Moe and The Stooges appeared on numerous television shows including The Steve Allen Show, Here's Hollywood, Masquerade Party, The Ed Sullivan Show, Danny Thomas Meets The Comics, The Joey Bishop Show, Off To See The Wizard, and Truth or Consequences, but by the late 1960s they were all at an age where they could no longer risk serious injury while performing slapstick comedy.
The men were paid residuals for their later efforts and continued to receive the bulk of the profits from sales of Stooges merchandise. Moe sold real estate when his show-business life slowed down, although he still did minor solo roles and walk-on bits in movies, such as Don't Worry, We'll Think of a Title (1966) and Doctor Death: Seeker of Souls (1973) as well as several appearances on The Mike Douglas Show) in the 1970s.
In one of Douglas' episodes, Moe, his hair in a style popular at the time, made a surprise appearance during an interview of the writer of a "where-are-they-now" book. When the audience was given the chance to ask the writer about famous people, Howard asked "What ever happened to the Three Stooges?" Finally recognized by Douglas, he then combed his hair into his trademark style.
The Stooges attempted to make a final film in 1969, Kook's Tour, which was essentially a documentary of Howard, Larry, and Curly-Joe out of character, touring the US, and meeting with fans. But production abruptly halted when on January 9, 1970, Larry suffered a major stroke during filming, paralyzing the left side of his body. He died on January 24, 1975, at age 72. Enough footage of Larry was shot so that Kook's Tour was eventually released in a 52-minute version to home video. After Fine's stroke, Howard asked longtime Three Stooges supporting actor Emil Sitka to replace Larry, but this final lineup never shot any material.
On June 7, 1925, Moe Howard married Helen Schonberger, a cousin of Harry Houdini. The next year, Schonberger persuaded Howard to retire since she was pregnant. Howard attempted to earn a living in a succession of "normal" jobs, none of which was very successful, and he soon returned to working with Ted Healy.
Howard and Schonberger had two children, Joan Howard (born 1927) and Paul Howard (born 1935).
Howard died of lung cancer at age 77 on May 4, 1975, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where he had been admitted a week earlier in April, just over three months after Larry Fine's death, and more than a month before his 78th birthday. He was a heavy smoker for much of his adult life. He was interred in an outdoor crypt at Culver City's Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery. His wife Helen Schonberger died of a heart attack later that year on October 31, 1975, at age 75 and was interred in the crypt next to him on the right. At the time of his death, Howard was working on his autobiography titled I Stooged to Conquer. It was released in 1977 as Moe Howard and the Three Stooges.
Howard and the Three Stooges received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on August 30, 1983 at 1560 Vine Street.
Howard was portrayed by Paul Ben-Victor in The Three Stooges, a 2000 made-for-TV biopic that focused on the trio's years in show business and their off-screen lives. In the 2012 Farrelly brothers' film The Three Stooges, Chris Diamantopoulos portrays Howard. Skyler Gisondo portrays Young Howard.