The Three Stooges Movie’s Long Journey to the Screen

This weekend finally sees the release of the Farrelly Brothers’ Three Stooges movie. I say “finally” not because I’m particularly looking forward to the slapstick-heavy redux, but because those who read the entertainment trades and movie sites know that new casting announcements and rumors about Three Stooges have been flying around on the web for what feels like an eternity now.

As a New York Times piece this week points out, “The script has been kicking around for so long that the initial plan… was for [Moe] to get a makeover on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” but the Three Stooges movie has actually been in development since long before the Fab Five captured America’s imagination and gave the nation’s comedy writers an easy target. The Farrelly Brothers first signed on to make a Stooges movie in 1996. The project faced a troubled development, jumping between four different movie studios – one of which went bankrupt - before finally getting made.

The idea of making an original Three Stooges movie with all new actors actually predates the Farrellys, though, going all the way back to an attempt by Mel Brooks in the 1970s.

Mel Brooks’s Three Stooges

In 1975, Mel Brooks was planning on writing, directing, and starring (as Moe) in a Three Stooges revamp with his frequent collaborators Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise by his side to play Larry and Curly, respectively. Brooks soon scrapped the idea after finding it hard to sustain a feature-length movie of Three Stooges gags. Brooks instead took Feldman and Dom DeLuise and made Silent Movie, about a director and his friends trying to resurrect silent movies several years after the fact and echoing his attempts at bringing the Three Stooges back to the screen.

The 1980s to mid-1990s: A new movie deal, rights fights, and a “coke-whore slush fund”

The descendants of original Stooge Moe sold the Three Stooges film rights to Columbia Pictures in 1988, only to get into a battle with the studio over merchandise rights when production of the movie stalled. Variety reported in 1993 that funds for the Stooges movie were used by studio execs for “illicit activities” and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on the project were unaccounted for. Vulture speculated last year that Columbia executives were using the movie as a “coke-whore slush fund,” alleging that the execs (and the movie) were mired in the scandal surrounding Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss.

Enter Farrellys

Coming off of Kingpin in 1996, sibling filmmaking duo Peter and Bobby Farrelly pitched their Three Stooges movie to execs at Columbia, but the talks were cut short when the brothers were unable to agree on a deal with the studio. They moved on and made There’s Something About Mary next, keeping Three Stooges on the back burner for over a decade and continuing to work on other movies instead.

Leap-frogging from studio to studio

Warner Brothers bought the rights to the Three Stooges in 2000, hoping the Farrellys would make the movie for them. The Farrelly Brothers kept busy with other projects and their careers experienced a bit of a downturn as the wild success their initial movies were met with in the 90s faded further and further into the rearview mirror, making it more difficult for them to sell studio bosses on resurrecting a screwball comedy team from the Golden Era of film.

Warners greenlit the movie in 2003, but the Farrelly Brothers put the movie off until the studio’s option to the Three Stooges lapsed in 2006. A small company called First Look Studios then optioned the Stooges’ film rights but the rights once again lapsed. MGM took hold of the project and hired the Farrellys.

Early casting: Russell Crowe as Moe, Jeff Daniels as Larry

When asked about the movie in 2007, Bobby Farrelly told the press he wanted either Benicio Del Toro or Russell Crowe to play Moe and was considering Jeff Daniels for the part of Larry. Russell Crowe turned the part down after reading the script, but the Farrellys kept their sights set on A-list actors for the three lead roles.

The cast crystallizes: Benicio Del Toro, Sean Penn, and Jim Carrey

In 2009, the Farrellys finally settled on their preferred cast, having selected a high-profile trio of diverse performers to play the Stooges: Benicio Del Toro as Moe, Sean Penn as Larry, and Jim Carrey as Curly. Sean Penn was the only actor to sign on, but Del Toro and Carrey were close to committing to their parts. Carrey was actually in the process of gaining weight to play the heavier of the Stooges, Curly, but he was having difficulty with the health aspects of the decision. Carrey explained his thinking to the press:

“For me, I don’t really want to do anything halfway, and I don’t feel like a fat suit does it… I started experimenting with it a little bit, and I gained 35, 40 pounds. I wanted to gain another 30, 40. When you’re De Niro in your 20s or early 30s, you can kind of come back from that. It’s a tough thing to come back from when you’re upwards of 30. Your body can’t carry it or you can have a cardiac arrest.”

The cast falls apart

Struggling with his choice to gain the necessary weight to play Curly, Jim Carrey opted out of the movie, even going as far to call the project “dead” before quickly adding, “It’s dead at least with me.” Sean Penn also quickly abandoned Three Stooges to take a break from Hollywood to deal with his marital problems. Paul Giamatti was announced to replace him as Larry

Another round of casting

With Sean Penn and Jim Carrey dropping out and the studio, MGM, facing bankruptcy, the Farrelly Brothers altered their casting strategy. They began to seek out lesser-known actors who could replicate the original characters closely instead of the A-list stars who were attached earlier and wanted to put their own stamp on the roles. Bill Chott, a Second City Chicago alum and castmember on The Dana Carvey Show, was considered for the part, even going as far to post his audition tape online (see below) and to try to start up a public campaign to get the role. UCB Theatre co-founder Matt Besser also auditioned for one of the main parts.

In 2010, Fox stepped in and took over The Three Stooges from bankrupt MGM and announced Richard Jenkins had been cast as the head nun (a part that the Farrellys later said they wanted Cher for before casting Jane Lynch).

Johnny Knoxville, Andy Samberg, and Shane Jacobson as the Stooges

With the Farrellys still waiting to lay out a final cast in January of 2011, The Wrap reported that Johnny Knoxville, Andy Samberg, and Australian comedian Shane Jacobson were the top choices to play Moe, Larry, and Curly, respectively. According to the article, discussions were taking place, but it looks like things didn’t get very far before the Farrellys moved on.

Justin Timberlake, Woody Harrelson, and Larry David all considered to play Larry

The following month, Huffington Post reported that Justin Timberlake, Woody Harrelson, and Larry David were all in contention for the part of Larry. Timberlake seems like an odd choice, but he’s been making a big push in the comedy direction the past few years. The pop star followed up his well-received stints as the host of SNL with roles in comedies of varying success like Bad Teacher, Friends with Benefits, and The Love Guru; however, playing one of the Three Stooges would have been the highest-profile comedy role he’d taken yet. The Farrellys didn’t pick any of these three guys for the part but they did let Larry David play a nun in the movie.

Hank Azaria, James Marsden, and Will Sasso as the Stooges

Last March, Deadline Hollywood announced that Hank Azaria, James Marsden and Will Sasso were each the frontrunners to play Moe, Larry, and Curly, respectively. The only one they got right was Sasso, who did land the role. Although Azaria and Marsden came close, Will & Grace’s Sean Hayes and 24 actor Chris Diamantopoulos scored the parts, and the rest… is history.

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.

The Three Stooges Movie’s Long Journey to the Screen