Healy was a boyhood pal of Moe Howard, the eventual leader of the Three Stooges. In 1923, Healy, who had been in show business for about a decade by this point, bumped into his old friend Howard and told him he had an empty slot in his act. Howard gave it a whirl and came on stage as a “stooge,” an old industry term for a plant in the audience. Howard loved it, and, but for a few brief interruptions early on, he would spend the next 50 years in show business.
Healy and Howard were soon joined by Howard’s older brother, Shemp. Healy also hired Larry Fine during a brief time when Moe wasn’t in the act. When Moe returned, Moe, Shemp and Larry were together for the first time as Healy’s stooges — as opposed to Moe being the boss, though, Healy was the one slapping them around. A few years later, when Shemp wanted out, Moe and Shemp’s younger brother, Jerome “Curly” Howard, took his place. As Bill Cassara, author of Nobody’s Stooge: Ted Healy, explains, “Ted Healy was responsible for the development of the personas of Moe Howard, Shemp Howard, Curly Howard and Larry Fine. The Three Stooges were offshoots of him.”
In 1934, however, Healy and the stooges went their separate ways. A number of factors played into the split, but the three most notable were that their contract with Healy expired, Healy was known to be a mean drunk and the stooges felt they were underpaid. Moe was then elevated to the boss role — albeit a dumber one than Healy had ever played — and the trio of Moe, Larry and Curly became officially known as “The Three Stooges.” (When Curly had a debilitating stroke in 1946, Shemp would take back his old slot as the third stooge until his death in 1955.)
As for Healy, while some accounts would paint him as a bitter, destitute drunk in his final days, Cassara says this is inaccurate. “At the time of his death, Healy was a contract player for MGM making $60,000 a year,” Cassara tells me. Nor was his death as salacious as Hollywood lore would have you to believe.
“Broccoli approached Ted Healy because he knew who he was, and he wanted to congratulate him on becoming a father,” Cassara explains. “But Healy didn’t know who Broccoli was, and Healy swung at him.” According to newspapers at the time provided by The Stoogeum in Pennsylvania, Broccoli was hit by Healy in the nose and the mouth, before Broccoli shoved him back. Later on, Trocadero employees put Healy into a cab and sent him on his way. It is true that he died just a few short hours thereafter.
There were a couple of days where foul play was suspected, but that speculation amounted to nothing. Instead, on December 23rd, the coroner revealed that Healy’s death was related to alcoholism. His body did have a cut on the head, but the coroner deemed it to be superficial.
So where did the “Three Stooges creator beaten to death by the man behind the James Bond cinematic universe” story come from? The primary culprit is the 2005 book The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine, which told a wide array of sordid tales in classic Hollywood. “The author of The Fixers, E.J. Fleming, is deceased now, but I knew him and called him up asking about Ted Healy’s death and he just sort of chuckled about it,” Cassara says. “He was trying to make The Fixers into a movie. In reality, Broccoli came forward to the press, which goes against the conspiracy theories that Healy’s death was covered up by MGM. Also, one of the things that The Fixers pointed to was that Beery fled the country right away, but that was for an MGM-sponsored cruise he went on months later.” (There were also no accounts from the time that said Broccoli was there with Beery, and because Beery was a well-known actor, no such mention of him would have been unusual.)
Moreover, Larry Harnisch, a retired journalist for the Los Angeles Times, picked apart the account of Healy’s death in The Fixers detail-by-detail in his blog, The Daily Mirror, back in 2013. After a painstakingly thorough examination, Harnisch concluded that there was nothing to support Fleming’s book as no version of the story resembling that account appeared anywhere until 2005. But once The Fixers was published, it was cited multiple times on Wikipedia, where it still remains under the entries for Ted Healy, Albert Broccoli and a few others.
So, while Healy tragically died shortly after his son’s birth, there’s no reason to believe it was from anything other than alcoholism. Unlike the secret agent Broccoli would later make famous on the big screen, the movie producer did not have a license to kill.