Tuesday, December 4, 2012
THE LAST DAYS OF TED HEALY
In prior articles, I posted stories on one of my favorite comedy team - The Three Stooges. Three brothers - Moe, Shemp, and Curly Howard along with Larry Fine were comic geniuses for decades. However, behind every comedy team is usually a good manager or producer who really discovers their talent and makes them into stars. That person on the side of The Three Stooges was Ted Healy.
Ted Healy was born on October 1, 1896 and although he is chiefly remembered today as the creator of The Three Stooges, he also had a successful stage and film career of his own. Healy discovered the act in 1925 as they were performing on vaudville. They were originally billed as "Ted Healy And His Stooges", but the trio broke away from Healy in 1934 due to his mismanagement of them and their finances.
Healy went on to establish a promising career in motion pictures, where he was successful in both comedic roles (where he was often grouped with new "stooges", including Jimmy Brewster, Red Pearson and Sammy Glasser) and dramatic roles. After Larry Fine, Moe Howard and Curly Howard left his act in 1934, Healy appeared in a succession of films for 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, and MGM. During this period, Healy took to wearing a full toupée in public. He was 41 and under contract to MGM at the time of his death on December 21, 1937, a few hours after preview audiences had acclaimed his work in the Warner Brothers film Hollywood Hotel
A cloud of mystery still hangs over the cause of Healy's death. Newspaper accounts attributed it to serious head injuries sustained in a nightclub brawl while celebrating the birth of his first child. Conflicting reports claimed the comedian died of a heart attack at his Los Angeles home. The death certificate issued by the state of California lists his cause of death as nephritis, or inflammation of the kidneys.
Two days before his death, Healy had visited Moe Howard's wife, Helen, at their Hollywood apartment with the news that Betty (Hickman), his second wife, was pregnant. Excited at the prospect of his first child, he told Howard's wife, "I'll make him the richest kid in the world." Howard later stated in an interview that Healy had always wanted children and that it was ironic that the impending birth of his first child shortly preceded his own death. Howard recalled, "He was nuts about kids. He used to visit our homes and envied the fact that we were all married and had children. Healy always loved kids and often gave Christmas parties for underprivileged youngsters and spent hundreds of dollars on toys."
At the time of Healy's death, the Stooges (consisting of Moe, Larry, and Curly) were at Grand Central Terminal in New York City preparing to leave for a personal appearance in Boston. Before their departure, Howard called Rube Jackter, head of Columbia Pictures' sales department, to confirm their benefit performance at Boston's Children's Hospital. During the conversation, Jackter told Howard that the night editor of The New York Times wanted to talk to him. Howard phoned The Times. The editor, without even a greeting, queried curtly, "Is this Moe?" Howard said it was. The editor then asked, "Would you like to make a statement on the death of Ted Healy?" Howard was stunned. He dropped the phone. Folding his arms over his head, Howard started to sob. Curly and Larry rushed into the phone booth to warn Howard that their train was about to leave. They found him crumpled over, crying. Since Howard seldom openly showed his emotions, Larry cracked to Curly, "Your brother's nuts. He is actually crying." Howard did not explain the reason for his emotional breakdown until he boarded the train. When they arrived back in Hollywood, they learned the details of Healy's death from a writer friend, Henry Taylor. Taylor told Howard that Healy had been out drinking at the Trocadero nightclub on the Sunset Strip, and an argument broke out with three college boys. Healy called them vile names and offered to go outside the club to take care of them one at a time. Once outside, Ted did not have a chance to raise his fists. The three men jumped him, knocked him to the ground and kicked him in the head, ribs and stomach. Healy's friend actor Joe Frisco came on the scene, picked him up from the sidewalk and took him to his apartment, where Ted died of what medical officials initially called a brain concussion.
However, a very different account asserts that Healy was beaten to death by screen legend Wallace Beery, Albert R. Broccoli (later producer of James Bond films), and notorious gangster (and Broccoli's cousin) Pat DiCicco. This account appears in E. J. Fleming's book The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling, and the MGM Publicity Machine (2004) about legendary MGM "fixers" Mannix and Strickling. Under orders from studio head Louis B. Mayer, MGM sent Beery, one of their most valuable properties, to Europe for several months, while the story of the "three college boys" was fabricated to conceal the truth. (Immigration records confirm a four-month trip to Europe on Beery's part immediately after Healy's death, ending April 17, 1938). There is no proof or creditibility that this is the case though.
Despite his sizable salary, Ted Healy died penniless. MGM's staff members started a fund to pay for his burial. Moe Howard later mentioned that producer Bryan Foy of the famed Foy family of vaudevillians footed a sizeable portion of the bill for the funeral. According to Howard, even in the heyday of his stage career, Ted refused to save money and spent every dime of his salary as fast as he earned it. Healy loved betting on horses, and his favorite reading matter was race track charts.
Healy was survived by his widow, Betty Healy (née Hickman, whom he married on May 15, 1936) and his son, John Jacob Nash — who was baptized in St. Augustine's Church, opposite MGM, a week after Healy's death. John Nash, who legally changed his name to Theodore John Healy in 1959, died on July 16, 2011 from liver failure as a complication of prostate cancer in Stone Mountain, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. The death of Ted Healy was a sad death in stark contrast to all the laughs and fun he was responsible for giving vaudville and movie audiences through the years...