How the Stooges Were Saved
Heirs of an actor who played Curly took over a brand that had been poked in the eye but now earns millions from Stooges beer, "Curly Fries" and a new film.
When The Three Stooges slaps its way into theaters April 13, it will be due in no small measure to Earl and Robert Benjamin, brothers whose full-time job the past 15 years has been to manage the surprisingly lucrative Stooges brand.
Despite the bumbling onscreen personas of Larry, Moe and Curly, the Stooges made an astute business move during their lifetimes. In 1958, after departing Columbia Pictures, which still owns TV rights to more than two dozen movies and nearly 200 comedy shorts, the Stooges set up Comedy III Productions to exploit the brand they had built. But nearly 40 years later, the company lapsed into chaos as surviving family members fought over how to share profits and expand the business.
The Stooges brand can rake in several million dollars a year from TV royalties and licensing of the famous name for products ranging from lottery games to slot machines to Arby's Curly Fries, though during the early 1990s, income reportedly stagnated at about $250,000 a year.
Such squabbling among heirs isn't uncommon. Properties as varied as Superman, Winnie the Pooh and the works of Ray Charles have been bogged down by recent infighting, giving rise to a new legal practice area that combines estate planning with intellectual property law. The Benjamins have been at the forefront of the trend.
Earl, the stepson of "Curly Joe" DeRita, the third actor to play Curly in the Stooges act, recruited his brother Robert, then a partner at the Paul Hastings law firm, to step in and save the brand. The two brokered a peace among the heirs, then they were hauled into court by Columbia, which claimed rights to the Stooges' image. The suits were settled quickly, allowing merchandising to begin.
The Benjamins filed applications at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and began battling infringers. In 2001, Robert argued a case before a California appellate court that led to a seminal decision upholding celebrities' constitutional rights of publicity. Soon, the Stooges began appearing on all sorts of products, from beer to replica driver licenses. "There has never been as clear a title of rights as the Three Stooges," says Robert proudly.
The brothers had a big advantage over the heirs of many wisecracking comics of Hollywood's Golden Age in that the Stooges' comedy is broad slapstick, which appeals to all ages and across language divides. "This is probably the only thing from the '30s that still shows on cable all around the world," notes Earl. They knew launching a new Three Stooges film would be essential to connecting the brand to a new generation, but the project languished, bouncing from Columbia to Warner Bros. to MGM to Fox.
"The scripts were crazy," says Robert. "Heads of studios told us that the Three Stooges had to get in touch with their feminine side. We kept sticking to our guns."
The Farrelly brothers, avowed Stooges fans, came aboard to direct, but the film nearly collapsed again after MGM declared bankruptcy and the original lineup of Jim Carrey, Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro abandoned ship. The Benjamins were devastated but kept pushing (with the help of their own lawyers at Los Angeles' Myman Greenspan firm), eventually convincing Fox to make the movie for about $35 million with Will Sasso, Sean Hayes and Chris Diamantopoulos starring. "They were the most patient and loyal guys in the entire process," says Peter Farrelly of the Benjamins.
The brothers have had such success with the Stooges that they recently expanded their Glendale-based business to handle other older stars, including Hee Haw regular Barbi Benton and Grizzly Adams actor Dan Haggerty. "The first thing I tell a celebrity these days is, 'Trademark your name,' " says Robert. "It always surprises me how many times people don't think that will one day become important."