Thursday, March 26, 2009

Requiem For a Stooge (3/17/09)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that men like The Three Stooges and women do not. But even among Stooge partisans, controversy reigns as to who the greatest is. Most fans will opt for Curly, while others rank Moe as the ne plus ultra of Stoogedom. My own preference is for Larry (seriously -- he's indispensible in his role as the moderating ego to Moe's superego and Curly’s id). But a strong argument can be made for the man we celebrate today: Shemp Howard.

Shemp was born Samuel Horowitz, but his mother's inability to pronounce his name led to his unique sobriquet. Shemp and his brother Harry Moses -- soon to be known as "Moe"  -- were stage struck as kids, frequently playing hooky to attend local vaudeville and theatre performances. Moe carved out a career for himself in movies and vaudeville, but Shemp was a slow starter, making his film debut in 1919’s "Spring Fever," alongside Moe and baseball Hall of Famer Honus Wagner.

Moe found work as a foil for fellow vaudevillian Ted Healy. In a 1923 appearance, he spotted Shemp in the audience. The brothers started heckling one another to the audience’s delight, and Healy hired Shemp to join the act.

By 1930, Healy and his "Racketeers" (or ultimately, "Stooges") made it to Hollywood. But Shemp, who had never gotten along with Healy, quit the act (to be replaced by his youngest brother, Jerry, also known as "Curly") and struck out on his own. With his comedic flair and unusual looks (he was billed as "The Ugliest Man in Hollywood"), he quickly found success working as a character actor with such stars as Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, W.C. Fields, and Abbott and Costello -- even appearing in a dramatic role opposite John Wayne.

In 1946, a stroke left Curly unable to perform, so Shemp stepped in on a "temporary" basis that lasted for the next decade, though the three Howards did make their only film appearance together in 1947’s "Hold That Lion."

Shemp himself died of a massive heart attack in 1955. Producer Jules White completed a number of unfinished films using a body double, leading to an immortalizing tradition that seems appropriate for a Stooge. To this day, when actors are hired to double for other actors while wearing heavy makeup or being filmed only from the back, they're referred to as a "Fake Shemp."

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