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Shemp: The Forgotten Stooge

Samuel "Shemp" Horwitz was born on March 17, 1895. He was the third in the line of five consecutive brothers born to Sol and Jennie Horwitz. The name "Shemp" was derived from a mispronunciation (as so many family nicknames seem to be). Sam's mother would call for him in her heavy Lithuanian accent, saying "Sam! Sam!", but the "Sam" came out sounding like "Shemp." Thus, Sam forever became "Shemp."

Shemp the Menace

Shemp was a mischievous kid. He loved to play hooky, although he did graduate from public school—just barely, but he managed to get past each grade without failing.

As an early hobby, young Shemp loved to clog up toilets, stuffing anything and everything down them to get the desired "clogged-up" effect, much to his parents' (and probably brothers') consternation.

Once, at a family picnic, Shemp took a bowl of tomatoes and threw them at a man. The man dragged Shemp, kicking and screaming, back to Jennie Horwitz, who proceeded to beat the angry man with her umbrella.

Entering Show Business

As Shemp grew up, he started fooling around in a vaudeville act with his younger brother, Moe. The original act in which Moe and Shemp appeared was a blackface act (which were very common at the time).

In 1919, Shemp and Moe appeared in a very rare movie short called "Spring Fever," appearing with Honus Wagner, a popular baseball player with the Pittsburgh Pirates. (Sadly, like so many of the silent films, "Spring Fever"—the holy grail for Three Stooges fans—has been lost to time.)

Shemp and Moe eventually broke up their original act, and Moe went on to form a crazy, slapstick act with a man named Ted Healy. It was during this period that Shemp studied to become a plumber. He didn't really seem to have the "show biz bug" like his younger brother Moe and appears to have just been drifting a bit at this stage.

One day, Shemp went to the theater to watch Moe's act. Moe spotted Shemp in the audience and invited him on stage. Shemp came up eating a pear, and Moe proceeded to smash the pear on his face. The bit got a huge laugh. Shemp was quickly recruited, joining Moe and Ted in the crude slapstick act.

In 1925, the trio recruited a frizzly haired violinist named Larry Fine to join them. "Ted Healy and his Stooges" (one of several names they used) became very popular on stage, even appearing in two popular Broadway shows. But Healy was a cruel man and a very bad drunk. He underpaid the Stooges and often played mean jokes and pranks on them.

Shemp & His Many Phobias

In telling the story of Shemp Howard, the single most important facet of his personality cannot possibly be omitted: According to Shemp's wife, Gertrude "Babe" Howard, whom Shemp married in 1925, Shemp was "just a big old 'fraidy cat." Everyone has a particular fear or phobia (many of us have more than just one); Shemp was "afraid of his own shadow," according to his friends, with a whole litany of fears:

  • He lived in constant fear of cars, never driving or getting a driver's license. According to Moe, this fear was rooted in an auto accident Shemp experienced when he was a youth. (In his films, when Shemp had to fake driving a car, he was towed by prop men in a simulated car but was still scared, nervously holding the steering wheel until the scene mercifully ended.)
  • Shemp also refused to fly in airplanes, travelling only by train.
  • He was terrified of strange dogs and would carry a big stick with him, just in case a strange dog approached him.
  • He refused to swim or go in any body of water larger than a bathtub. Shemp always carried a pair of rubber overshoes in his pocket, lest he be caught in the rain.
  • It also became fairly common that, before Shemp appeared live on stage, he would throw up to relieve himself.
  • And Shemp was a chronic bed-wetter. He had actually served in World War I, but his stint was truncated due to his bed-wetting.
  • Ted Healy noticed Shemp's chronic fears and delighted in torturing him and scaring him; this cruelty caused Shemp to leave the Stooges and go out on his own.

    The boys did, however, make one strange film together with Healy in 1930 called Soup to Nuts. The film still exists and is a "must see" for Three Stooges fans.

    Going Solo

    On his own, Shemp quickly found work in many Hollywood shorts and feature films. He appeared in several "Joe Palooka" shorts as "Knobby Walsh," Joe's boxing manager. He appeared with the old silent comic Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in some shorts as well. (Poor Roscoe had been disgraced in a cooked-up sexual "scandal" in the '20s; these shorts were his final film appearances before his passing in 1933.) Shemp also appeared in Jimmy Stewart's very first film appearance, in a comedy short in 1934.

    He was also in many feature films, including a nice bit in a John Wayne film called Pittsburgh in 1942. Shemp appeared with the great W.C. Fields in the comedy classic The Bank Dick in 1940 and made four films with the popular comedy team of Abbott and Costello. (Supposedly, Lou Costello was jealous of Shemp's natural funniness and would make sure all of Shemp's best stuff ended up on the cutting room floor. This broke Shemp's heart.) Shemp even appeared with Lon Chaney Jr. in a short; they tried to be a bargain basement comedy team in the style of Abott and Costello. He also briefly teamed with Billy Gilbert and Maxie Rosenbloom as a (fourth-rate) Three Stooges-type bumbling comedy team.

    For a while, Shemp was actually billed as "The Ugliest Man in Hollywood." "I'm hideous," he told reporters. One has to wonder if such a cruel publicity campaign had any effect on Shemp in real life, or if he just took it in stride?

    Shemp vs. Curly

    When Shemp had left the Stooges, Moe and Larry took kid brother Curly into the act as Shemp's replacement. Curly was the perfect fit. But by the mid-1940s, Curly's health was deteriorating, and Shemp was often called in as Curly's replacement when the Three Stooges had live performances. In 1946, Curly suffered a massive stroke, and Shemp agreed to come back permanently, replacing his kid brother as "The Third Stooge" again. (Initially, there was resistance from studio bosses, who thought Shemp "looked too much like Moe.")

    Shemp joined the team and went on to make 73 shorts with the Stooges. While he was an indisputably fine comic, he never quite escaped the shadow of his kid brother Curly's comedic genius. Both Curly and Shemp were great ad-libbers, and many of their best bits were captured when they were able to just ad-lib and improvise shtick while the cameras were rolling. But Shemp never had Curly's "certain something;" critic Leonard Maltin seemed to sum it up when he said that Shemp never had Curly's "other-worldliness." Unlike Curly, though, who could never remember his lines, Shemp was a total pro and knew his lines thoroughly.

    Replacing Curly was sort of like following Elvis or the Beatles on stage—no matter how good you were, you could never quite "fill the bill." Plus, Shemp never had Curly's energy and childlike exuberance. Curly played a sweet, innocent half-man, half-adult, whereas Shemp was much less defined—sort of a flip wise guy. And the slapstick that was, of course, the crux of the Three Stooges, while perfect for Curly's crazy character, didn't quite mesh as well with Shemp's more "normal" character and personality. Age was also a factor: While Curly was in his prime for his Stooge years, his 30s through early 40s, Shemp didn't rejoin the slapstick act until he was already in his 50s. He didn't really try to "imitate" his brother; he pretty much just played it as Shemp, himself, and not as a Curly impersonator. The inevitable comparison between Curly and Shemp is like the proverbial "apples and oranges" but, unfortunately for Shemp, Curly was a "golden apple."

    Get a Shemp

    Shemp, although constantly in fear of things, loved going to boxing matches. Perhaps this pastime was a catharsis for the fear-plagued man. (Shemp himself had actually done some boxing during the war, which undoubtedly contributed to his craggly, pock-marked, weather-beaten face.) On November 22, 1955, Shemp attended a fight. In the car on the way home, he lit up a cigar and was telling a joke when he suddenly fell over on his companion and passed away peacefully.

    But the Shemp Howard story doesn't end there—the story has one more strange chapter.

    Columbia Studios still needed four new Three Stooges shorts after Shemp died, so they hired a replacement named Joe Palma to "be Shemp." Joe became Shemp's "double," or stand-in, faking scenes by not facing the camera, just standing with his back to the camera and running off or bumbling. Old footage from previous Stooge films was intermixed with the Joe Palma footage, and thus the last four Three Stooges films with "Shemp" were made.

    To this day, to "get a Shemp" or "a fake Shemp" or "a Shemp" is Hollywood nomenclature for "get a double" or "use a stand-in." Director Sam Raimi (Spiderman), a big Three Stooges fan, always credits stand-ins or doubles in his films as "Fake Shemps."


    Eddie Deezen has appeared in over 30 motion pictures, including Grease, WarGames, 1941, and The Polar Express. He's also been featured in several TV shows, including Magnum PI, The Facts of Life, and The Gong Show. And he's done thousands of voice-overs for radio and cartoons, such as Dexter's Laboratory and Family Guy.

    Read all Eddie's mental_floss stories.

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    11 Magical Facts About Willow
    20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
    20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

    Five years after the release of Return of the Jedi (1983) and four years after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), George Lucas gave audiences the story for another film about an unlikely hero on an epic journey, but this time he had three Magic Acorns and a taller friend instead of a whip and gun to help him along. Willow (1988) was directed by Ron Howard and starred former Ewok and future Leprechaun, Warwick Davis.

    Over the past few decades, Willow—which was released 30 years ago today—has become a cult classic that's been passed down from generation to generation. Before you sit down to explore that world again (or for the first time), here are 11 things you might not have know about Willow.

    1. IT WAS WRITTEN FOR WARWICK DAVIS.

    In an interview with The A.V. Club, Warwick Davis revealed that George Lucas first mentioned the idea for the film to Davis’s mother during the filming of one of the Ewok TV specials in 1983, in which he was reprising his role as Wicket. Lucas had been developing the idea for more than a decade at that point, but working with Davis on Return of the Jedi helped him realize the vision. “George just simply said that he had this idea, and he was writing this story, with me in mind,” Davis said. “He didn't say at that time that it was going to be called Willow. He said, 'It's not for quite yet; it's for a few years ahead, when Warwick is a bit older.'" The role was Davis’s first time not wearing a mask or costume on screen.

    2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY CALLED MUNCHKINS.

    Five years after he mentioned the idea, Lucas was ready to make his film with Ron Howard directing and a then-17-year-old Davis as the lead. The original title was presumably inspired by the characters from L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the subsequent Victor Fleming film.

    3. IT WAS CRITICIZED FOR BEING A COPY OF STAR WARS.

    Having thought of the two worlds simultaneously, Lucas may have cribbed some of his own work and other well-known stories a little too much for Willow, and some critics noticed. “Without anything like [Star Wars’s] eager, enthusiastic tone, and indeed with an understandable weariness, Willow recapitulates images from Snow White, The Wizard of Oz, Gulliver's Travels, Mad Max, Peter Pan, Star Wars itself, The Hobbit saga, Japanese monster films of the 1950s, the Bible, and a million fairy tales," wrote Janet Maslin of The New York Times. "One tiny figure combines the best attributes of Tinkerbell, the Good Witch Glinda, and the White Rock Girl.”

    Later in her review, Maslin continued to point out the similarities between the two films: “When the sorcerer tells Willow to follow his heart, he becomes the Obi-Wan Kenobi of a film that also has its Darth Vader, R2-D2, C-3P0 and Princess Leia stand-ins. Much energy has gone into the creation of their names, some of which (General Kael) have recognizable sources and others (Burglekutt, Cherlindrea, Airk) have only tongue-twisting in mind. Not even the names have anything like Star Wars-level staying power.”

    4. IT WAS THE LARGEST CASTING CALL FOR LITTLE PEOPLE IN MOVIE HISTORY.

    Lucas has previously cast several little people for roles in Return of the Jedi, and there were more than 100 actors hired to portray Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. But, according to Davis, the casting call for Willow was the largest ever at the time with between 225 and 240 actors hired for the film.

    5. THE DEATH DOGS WERE REAL DOGS IN COSTUME.

    The big bad in the film, Bavmorda, has demon dogs that terrorize Willow’s village. The dogs are more boar-like than canine, but they were portrayed by Rottweilers. The prop team outfitted the dogs with rubber masks and used animatronic heads for close-up scenes.

    6. IT WAS THE FIRST USE OF MORPHING IN A FILM.

    While trying to use magic to turn an animal back into a human, Willow fails several times before eventually getting it right, but he does succeed in turning the animal into another animal, which is shown in stages. To achieve this, the visual effects teamed used a technique known as "morphing."

    The film’s visual effects supervisor, Dennis Muren of Industrial Light & Magic, explained the technique to The Telegraph:

    The way things had been up till that time, if a character had to change at some way from a dog into a person or something like that it could be done with a series of mechanical props. You would have to cut away to a person watching it, and then cut back to another prop which is pushing the ears out, for example, so it didn't look fake ... we shot five different pieces of film, of a goat, an ostrich, a tiger, a tortoise, and a woman and had one actually change into the shape of the other one without having to cut away. The technique is much more realistic because the cuts are done for dramatic reasons, rather than to stop it from looking bad.”

    7. THE STORY WAS CONTINUED IN SEVERAL NOVELS.

    Willow has yet to receive a sequel, but fans of the story can return to the world in a trilogy of books that author Chris Claremont wrote in collaboration with Lucas between 1995 and 2000. According to the Amazon synopsis of Shadow Moon, the first book picks up 13 years after the events of the film, and baby Elora Danan’s friendless upbringing has turned her into a “spoiled brat who seemingly takes joy in making miserable the lives around her. The fate of the Great Realms rests in her hands, and she couldn't care less. Only a stranger can lead her to her destiny.”

    8. THERE IS A MISSING SCENE CONCERNING THE MAGIC ACORNS.

    Hardcore fans of the film have noticed that there is a continuity error that involves the Magic Acorns Willow was given by the High Aldwin. During an interview with The Empire Podcast, Davis explained that in a scene near the end of the film, he throws a second acorn and is inexplicably out after having only used two of the three Magic Acorns he had been given earlier in the film. Included in the Blu-ray release is the cut scene, in which Willow uses an acorn (his second) in a boat during a storm and accidentally turns the boat to stone. Davis says that his hair is wet in the next scene that did make it into the original version of the film, but the acorn is never referenced.

    9. JOHN CUSACK AUDITIONED FOR THE PART OF MADMARTIGAN.

    Val Kilmer in 'Willow' (1988)
    20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

    Val Kilmer famously played the role of the reluctant hero two years after played Iceman in Top Gun (1986), but he was not the only big name to audition for the role. Davis revealed in a commentary track that he once read with John Cusack, who in 1987 had already starred in Sixteen Candles (1984), Stand by Me (1986), and Hot Pursuit (1987).

    10. THERE IS A NOD TO SISKEL AND EBERT.

    During a battle scene later in the film, Willow and his compatriots have to fight a two-headed beast outside of the castle. The name of the stop motion beast is the Eborsisk, which is a combination of the names of famed film critics, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.

    11. THE BABY NEVER ACTED AGAIN.

    A scene from 'Willow' (1988)
    20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

    As is the case with most shows and films, the role of the baby Elora was played by twins, in this case Kate and Ruth Greenfield. The IMDb pages for both actresses only has the one credit. In 2007, Davis shared a picture of him posing with a woman named Laura Hopkirk, who said that she played the baby for the scenes shot in New Zealand, but she is not credited online.

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    15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
    ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
    ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images

    Even if you don't know the name Peter Mayhew, you surely know about Chewbacca—the seven-foot tall Wookiee he has played onscreen for over three decades. In honor of Mayhew’s birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Han Solo's BFF.

    1. HE WAS INSPIRED BY GEORGE LUCAS'S DOG.

    The character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’s big, hairy Alaskan malamute, Indiana. According to Lucas, the dog would always sit in the passenger seat of his car like a copilot, and people would confuse the dog for an actual person. And in case you're wondering: yes, that same dog was also the inspiration behind the name of one of Lucas’s other creations, Indiana Jones.

    2. HIS NAME IS OF RUSSIAN ORIGIN.

    The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” The term “Wookiee” came from voice actor Terry McGovern; when he was doing voiceover tracks for Lucas's directorial debut, THX 1138, McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions.

    3. HE'S REALLY, REALLY OLD.

    In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Chewbacca is 200 years old.

    4. PETER MAYHEW'S HEIGHT HELPED HIM LAND THE ROLE.

    Peter Mayhew
    Getty Images

    Mayhew was chosen to play everyone’s favorite Wookiee primarily because of his tremendous height: He's 7 feet 3 inches tall.

    5. HIS SUIT IS MADE FROM A MIX OF ANIMAL HAIRS, AND EVENTUALLY INCLUDED A COOLING SYSTEM.

    For the original trilogy (and the infamous holiday special), the Chewbacca costume was made with a combination of real yak and rabbit hair knitted into a base of mohair. A slightly altered original Chewie costume was used in 1999's The Phantom Menace for the Wookiee senator character Yarua, and a new costume used during Episode III included a specially made water-cooling system so that Mayhew could wear the suit for long periods of time and not be overheated.

    6. ONE OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S CLOSEST CREATORS DESIGNED THE COSTUME.

    Chewbacca's costume
    Getty Images

    To create the original costume for Chewbacca, Lucas hired legendary makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn, who was recruited because of his work on the apes in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Freeborn had also previously worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove to effectively disguise Peter Sellers in each of his three roles in that film.) Freeborn would go on to supervise the creation of Yoda in The Empire Strike Back and Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

    Lucas originally wanted Freeborn’s costume for Chewie to be a combination of a monkey, a dog, and a cat. According to Freeborn, the biggest problem during production with the costume was with Mayhew’s eyes. The actor’s body heat in the mask caused his face to detach from the costume's eyes and made them look separate from the mask.

    7. FINDING CHEWBACCA'S VOICE WAS BEN BURTT'S FIRST ASSIGNMENT.

    The first sound effect that director George Lucas hired now-legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for on Star Wars was Chewbacca’s voice (this was all the way back during the script stage). During the year of preliminary sound recording, Burtt principally used the vocalization of a black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California for Chewbacca. He would eventually synchronize those sounds with further walrus, lion, and badger vocalizations for the complete voice. The name of the language Chewbacca speaks came to be known in the Star Wars universe as “Shyriiwook.”

    8. ROGER EBERT WAS NOT A FAN.

    Roger Ebert was not a fan of the big guy. In his 1997 review of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Ebert basically called Chewbacca the worst character in the series. “This character was thrown into the first film as window dressing, was never thought through, and as a result has been saddled with one facial expression and one mournful yelp," the famed critic wrote. "Much more could have been done. How can you be a space pilot and not be able to communicate in any meaningful way? Does Han Solo really understand Chewie's monotonous noises? Do they have long chats sometimes? Never mind.”

    9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH MORE SCANTILY CLAD.

    In the summary for Lucas’s second draft (dated January 28, 1975, when the film was called “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars”), Chewbacca is described as “an eight-foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon’-like fangs. His large yellow eyes dominate a fur-covered face … [and] over his matted, furry body he wears two chrome bandoliers, a flak jacket painted in a bizarre camouflage pattern, brown cloth shorts, and little else.”

    10. HIS DESIGN WAS BASED ON RALPH MCQUARRIE'S CONCEPT ART.

    Chewbacca’s character design was based on concept art drawn by Ralph McQuarrie. Lucas had originally given McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration, and McQuarrie proceeded to draw the character as a female—but Chewbacca was soon changed to a male. McQuarrie based his furry design on an illustration by artist John Schoenherr, which was commissioned for Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin’s short story “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man.” Sharp-eyed Chewbacca fans will recognize that Schoenherr’s drawing even includes what resembles the Wookiee’s signature weapon, the Bowcaster.

    11. HE WON A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD.

    Fans were angry for decades that Chewie didn’t receive a medal of valor like Luke and Han did at the end of A New Hope, so MTV gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. The medal was given to Mayhew—decked out in full costume—by Princess Leia herself, actress Carrie Fisher. His acceptance speech, made entirely in Wookiee grunts, lasted 16 seconds. When asked why Chewbacca didn’t receive a medal at the end of the first film, Lucas explained, “Medals really don’t mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies.”

    12. HE HAS A FAMILY BACK HOME.

    According to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca had a wife named Mallatobuck, a son named Lumpawaroo (a.k.a. “Lumpy”), and a father named Attichitcuk (aka “Itchy”). In the special, Chewie and Han visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” a celebration of the Wookiee home planet’s diverse ecosystem. The special featured appearances and musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur, and marked the first appearance of Boba Fett. Lucas hated the special so much that he limited its availability following its original airdate on November 17, 1978.

    13. MAYHEW'S BIG FEET ARE WHAT KICKSTARTED HIS CAREER.

    Mayhew’s path to playing Chewbacca began with a string of lucky breaks—and his big feet. A local London reporter was doing a story on people with big feet and happened to profile Mayhew. A movie producer saw the article and cast him—in an uncredited role—as Minoton the minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also working on the Wookiee costume with Stuart Freeborn for Star Wars and suggested to the producers that they screen test Mayhew. The rest is Wookiee history.

    14. MAYHEW KEPT HIS DAY JOB WHILE SHOOTING STAR WARS.

    Peter Mayhew
    Getty Images

    During the shooting of Star Wars, Mayhew kept working his day job as a deputy head porter in a London hospital. Though he was let go because of his sudden varying shooting schedule at Elstree Studios, he was eventually hired back after production wrapped.

    15. DARTH VADER COULD HAVE BEEN CHEWBACCA.

    Darth Vader
    Getty Images

    David Prowse, the 6’5” actor who ended up portraying Darth Vader—in costume only—originally turned down the role of Chewbacca.  When given the choice between portraying the two characters, Prowse said, “I turned down the role of Chewbacca at once. I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask, and throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”

    Additional Sources: Star Wars DVD special features
    The Making of Star Wars: The definitive Story Behind the Original Film, J.W. Rinzler

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