Shemp: The Forgotten Stooge

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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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    December 4, 2011 - 8:08am
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