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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    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
    12 Surprising Facts About Robin Williams
    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA

    Robin Williams had a larger-than-life personality. On screen and on stage, he embodied what he referred to as “hyper-comedy.” Offscreen, he was involved in humanitarian causes and raised three children—Zak, Zelda, and Cody. On July 16, HBO debuts the documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, directed by Marina Zenovich. The film chronicles his rise on the L.A. and San Francisco stand-up comedy scenes during the 1970s, to his more dramatic roles in the 1980s and '90s in award-winning films like Dead Poets Society; Good Morning, Vietnam; Awakenings; The Fisher King; and Good Will Hunting. The film also focuses on August 11, 2014, the date of his untimely death. Here are 12 surprising facts about the beloved entertainer.

    1. ROBIN WILLIAMS GOT HIS START AT A COMEDY WORKSHOP INSIDE A CHURCH.

    A still from 'Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind' (2018)
    HBO

    After leaving Juilliard, Robin Williams found himself back in his hometown of San Francisco, but he couldn’t find work as an actor. Then he saw something for a comedy workshop in a church and decided to give it a shot. “So I went to this workshop in the basement of a Lutheran church, and it was stand-up comedy, so you don’t get to improvise with others, but I started off doing, ostensibly, it was just like improvising but solo," he told NPR. "And then I started to realize, ‘Oh.’ [I started] building an act from there."

    2. HE FORMED A FRIENDSHIP WITH KOKO THE GORILLA.

    In 2001, Williams visited Koko the gorilla, who passed away in June, at The Gorilla Foundation in Northern California. Her caregivers had shown her one of his movies, and she seemed to recognize him. Koko repeatedly signed for Williams to tickle her. “We shared something extraordinary: laughter,” Williams said of the encounter. On the day Williams died, The Foundation shared the news with Koko and reported that she fell into sadness.

    3. FOR A TIME, HE WAS A MIME IN CENTRAL PARK.

    In 1974, photographer Daniel Sorine captured photos of two mimes in New York's Central Park. As it turned out, one of the mimes was Williams, who was attending Juilliard at the time. “What attracted me to Robin Williams and his fellow mime, Todd Oppenheimer, was an unusual amount of intensity, personality, and physical fluidity,” Sorine said. In 1991, Williams revisited the craft by playing Mime Jerry in Bobcat Goldthwait’s film Shakes the Clown. In the movie, Williams hilariously leads a how-to class in mime.

    4. HE TRIED TO GET LYDIA FROM MRS. DOUBTFIRE BACK IN SCHOOL.

    As a teen, Lisa Jakub played Robin Williams’s daughter Lydia Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire. “When I was 14 years old, I went on location to film Mrs. Doubtfire for five months, and my high school was not happy,” Jakub wrote on her blog. “My job meant an increased workload for teachers, and they were not equipped to handle a ‘non-traditional’ student. So, during filming, they kicked me out.”

    Sensing Jakub’s distress over the situation, Williams typed a letter and sent it to her school. “A student of her caliber and talent should be encouraged to go out in the world and learn through her work,” he wrote. “She should also be encouraged to return to the classroom when she’s done to share those experiences and motivate her classmates to soar to their own higher achievements … she is an asset to any classroom.”

    Apparently, the school framed the letter but didn’t allow Jakub to return. “But here’s what matters from that story—Robin stood up for me,” Jakub wrote. “I was only 14, but I had already seen that I was in an industry that was full of back-stabbing. And it was entirely clear that Robin had my back.”

    5. HE WASN’T PRODUCERS' FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY MORK ON MORK & MINDY.

    Anson Williams, Marion Ross, and Don Most told The Hallmark Channel that a different actor was originally hired to play Mork for the February 1978 Happy Days episode “My Favorite Orkan,” which introduced the alien character to the world. “Mork & Mindy was like the worst script in the history of Happy Days. It was unreadable, it was so bad,” Anson Williams said. “So they hire some guy for Mork—bad actor, bad part.” The actor quit, and producer Garry Marshall came to the set and asked: “Does anyone know a funny Martian?” They hired Williams to play Mork, and from September 1978 to May 1982, Williams co-headlined the spinoff Mork & Mindy for four seasons.

    6. HE “RISKED” A ROLE IN AN OFF-BROADWAY PLAY.

    Actor Robin Williams poses for a portrait during the 35th Annual People's Choice Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 7, 2009 in Los Angeles, California
    Michael Caulfield, Getty Images for PCA

    In 1988, Williams made his professional stage debut as Estragon in the Mike Nichols-directed Waiting for Godot, which also starred Steve Martin and F. Murray Abraham. The play was held off-Broadway at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. The New York Times asked Williams if he felt the show was a career risk, and he responded with: “Risk! Of never working on the stage again! Oh, no! You’re ruined! It’s like you're ruined socially in Tustin,” a town in Orange County, California. “If there’s risk, you can’t think about it,” he said, “or you’ll never be able to do the play.”

    Williams had to restrain himself and not improvise during his performance. “You can do physical things,” he said, “but you don’t ad lib [Samuel] Beckett, just like you don’t riff Beethoven.” In 1996, Nichols and Williams once again worked together, this time in the movie The Birdcage.

    7. HE USHERED IN THE ERA OF CELEBRITY VOICE ACTING.

    The 1992 success of Aladdin, in which Williams voiced Genie, led to more celebrities voicing animated characters. According to a 2011 article in The Atlantic, “Less than 20 years ago, voice acting was almost exclusively the realm of voice actors—people specifically trained to provide voices for animated characters. As it turns out, the rise of the celebrity voice actor can be traced to a single film: Disney’s 1992 breakout animated hit Aladdin.” Since then, big names have attached themselves to animated films, from The Lion King to Toy Story to Shrek. Williams continued to do voice acting in animated films, including Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet 2.

    8. HE FORGOT TO THANK HIS MOTHER DURING HIS 1998 OSCAR SPEECH.

    In March 1998, Williams won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. In 2011, Williams appeared on The Graham Norton Show, and Norton asked him what it was like to win the award. “For a week it was like, ‘Hey congratulations! Good Will Hunting, way to go,'” Williams said. “Two weeks later: ‘Hey, Mork.’”

    Then Williams mentioned how his speech accidentally left out one of the most important people in his life. “I forgot to thank my mother and she was in the audience,” he said. “Even the therapist went, ‘Get out!’ That was rough for the next few years. [Mom voice] ‘You came through here [points to his pants]! How’s the award?’”

    9. HE COMFORTED STEVEN SPIELBERG DURING THE FILMING OF SCHINDLER’S LIST.

    At this year’s 25th anniversary screening of Schindler’s List, held at the Tribeca Film Festival, director Steven Spielberg shared that Williams—who played Peter Pan in Spielberg’s Hook—would call him and make him laugh. “Robin knew what I was going through, and once a week, Robin would call me on schedule and he would do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone,” Spielberg said. “I would laugh hysterically, because I had to release so much.”

    10. HE HELPED ETHAN HAWKE GET HIS AGENT.

    During a June 2018 appearance on The Graham Norton Show, Ethan Hawke recalled how, while working on Dead Poets Society, Williams was hard on him. “I really wanted to be a serious actor,” Hawke said. “I really wanted to be in character, and I really didn’t want to laugh. The more I didn’t laugh, the more insane [Williams] got. He would make fun of me. ‘Oh this one doesn't want to laugh.’ And the more smoke would come out of my ears. He didn’t understand I was trying to do a good job.” Hawke had assumed Williams hated him during filming.

    After filming ended, Hawke went back to school, but he received a surprising phone call. It was from Williams’s agent, who—at Williams's suggestion—wanted to sign Hawke. Hawke said he still has the same agent today.

    11. HE WAS ALMOST CAST IN MIDNIGHT RUN.

    In February 1988, Williams told Rolling Stone how he sometimes still had to audition for roles. “I read for a movie with [Robert] De Niro, [Midnight Run], to be directed by Marty Brest,” Williams said. “I met with them three or four times, and it got real close, it was almost there, and then they went with somebody else. The character was supposed to be an accountant for the Mafia. Charles Grodin got the part. I was craving it. I thought, ‘I can be as funny,’ but they wanted someone obviously more in type. And in the end, he was better for it. But it was rough for me. I had to remind myself, ‘Okay, come on, you’ve got other things.’”

    In July 1988, Universal released Midnight Run. Just two years later, Williams finally worked with De Niro, on Awakenings.

    12. BILLY CRYSTAL AND WILLIAMS USED TO TALK ON THE PHONE FOR HOURS.

    Actors Robin Williams (L) and Billy Crystal pose at the afterparty for the premiere of Columbia Picture's 'RV' on April 23, 2006 in Los Angeles, California
    Kevin Winter, Getty Images

    Starting in 1986, Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg co-hosted HBO’s Comic Relief to raise money for the homeless. Soon after Williams’s death, Crystal went on The View and spoke with Goldberg about his friendship with Williams. “We were like two jazz musicians,” Crystal said. “Late at night I get these calls and we’d go for hours. And we never spoke as ourselves. When it was announced I was coming to Broadway, I had 50 phone messages, in one day, from somebody named Gary, who wanted to be my backstage dresser.”

    “Gary” turned out to be Williams.

    Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind premieres on Monday, July 16 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

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    Walt Disney Pictures
    10 Facts About Hocus Pocus
    Walt Disney Pictures
    Walt Disney Pictures

    In a 2014 Reddit AMA, Bette Midler said she'd be interested in doing a Hocus Pocus sequel. "You have to go to send in your cards to the Walt Disney company," she said. "The ball's in their court." While you get those cards ready, here are some facts about the original, which arrived in theaters 25 years ago today.

    1. THE STORY ORIGINATED AS A BEDTIME STORY.

    The story for Hocus Pocus came about after writer David Kirschner invented a bedtime story for his kids. He later wrote the story up and submitted it to Muppet Magazine (why does this not still exist?), where it gained recognition.

    2. THE WRITERS USED PROPS TO PITCH IT TO STUDIO EXECUTIVES.

    Bette Midler in 'Hocus Pocus' (1993)
    Walt Disney Pictures

    To pitch the story to Disney, the writers had execs enter a dark room with broomsticks and a vacuum cleaner hanging from the ceiling. They also scattered 15 pounds of candy corn throughout the room in an effort to invoke Halloween nostalgia. It obviously worked!

    3. IT WAS NOT AN IMMEDIATE HIT.

    Though it’s a cult classic now, Hocus Pocus didn’t do that well when it first came out in 1993, perhaps because it was released in July instead of September or October. Though it didn’t have a terrible opening—$8,125,471, putting it in fourth place at the box office that weekend—it fell to $2,017,688 a few weeks later, and bad reviews from the critics didn’t help matters.

    Entertainment Weekly was particularly put off by the movie, calling it a “piece of corny slapstick trash” and saying that “It’s acceptable scary-silly kid fodder that adults will find only mildly insulting. Unless they’re Bette Midler fans. In which case it’s depressing as hell.”

    4. BETTE MIDLER LOVES IT.

    Bette Midler, by the way, has said that Hocus Pocus is her favorite film out of all of the films she’s ever done. (At least as of 2008.) Thora Birch agreed, recently saying, “The most fun I ever had on a film was Hocus Pocus.”

    5. KATHY NAJIMY LOVES IT, TOO.

    Midler isn't the only star of the film who isn't immune to its allure: Kathy Najimy has said she watches the movie with her family every year on August 15.

    6. IT COULD HAVE STARRED LEONARDO DICAPRIO.

    The role of Max was originally offered to Leonardo DiCaprio. He turned it down to do What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

    7. SARAH JESSICA PARKER IS RELATED TO A WOMAN FAMOUSLY ACCUSED OF BEING A WITCH.

    Had Sarah Jessica Parker known then what she knows now, she might have approached the role of Sarah Sanderson a little differently. When the actress went on the show Who Do You Think You Are to trace her family history, Parker discovered that one of her ancestors was Esther Elwell, one of the women accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials. After a young girl said she saw Esther’s “spectre” strangling neighbor Mary Fitch, Elwell was arrested, but escaped going to trial.

    8. THORA BIRCH REVISITED THE NEIGHBORHOOD IN AMERICAN BEAUTY.

    While the kids are prematurely celebrating victory against the Sanderson sisters after locking them in the kiln, they’re shown talking in front of a house as they walk to a park. The house was later used as the house Thora Birch’s character lived in for American Beauty.

    9. THE KIDS WEREN'T HUGE FANS OF THE CATS.

    The kids all hated working with the cats. Many different cats were used to represent Binx, and each one served a different purpose—one was good at cuddling with the kids, one would jump on command, etc. Every time a new cat was used, the children would have to coerce the kitty to trust them by using treats and a clicker. They got sick of it.

    10. MUCH OF THE ORIGINAL CAST REUNITED FOR A 20TH REUNION.

    Most of the cast participated in a 20th anniversary event for D23 (the Disney fan club) members. Sarah Jessica Parker and Bette Midler were not in attendance, but pretty much everyone else was, including Kathy Najimy (Mary Sanderson), Vinessa Shaw (Allison), Omri Katz (Max), Thora Birch (Dani), and Doug Jones (Billy Butcherson). You can watch some of that reunion above.

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