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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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    15 Things You Might Not Know About One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
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    Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which premiered on this day in 1975, won critical acclaim, box office success, and a shelf full of Oscars. But even if you love the complex exploration of life inside a 1960s psychiatric hospital, there are a few things you may not know about its behind-the-scenes story. 

    1. CUSTOMS NEARLY DOOMED THE PROJECT. 

    Despite the middling success of the 1963 stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel starring Kirk Douglas, Hollywood legend Douglas was dead set on adapting the story for the screen. Douglas contacted Czech director Miloš Forman about the project, promising to send Forman a copy of the book for his perusal. 

    Douglas mailed Forman the novel, but the package was confiscated by Czechoslovakian customs and never reached the director. Unaware of the parcel’s fate, the filmmaker resented Douglas’ broken promise, and Douglas thought Forman rude for never bothering to confirm receipt of the novel. It took a decade to sort the mess out, and things only cleared up when Kirk’s son Michael Douglas took another crack at production and contacted Forman once more. 

    2. ONE STUDIO WANTED TO CHANGE THE ENDING.

    When producers were shopping the picture to studios, 20th Century Fox was interested, but with a catch. Fox would distribute the film, but only if the filmmakers would agree to rewrite the ending; the studio wanted McMurphy to live. Producers Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas wisely considered this a deal breaker, and United Artists eventually distributed the film.

    3. JACK NICHOLSON AND LOUISE FLETCHER WERE NOT THE FIRST CHOICES FOR THEIR CHARACTERS. 


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    When Kirk Douglas spearheaded the first attempt to bring One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to life on the big screen in the 1960s, he had intended to play the Randle Patrick McMurphy role himself, just as he had on stage. When production began in earnest 10 years later, Douglas was too old for the part, leaving director Forman to consider and contact the likes of Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, and (his personal favorite) Burt Reynolds before finally settling on Jack Nicholson.

    A number of different actresses were considered for the role of Nurse Ratched, the film’s central antagonist, as well: Anne Bancroft, Colleen Dewhurst, Geraldine Page, and Angela Lansbury were all in the running, before Louise Fletcher ultimately got the part. 

    4. LOUISE FLETCHER CHANGED FORMAN’S VIEW ON THE CHARACTER. 

    Forman’s original view of Nurse Ratched was as “the personification of evil,” a characterization that made Louise Fletcher a bad fit for the part in the filmmaker’s mind. As Fletcher pressed for the role, Forman’s perspective of Ratched evolved: “I slowly started to realize that it would be much more powerful if it’s not this visible evil,” he said. “That she’s only an instrument of evil. She doesn’t know that she’s evil. She, as a matter of fact, believes that she’s helping people.” This new take on the character paved the way for the official casting of Fletcher. 

    5. SEVERAL OF THE FILM’S STARS WERE NOT ACTORS. 

    Following the production team’s decision to use Oregon State Hospital as its shooting location, the producers hit on the idea of casting facility superintendent Dr. Dean Brooks as Dr. John Spivey, the doctor charged with assessing R. P. McMurphy’s psychological health. Brooks agreed to play what turned out to be a sizable role, though it would be the only acting job he would ever take. He also helped secure employment for many of his hospital’s patients as extras and crew members during production. 

    Mel Lambert, another non-actor, was wrangled to play the harbormaster who protested McMurphy’s ad hoc fishing trip. What’s more, Lambert—a respected area businessman who had a strong relationship with the local Native American community—introduced the production team to Will Sampson, the 6-foot-5-inch-tall Muscogee painter who would make his acting debut as the major character Chief Bromden. 

    6. THE STARS LIVED ON THE WARD DURING PRODUCTION. 


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    All of the actors who played patients actually lived on the Oregon State Hospital psychiatric ward throughout production. The men personalized their sleeping quarters, spent their days on campus “get[ting] a sense of what it was to be hospitalized” (as actor Vincent Schiavelli put it), and interacting with real psychiatric patients. 

    7. MANY SCENES WERE SHOT WITHOUT THE ACTORS’ KNOWLEDGE. 

    To complete this realistic immersion, Forman led his performers in unscripted group therapy sessions in which he directed the actors to develop their characters’ psychological maladies organically. He would often capture footage of the actors, both in and out of character, without explicitly mentioning that the cameras were rolling. The film’s final cut includes a shot of a visibly irritated Fletcher reacting to a piece of direction fed to her by Forman. 

    8. FORMAN AND NICHOLSON HAD A TREMENDOUS SPAT OVER THE FILM’S PLOT. 

    While the intensity of the turmoil varies from rumor to rumor, reports from the set were consistent on one fact: The star refused to speak with Forman for a large chunk of the production process. Nicholson took issue with Forman’s suggestion that the hospital inmates would be an unruly bunch upon the initial arrival of McMurphy. Instead, the actor insisted that such disavowal of the medical staff’s authority should only begin after the introduction of McMurphy into their lives and routines. 

    Although the version of the story that we see in the film today is more closely associated with Nicholson’s alleged reading, suggesting that Forman ultimately took his advice, Nicholson refused to interact with his director from that point forward. When the star and Forman needed to communicate with one another, they used cinematographer Bill Butler as a middleman. 

    9. DANNY DEVITO CREATED AN IMAGINARY FRIEND DURING PRODUCTION. 


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    Emotionally strained by a demanding shooting schedule that kept him 3000 miles from his future wife, Rhea Perlman, DeVito developed the coping mechanism of an imaginary friend with whom he would have nightly chats. Concerned that his own sanity might be slipping away, DeVito sought the advice of Dr. Brooks, who assured him that there was no reason to worry as long as DeVito could still identify the character as fictional. 

    10. THE CREW WAS WORRIED ABOUT THE SANITY OF ONE CAST MEMBER.

    While Dr. Brooks had no concerns about DeVito, he echoed the rest of the cast and crew’s apprehensions about the psychological state of Sydney Lassick, who played Charlie Cheswick. Lassick exhibited increasingly unpredictable and emotionally erratic behavior during his time in character, a pattern that culminated in a tearful outburst during his observation of the final scene between Nicholson and Sampson. Lassick became so overwhelmed during the scene that he had to be removed from set. 

    11. FLETCHER TOOK OFF HER CLOTHES IN ORDER TO GET FRIENDLIER WITH HER CO-STARS.

    Envious of the camaraderie her male costars had forged, and hoping to dispel any associations with her tyrannical character, Fletcher surprised the cast one evening by ripping off her dress on the crowded ward. Years later, the actress laughed about the display, saying, “‘I’ll show them I’m a real woman under here, you know.’ I think that must have been what I was thinking.” 

    12. THE FISHING TRIP SCENE BARELY MADE IT INTO THE FILM. 

    Initially, Forman was vocally opposed to including a scene that took place beyond the grounds of the hospital out of concerns that a temporary liberation would undercut the dramatic force of the film’s ending. In the end, Zaentz convinced Forman to shoot the fishing trip sequence. It was the final scene filmed and the only piece shot out of chronological order. 

    One thing to look for in the fishing scene: A very subtle Anjelica Huston cameo. Huston, who was dating Nicholson during production, has a nonspeaking role as one of the spectators on the dock as McMurphy and his fellow patients steer the stolen boat back to shore. 


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    13. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST WAS THE FIRST FILM TO WIN ALL “BIG FIVE” ACADEMY AWARDS IN 41 YEARS.

    Not since 1934's It Happened One Night swept the Oscars had a film walked away with awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest took home the lot, with Nicholson and Fletcher winning the top acting awards. The feat would not be matched again for another 16 years, with Silence of the Lambs becoming the next (and last to date) movie to earn the distinction. 

    14. THE FILM ENJOYED ONE OF THE LONGEST THEATRICAL RUNS IN MOVIE HISTORY. 

    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was revered worldwide, but Swedish viewers developed an especially soft spot for the film. Cuckoo’s Nest remained a regular option for Swedish moviegoers through 1987—11 years after its initial release. 

    15. KESEY REFUSED TO SEE THE FILM (BUT MAY HAVE BY ACCIDENT). 

    The poster child for the “the book was better” movement, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Kesey disapproved of a big screen adaptation of his novel as soon as he found out that the filmmakers had abandoned the use of Chief Bromden as the story’s narrator. Kesey never intended to see the movie, but one story says he inadvertently caught a few moments during a bout of channel surfing one evening. Once Kesey realized what he was watching, he promptly changed stations.

    According to fellow novelist Chuck Palahniuk (who has famously praised director David Fincher’s adaptation of his novel Fight Club, plot changes and all), Kesey once stated privately that he did not care for the material.

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    Samsung’s Star Wars Vacuums Offer Everything You Want in a Droid
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    Hate housecleaning but love Star Wars? Samsung’s got the solution. In anticipation of December’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the newest film in the Star Wars saga, Samsung has transformed a limited number of its VR7000 POWERbot robot vacuum cleaners into two familiar faces from George Lucas’s legendary space opera: a Stormtrooper and Darth Vader (which comes with Wi-Fi connectivity and a remote control).

    In order to create a unique device that would truly thrill Star Wars aficionados, Samsung consulted with fans of the film throughout each stage of the process. The result is a pair of custom-crafted robo-vacuums that fill your home with the sounds of a galaxy far, far away as they clean (when you turn Darth Vader on, for example, you'll hear his iconic breathing).

    “We are very pleased to be part of the excitement leading up to the release of The Last Jedi and to be launching our limited edition POWERbot in partnership with Star Wars fans,” B.S. Suh, Samsung’s executive vice president, said in a press statement. “From its industry-leading suction power, slim design, and smart features, to the wonderful character-themed voice feedback and sound effects, we are confident the Star Wars limited edition of the VR7000 will be a big hit.”

    Be warned that this kind of power suction doesn’t come cheap: while the Stormtrooper POWERbot will set you back $696, the Darth Vader vacuum retails for $798. Who knew the Dark Side was so sparkling clean?


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