11 Times “Fake Shemps” Replaced Real Actors

Getty Images
Getty Images

Sometimes, you just can't help it: You need a Fake Shemp.

Sam Raimi, the director of films including Spider-Man and Army of Darkness, coined the term, which refers to the stand-in required to replace an absent actor onscreen. The first Fake Shemp was employed in 1955, when one of the Three Stooges, Shemp Howard, died with the group owing Columbia Pictures four short subjects. To finish them up, Shemp's stand in, Joe Palma, appeared in the films, but with his back to the camera.

Since then, Fake Shemps have appeared repeatedly. While they originally were other actors or stunt performers, the field has expanded to include digital replacements. Here are 11 cases when real actors were replaced by Fake Shemps, with directors crossing their fingers that no one would notice.

1. Bela Lugosi

In the annals of bad cinema, Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) features a legendarily bad double of the iconic Lugosi. The Dracula actor died after only a couple of days of improvisatory filming (Wood hadn’t even come up with a concept for the movie yet). The elderly Hungarian was eventually replaced by a chiropractor, who was taller and looked almost nothing like him. To compensate, Wood had the stand-in hold a cape over his face.

2. The Evil Dead cast

Still from 'Evil Dead' / Crave Online

Raimi formalized the term while filming the first Evil Dead movie in 1979. According to star Bruce Campbell, the movie’s stars weren't always available (it was an extremely low-budget production), and there were frequent special effects shots of characters covered with gore or turned into zombies. Raimi thus enlisted a veritable army of Fake Shemps -- the film’s credits list 18 -- to fill in as both monsters and doubles for his absent stars. Most of Raimi’s films since then have included Shemps in the credits.

3. Gene Hackman

The creation of Superman II was rife with conflict. Director Richard Donner shot most of the movie simultaneously with the first Superman. But he wasn’t allowed to finish the second film, being replaced by British comedy director Richard Lester. Gene Hackman, who played Lex Luthor, refused to have anything to do with Lester’s reshoots. Therefore, he was “Shemped” in a handful of shots by stand-ins and vocal impersonators. Despite all this, the 1980 release has become a fan favorite.

4. Tom Baker

The longest-serving Doctor Who had been gone from the show for only two years when producers decided to make a team-up episode called “The Five Doctors,” featuring all the actors who had played the Gallifreyan up to that point. Unfortunately the very first Doctor, William Hartnell, had been dead for eight years, so the role was recast. (One semi-Fake Shemp already!) But Baker refused to take part, saying he couldn’t return after such a short time away. His appearance in the 1983 episode was thus taken from old footage, shot for an abandoned episode. And when he refused to even show up for a publicity photo, producers put in a call to Madame Tussauds and used their wax dummy instead. 

5. Harrison Ford

When the actor hurt his back while filming 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, director Steven Spielberg didn’t miss a beat. He rearranged the schedule and kept filming, using Ford’s stunt double. The amazing part? Ford’s double, Vic Armstrong, looked so much like him that it’s difficult to tell what scenes he’s in. Spielberg even confused the two on set. According to Ford, “We could go home to the wrong wives and they wouldn't notice!”

6. Crispin Glover

Who doesn’t love George McFly? Marty’s adorably dorky dad in 1985’s Back to the Future was played impeccably at two ages by Glover. But when it came time to negotiate his role in the two sequels, something went awry, and Glover refused to return (he either demanded a preposterous amount of money or was offered insultingly too little, depending on which side you believe). Director Robert Zemekis therefore cast Jeffrey Weissman in the role. Weissman was disguised with prosthetic makeup and sunglasses, turned upside down, and intercut with footage of Glover from the first film. Glover ultimately sued  over the use of his likeness; the Screen Actors Guild barred such moves in future films. 

7. Brandon Lee

Still from 'The Crow' / TV Guide

Until this point, the Fake Shemps we’ve seen have been analog. But with 1994’s The Crow, digital Shemps made an early appearance. Lee was fatally shot while filming a scene, meaning that filmmakers had to scramble to rescue the film. As usual in such cases, a stand-in was used, along with repurposed footage. But a digital “mask” of Lee’s face was also used to disguise his stand-in. And such trickery was only getting started.

8. Nancy Marchand

Manipulative matriarch Livia Soprano was a highlights of the first two seasons of HBO’s groundbreaking series The Sopranos. But after actress Marchand died in 2000, series creator David Chase was left with with the problem of filming an appropriate exit for the character. His solution -- using old clips of Marchand, as well as digitally pasting her head on a stand-in’s body -- wasn’t particularly well received.

9. Oliver Reed

The burly, brawling Reed died during the filming of director Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000). How did Scott deal with the challenge? Stand in? Check. Digital mask? Check. This time, though, the digital trickery looked reasonably convincing. The price tag for such Shempery -- some $3 million -- probably explains its effectiveness.

10. Heath Ledger

When the 28-year-old Ledger died from a drug overdose in 2008, he was in the middle of filming Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. For Gilliam, who has a legendarily difficult time getting his films financed and finished, it might have seemed like the end. But his daughter Amy, serving as a producer on the film, persuaded him to persevere. Gilliam ended up enlisting Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to play other incarnations of Ledger’s character, adding an even more surrealistic element to the movie.

11. Natalie Portman

The Oscar-winning actress wasn’t available for reshoots for Thor: The Dark World (ostensibly because she was working on another project, but possibly out of embarrassment for being in yet another Thor movie). Star Chris Hemsworth’s wife, Elsa Pataky, stepped into the breach, and appeared as Portman’s double for a kissing scene.

All images courtesy of Getty Images, unless otherwise noted.

11 Fun Facts About Them!

Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Warner Home Video

In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.

1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.

When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."

Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman told Cinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)

Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.

2. Two main ants were built for the movie.

Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”

The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.

3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.

Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.

4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.

In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.

5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.

Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.

6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."

So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.

“They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.

7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.

To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.

At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.

8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.

Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.

9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.

The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”

10. The movie was a surprise hit.

Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.

11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.

When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.

By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.

George R.R. Martin Doesn't Think Game of Thrones Was 'Very Good' For His Writing Process

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

No one seems to have escaped the fan fury over the finals season of Game of Thrones. While likely no one got it quite as bad as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, even author George R.R. Martin—who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the show is based, faced backlash surrounding the HBO hit. The volatile reaction from fans has apparently taken a toll on both Martin's writing and personal life.

In an interview with The Guardian, the acclaimed author said he's sticking with his original plan for the last two books, explaining that the show will not impact them. “You can’t please everybody, so you’ve got to please yourself,” he stated.

He went on to explain how even his personal life has taken a negative turn because of the show. “I can’t go into a bookstore any more, and that used to be my favorite thing to do in the world,” Martin said. “To go in and wander from stack to stack, take down some books, read a little, leave with a big stack of things I’d never heard of when I came in. Now when I go to a bookstore, I get recognized within 10 minutes and there’s a crowd around me. So you gain a lot but you also lose things.”

While fans of the book series are fully aware of the author's struggle to finish the final two installments, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, Martin admitted that part of the delay has been a result of the HBO series, and fans' reaction to it.

“I don’t think [the series] was very good for me,” Martin said. “The very thing that should have speeded me up actually slowed me down. Every day I sat down to write and even if I had a good day … I’d feel terrible because I’d be thinking: ‘My God, I have to finish the book. I’ve only written four pages when I should have written 40.'"

Still, Martin has sworn that the books will get finished ... he just won't promise when.

[h/t The Guardian]

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