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The Three Stooges

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Joe Besser (August 12, 1907 March 1, 1988) was an American comedian, known for his impish humor, and is now best remembered for his brief stint as a member of The Three Stooges in movie short subjects of 1956-57. He is also remembered for his television roles: Stinky, the spoiled mamma's boy in The Abbott and Costello Show, and Jillson, the maintenance man in The Joey Bishop Show.

Besser was born in St. Louis, making him the only Stooge member not born on the East Coast. He was the ninth child of Morris and Fanny Besser (Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe). He had seven older sisters, and an older brother Manny who was in show business. From a young age, Joe was also fascinated with show business, especially the magic act of Howard Thurston that visited his town annually. When Joe was 12, Thurston allowed him to play an audience plant (as in "stooge"). Besser was so excited by this, he sneaked into Thurston's train after the St. Louis run of the show was over, and was discovered the next day sleeping on top of the lion's cage in Detroit.

Thurston gave in, informed Besser's parents of the situation, and trained him as an assistant. The first act involved pulling a rabbit out of a hat. The trick involved two rabbits, one hidden in a pocket of Thurston's cape. But young Besser was so nervous that he botched badly, pulling out the rabbit from the cape at the same time as the other rabbit was on display, before the trick had been performed. The audience roared with laughter, and Besser from then on was assigned comic-mishap roles only.

Besser stayed in show business and developed a unique comic character: a whiny sissy who flew into temper tantrums with little provocation. Besser, with his frequent outbursts of "You crazy, youuuuu!" and "Not so faaaaaast!," was so original and so outrageously silly that he became a vaudeville headliner, and movie and radio appearances soon followed.

In 1932, Besser married dancer Erna Kay (born Ernestine Dora Kretschmer), known as "Ernie". They were neighbors and friends of Lou Costello, of Abbott and Costello fame. Besser appeared in one of Abbott and Costello's movies, Africa Screams, which also featured Shemp Howard of The Three Stooges. Joe and Shemp were old friends, having met in 1932.

The zany comedy team of Olsen and Johnson, whose Broadway revues were fast-paced collections of songs and blackouts, hired Joe Besser to join their company. Besser's noisy intrusions were perfect for the anything-can-happen O & J format. Besser's work caught the attention of the Shubert brothers, who signed Besser to a theatrical contract. Columbia Pictures hired Besser away from the Shuberts, and Besser relocated to Hollywood in 1944, where he brought his unique comic character to feature-length musical comedies like Hey, Rookie! and Eadie Was a Lady. Besser also starred in short-subject comedies for Columbia from 1949 to 1956.

Besser had substituted for Lou Costello on radio, opposite Bud Abbott, and by the 1950s he was firmly established as one of the A & C regulars. When Bud and Lou filmed The Abbott and Costello Show for television, they hired Joe Besser to play "Stinky," a bratty, loudmouthed child dressed in an oversized Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit, shorts, and a flat top hat with overhanging brim. He appeared during the first season of The Abbott and Costello Show.

The Three Stooges: Joe, Larry, and Moe

After Shemp Howard died of a sudden heart attack on November 22, 1955, his brother Moe Howard suggested that he and teammate Larry Fine could continue working as "The Two Stooges." Studio chief Harry Cohn rejected the proposal. Although Moe legally had approval over any new members joining the act, Columbia Pictures executives had final say about any actor who would appear in the studio's films, and insisted on a performer already under contract to Columbia. At that time (early 1956) Joe Besser was one of the few comedians still making comedy short subjects at Columbia. He successfully renegotiated his contract, and was paid his former feature-film salary (more than the other Stooges earned).
Larry Fine (left) and Besser (right), as "The Original Two-Man Quartet," serenade Moe Howard in the 1957 short Guns A Poppin.
Larry Fine (left) and Besser (right), as "The Original Two-Man Quartet," serenade Moe Howard in the 1957 short Guns A Poppin.

Joe Besser refrained from imitating Curly or Shemp. He continued to play the same whiny character he had developed over his long career. He had a clause in his contract prohibiting being hit excessively, insisting that his humor was more about comedic revenge for being bullied. (He usually reacted to Moe's anger by wimpily hitting Moe's shoulder and complaining. "Not so harrrrd!") Besser recalled, "I usually played the kind of character who would hit others back." He claimed that Larry volunteered to take the brunt of Moe's screen abuse. In a 2002 "E Entertainment" episode which used file footage of Besser, the comic stated that the left side of Larry Fine's face was noticeably coarser than the other side, which he attributed to Moe's less-than-staged slaps. (Larry Fine's daughter attributes this, plus scars to the comic's left hand, from a chemical spill that occurred when Larry was a child.)

Curiously, many fans enjoy Joe Besser's antics as a solo comedian, but not as a stooge. The reasons include the reduced level of physical comedy and his whiny persona, which didn't always mesh with Moe's and Larry's established characters. Fans who had grown up enjoying the physical antics of Curly and Shemp will often have no use for delicate Joe. "Stooge-a-polooza" TV host Rich Koz has even apologized on the air before showing a Besser short, Third-stooge Joe does have his defenders -- Koz himself once hosted an episode featuring only Besser shorts, and Columbia historians Ted Okuda and Edward Watz have written appreciatively of Besser bringing new energy to what was then a flagging theatrical series.

Besser was a Stooge from the spring of 1956 to the end of 1957. His Stooge tenure ended when Columbia shut down the two-reel-comedy department on December 20, 1957. Producer-director Jules White had shot enough film for 16 comedies, which were released a few months apart until June 1959, with Sappy Bull Fighters being the final release.

Moe Howard and Larry Fine discussed plans to tour with a live act, but Besser declined. His wife suffered a heart attack in November 1957, and he was unwilling to leave without her. Some fans have theorized that Besser actually preferred to work solo, and left the trio to pursue other acting jobs. The theory may be true, because that was indeed the next step Besser took. In later life, Besser honorably called his Stooges shorts "The Two Stooges featuring Joe Besser" and praised Moe and Larry in a 1985 radio interview, of which a quote from said interview was aired on A&E's Biography. Besser said:

...Moe and Larry, they were the best. I enjoyed every minute of it with them. In fact, to show you how wonderful they were, I never liked to be hit with anything. And Larry would always say to me, 'Don't worry Joe, I'll take it.' Now that's the kind of guys that they were...'

After the Stooges

Besser returned to films and television, most notably as the superintendent "Jillson" for four seasons (19611965) of The Joey Bishop Show, and the voice of Babu the genie in the animated I Dream of Jeannie series. He also made occasional appearances on the ABC late-night series, also called The Joey Bishop Show between 1967 and 1969.

Later in life, Joe Besser expressed dismay that fans only recognized him for his brief tenure with the Stooges. His autobiography title, Not Just a Stooge, bears this out. The book would later be retitled and remarketed to emphasize the Stooge connection.

Besser recalled his friendship with the Stooges in an emotional speech referring to "the four boys" (Moe, Larry, Curly, and Shemp) up in heaven looking down at the dedication of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in August 1983. He was the only official Stooge to speak at the event, as Joe DeRita was ill at the time, although he outlived Besser by five years. Stooge supporting player Emil Sitka (who was signed as a stooge in 1974 but appeared at no public functions) officially replaced the late Larry Fine. In early 1975, Moe appeared on "The Mike Douglas Show," but while Joe DeRita was mentioned, Sitka was not)

Joe Besser died of heart failure on March 1, 1988 at age 80. His wife Ernie died on July 1, 1989 from a heart attack at age 89. Both spouses are buried in the same plot at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.

In the early 1990s, the heirs of several Stooges filed a lawsuit against Moe Howard's family, who had amassed control over the team's finances. The result gave the other heirs more profits, and placed Joe DeRita's stepson in charge of the Stooge images/sales.

Further reading

* Not Just a Stooge (later retitled Once a Stooge, Always a Stooge) by Joe Besser with Jeff Lenburg and Greg Lenburg [1], (Knightsbridge Publishing Co., 1990).
* Moe Howard and the Three Stooges by Moe Howard [2], (Citadel Press, 1977).
* The Complete Three Stooges: The Official Filmography and Three Stooges Companion' by Jon Solomon [3], (Comedy III Productions, Inc., 2002).
* The Columbia Comedy Shorts by Ted Okuda with Edward Watz [4], (McFarland, 1986).
* The Three Stooges Scrapbook by Jeff Lenburg, Joan Howard Maurer, Greg Lenburg [5](Citadel Press, 1994).
* The Three Stooges: An Illustrated History, From Amalgamated Morons to American Icons by Michael Fleming [6](Broadway Publishing, 2002).

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