Shemp, like his brother Moe, was born in Bensonhurst
while Jerome (Curly) was born in the Bath Beach neighborhood of
Brooklyn, New York. He was the third of the five Horwitz brothers
and of Levite and Lithuanian Jewish ancestry. In September 1925,
Shemp (age 30) married Gertrude Frank (age 28) a fellow New Yorker.
They had only one child, a son, Morton (1926-1972).
Shemp used his somewhat homely appearance for comic
effect, often mugging grotesquely or allowing his hair to fall in
disarray. He even played along with a publicity stunt that named
him "The Ugliest Man in Hollywood." ("I'm hideous,"
he explained to reporters.) Notoriously phobic, his fears included
airplanes, automobiles, dogs and water.
Moe entered show business as a youngster, on stage
and in films. By the 1920s he was part of a roughhouse act with
vaudeville star Ted Healy. One day Moe spotted his brother Shemp
in the audience, and yelled at him from the stage. Quick-witted
Shemp yelled right back, and walked onto the stage, From then on,
Shemp was part of the act, usually known as "Ted Healy and
His Stooges." On stage, Healy would sing and tell jokes while
his three noisy stooges (show-business slang for assistants) would
get in his way. Healy would retaliate with physical and verbal abuse.
Shemp played a bumbling fireman in the Stooges' first film, Soup
to Nuts, the only film in which he plays one of Healy's gang.
Healy was always the main attraction of the act,
and his stooges were in constant disagreement with him over billing,
money, and management. Tired of Healy's shenanigans, Shemp left
Healy's act in 1932 to pursue a solo film career.
Shemp Howard, like many New York-based performers,
found work at the Vitaphone studio in Brooklyn. Originally playing
bit roles in Vitaphone's Roscoe Arbuckle comedies, showing off his
goofy appearance, he was entrusted with speaking roles and supporting
parts almost immediately. He was featured with Vitaphone comics
Jack Haley, Ben Blue, and Gus Shy, then co-starred with Harry Gribbon,
Daphne Pollard, and Johnnie Berkes, and finally starred in his own
two-reel comedies. Shemp would seldom stick to the script, and would
liven up a scene with ad-libbed, incidental dialogue or wisecracks.
This became a trademark of his performances.
Away from Vitaphone he attempted, unsuccessfully,
to lead his own group of "stooges" in the Van Beuren musical
comedy short The Knife of the Party. Otherwise, Shemp Howard's solo
career was very successful. He performed with such comic greats
as W.C. Fields, and the comedy team Abbott and Costello, who would
reportedly trim his scene-stealing material. He also lent comic
relief to Charlie Chan and The Thin Man murder mysteries, and was
hilarious in several Universal B-musicals of the early 1940s, among
them Strictly in the Groove, How's About It? Moonlight and Cactus,
and San Antonio Rose, in which he is paired with Lon Chaney Jr.
as a faux Abbott & Costello. In most of these, his improvisational
skills are highlighted. He was briefly teamed with comedians Billy
Gilbert and Maxie Rosenbloom for three B-comedy features in 1944-45.
He also played a few dramatic roles, such as his small role in the
John Wayne film Pittsburgh in 1942.
The Three Stooges: 1947-1956
Since 1939, Shemp had been appearing frequently
in Columbia's two-reel comedies, co-starring with Columbia regulars
Andy Clyde, The Glove Slingers, El Brendel, and Tom Kennedy. Howard
was given his own starring series in 1944; he was working for Columbia
in this capacity when his brother Curly was felled by a debilitating
stroke in 1946. Shemp reluctantly replaced Curly in Columbia's popular
Stooge shorts, essentially becoming the third stooge once more knowing
that Moe and Larry would be out of work if he refused. Initially,
Shemp rejoined the Stooges on a temporary basis until Curly recovered,
but as Curly's condition worsened, it became apparent that Shemp's
association with the Stooges would be permanent. (Prior to replacing
Curly on film, Shemp had substituted for his brother in some personal
appearances in the early 1940s.)
Shemp appeared with Moe and Larry in 73 short subjects
and the feature film Gold Raiders. He suffered a mild stroke in
November 1952, though without noticeable effect on his remaining
films with the Stooges (largely remakes of earlier films that recycled
footage to reduce costs). Some fans, however, contend that in these
later cheapies, Shemp looks weak, pale, and even disoriented.
While returning home by taxicab from a boxing match
on November 22, 1955, Shemp died of a massive heart attack. Shemp
was lighting a cigar after telling a joke when he suddenly slumped
over in his friend Al Winston's lap. Although Moe Howard claimed
in his autobiography that Shemp died on November 23, 1955 and most
accounts point to that date, the Los Angeles county coroner death
certificate states that Shemp Howard died on Tuesday November 22,
1955 at 11:35 PST. He is interred at the Home of Peace Memorial
Park in East Los Angeles.
In Paul "Mousie" Garner's 1985 biography
of the Three Stooges, co-written by Joan Howard Maurer, Shemp's
wife Gertrude is quoted as saying that after his mild stroke in
1952, Shemp was prescribed an unknown heart medication despite never
being otherwise treated for a heart problem. In 1985, the widow
Howard requested that Shemp's remains be exhumed. A second autopsy
revealed that Shemp died from massive opaque plaque buildup in his
Columbia had promised exhibitors eight Three Stooges
comedies for 1956, but only four were completed when Shemp died.
To fulfill the contract, producer Jules White manufactured four
more shorts by reusing old footage of Shemp and filming new connecting
scenes with a double (longtime Stooge supporting actor Joe Palma),
seen mostly from the back. The re-edited films range from clever
to blatantly patchy, and Stooge fans often dismiss them as second-rate.
Rumpus in the Harem borrows from Malice in the Palace, Hot Stuff
from Fuelin' Around, Commotion on the Ocean from Dunked in the Deep.
The best (and most technically accomplished) is Scheming Schemers,
combining new footage with recycled clips from three old Stooge
shorts: A Plumbing We Will Go, Half-Wits Holiday, and Vagabond Loafers.
When it was time to renew the Stooges' contract,
Columbia hired comedian Joe Besser to replace Shemp. After 16 films,
Columbia replaced Joe by (in a sense) bringing back Shemp. Columbia
kept the series going into the 1960s by reissuing Shemp's Stooge
comedies. Thus, Shemp Howard remained a popular movie star for more
than a decade after his death.
Director Sam Raimi and his childhood friend/actor
Bruce Campbell refer to body doubles and stand-ins as "Shemps"
or "Fake Shemps" in reference to the postmortem Stooges
In a 2000 TV-movie, Shemp was played by John Kassir.