The Fifth Stooge

In November 1955, Moe Howard and Larry Fine were prepared to disband the most famous comedy troupe in U.S. history. It’s hard to blame them. The Three Stooges were still reeling from the surprise death of longtime partner Curly Howard, a fan favorite who passed on three years earlier after suffering a nasty cerebral hemorrhage. Then Moe’s brother Shemp — a founding member of the group who had left but rejoined after Curly’s health deteriorated — collapsed on a Los Angeles sidewalk after a night at the fights and died of a massive heart attack. Devastated by the loss of their comrades and skeptical they could find another collaborator with whom they shared chemistry, the pair asked executives at Columbia Pictures if they could finish their existing contract as “The Two Stooges.” Their bosses balked, convinced that the brand was too established to overhaul so fundamentally, and suggested the twosome extend an invitation to veteran vaudevillian Joe Besser instead. He jumped at the opportunity. And so began the worst stretch in The Stooges’ epic career.

When they came up with the idea to reboot “The Three Stooges” franchise, Peter and Bobby Farrelly probably didn’t have Joe Besser in mind. The creators of “Dumb and Dumber” were influenced by the early work of The Stooges, a comic team of New York Jews who formed on the vaudeville circuit in 1922 and signed a contract with Columbia to make short films 12 years later. The group was prolific, churning out 190 shorts between 1934 and 1958, the bulk of which stuck to a specific formula: working-class outsiders take on a job for which they are unprepared and muck it up. Moe Howard described the basic premise running through most Stooges set pieces as the “upsetting of dignity” (Parade; November 15, 1959). Don Page of the Los Angeles Times (May 10, 1959) dubbed it “slapstick at its slappiest.” The Three Stooges offered no character development, narrative flow, or verbal humor (outside of some bad puns). There was only cartoonish, unrelenting physical abuse.

While the material may have been simple in conception, The Three Stooges executed their exaggerated antics more skillfully than anyone in Hollywood, drawing big audiences at the box office, particularly among young people. (“The kids,” Larry Fine told the Boston Globe on January 30, 1962, “don’t hold us in awe the way they do Joan Crawford.”) And on paper, Besser seemed like a perfect performer to sustain the silly, low-brow sensibility Shemp and Curly helped perfect. A native of St. Louis, Besser dropped out of school in sixth grade and started hanging around local theaters, learning the tricks and habits of magicians and comedians. By his 20s, he was touring the country with vaudeville acts, honing a juvenile comic persona informed by his large belly and thinning hair line. His big break came in 1941 when the zany comedy team of Olsen and Johnson, fresh of the success of the musical “Hellzapoppin’,” hired Besser to play a whining child in “Sons of Fun,” their second Broadway revue. He quickly won over New York audiences and attracted the attention of talent scouts from Columbia, who signed Besser to an exclusive contract and started casting him in features and comedy two-reelers. The exposure led to steady diet of radio and television work, most notably as the recurring vindictive brat named Stinky on “The Abbott and Costello Show.” “He was one of a kind,” Milton Berle would later tell the AP (March 2, 1988). “He was very innovative, very creative.” At the time of Shemp’s death, Besser was a legitimate star.

Comedy chops aside, hiring Besser made practical sense. Besser knew Fine and the three Howard brothers from his days in vaudeville, and had acted alongside Shemp in the well-received 1949 Abbott and Costello movie “Africa Screams.” (In his autobiography “Once A Stooge, Always A Stooge,” Besser writes that Shemp “was like family to me” and that he “mourned the death just as much as Moe and Larry did,” a statement as preposterous as it is well-intentioned.) Because Besser was one of the few comedians still under contract with Columbia to produce shorts, the business end was simple enough, as well. So on January 1, 1956, after talking it over with his wife and renegotiating the terms of his existing deal, Joe Besser became Joe, the fifth Stooge.

Besser filmed 16 shorts with Moe and Larry over the next two years, and he considered his run “the happiest years” of his life in show business. At least in public, Moe and Larry also seemed pleased with the work the newest member of their troupe was producing. (In his book “My Brother Larry” (1984), Moe Feinberg wrote that Besser’s “youthful pep surged through the act like Geritol.”) But the Besser shorts had some critical flaws. For starters, the scripts were weak by Stooge standards; seven of the 16 films they ultimately shot were remakes, and few of the others included fresh, original routines. More problematically, the character Besser had perfected on Broadway and on radio—that of a whiny, chubby, man-child—contrasted sharply with the hard-edged physical style Moe and Larry had honed during the Curly era. Besser actually worked into his contract a clause protecting him from excessive violence, telling the Los Angeles Times that “I never was the type of comic to be hit by a pie.” When he did absorb minor punishment, he would deploy an annoying catchphrase — “Not so harrrrd!” — and then slap Moe or Larry back limply. It’s almost as if Besser was operating on an island from his partners, as is made clear in this clip from “Hoofs and Goofs,” the first short the threesome shot together.

Unfortunately for Joe, he also joined The Three Stooges right after the television boom, which dried up the market for short films entirely. Columbia was actually the last studio to produce live-actions shorts with any regularity, and by December 1957, when The Stooges’ contract was set to expire, executives decided not to renew their relationship with the slapstick masters for a 25th year. Moe Howard would later describe to Parade the gutting final hours of his troupe’s working relationship with Columbia; anticipating some appreciative farewell for their quarter-century of service, the comedians waited around on the sound stage until 6 p.m. before they “checked off the lot without so much as a front-office goodbye.” “They’d been tainted with that most gruesome of Hollywood labels,” Moe Feinberg later lamented in his book. “Washed up.”

With no contract and no prospects, Moe and Larry started putting together plans for a personal appearance tour. They asked Besser to tag along. He declined, figuring his time would be better spent at home helping his wife, who had experienced a minor heart attack one month before their ignominious dismissal. “My doll wife was sick,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1984. “I wouldn’t leave her for any job in the world.”

Joe’s commitment was admirable, but his decision was poorly timed. Days after letting go of The Stooges, Columbia’s television subsidiary Screen Gems, searching for new revenue, started shopping around a batch of two-reelers the boys had filmed while Curly was in the cast. The few stations who took a chance on the old stars quickly discovered that kids who had never seen the group in action loved their quirky histrionics. And because there were so many shorts available to broadcast, programmers could run the sketches every day after school without worrying about repeats. By 1959, all 190 existing episodes were airing regularly on 280 stations, reaching 25 million Americans daily. Suddenly, The Stooges were back in vogue. The duo hired burlesque performer Joe DeRita to fill in for Besser and lined up a series of dinner shows, children’s matinees, and television appearances. Buoyed by their new fan base, they even moved back in front of the camera, shooting nearly a dozen feature films before retiring in the early 1970s. “We had no idea it would be this big,” Moe admitted.

As for Besser? Once his wife recovered, he struggled to find consistent work, battling what he called “the greatest Hollywood curse of all: typecasting.” Eventually, he landed a regular gig playing the building super Jillson on “The Joey Bishop Show” and some voiceover parts on cartoons. Ironically, he was the only cast member on hand when the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce unveiled The Three Stooges’ Walk of Fame star in 1983. In his autobiography, the overlooked Stooge disclosed no professional regrets, though he did offer one wish: that “today’s comedy world would clean itself up.” This weekend, Stooges fans will see if the Farrelly Brothers honored his request.

Adam Doster is a freelance writer who tweets here and blogs about history, culture, and sports here. He lives in Chicago.

The Fifth Stooge