Shemp Howard: The Little Stooge Who Could

Shemp was never anybody’s favorite Stooge.  I mean, have you ever heard anybody say “Curly is okay, but I sure do like that Shemp?”  When was the last time that you actually saw a piece of Three Stooges merchandise with Shemp on it?  How many Shemp fans do you know?  No, Shemp just never gets any respect. The problem with Shemp is that he just never had much of a chance.  Relieving his younger brother Curly Howard of his duties as one of the fabled Three Stooges in 1946; Shemp Howard would always be unfairly compared to Curly, which pretty much doomed him.  You see, everybody loved Curly.  He is now, and forever, the world’s favorite Stooge.  Thus, Shemp following Curly was sort of like a dog act following Andrea Bocelli.  Nobody was going to ever like Shemp better.  But, unbeknownst to the movie public at the time, long before Curly even walked on a stage, Shemp was slaying audiences with his brother Moe Howard as one of the original Stooges in Ted Healey’s vaudeville act.  Heck, Shemp was a Stooge even before Larry Fine was!  However, what also often goes overlooked was that Shemp Howard had far bigger aspirations then to just be a Stooge.  Shemp wanted more, and unlike the other members of the Three Stooges, Shemp Howard branched out beyond Stoogedom.  Yet, due to family devotion, Shemp Howard rejoined the Three Stooges and sacrificed a budding film career and the potential of solo success and, instead, became nothing more then the unpopular fourth Stooge.  Yet, while the Three Stooges will always be pop culture legends, Shemp was a little bit more, although his career beyond the Three Stooges has been nearly completely ignored.  So who was Shemp Howard?  He was a funny man who lived in fear.  Fear of what?  Well, pretty much everything.  Join us as we take a look at Shemp Howard:  his life, his phobias, his imposters, and the forgotten legacy he left behind as




Early head shot for Shemp Howard

Early Shemp Howard head shot

The third of five Howard brothers, Shemp was born Samuel Horwitz in Brooklyn, New York in 1895.  His unusual moniker “Shemp” came when his mother couldn’t yell “Sam” in her thick Lithuanian accent, and instead it came out as “Shemp,” so that’s just what everybody called him.  Now during his early days Shemp had no ambitions to be in show business.  However, that wasn’t true for his younger brother Moe, who wanted nothing more then to enter vaudeville.  As a result of his desire, Moe was continuously coming up with new dance hall acts and recruiting Shemp as his partner.  Moe was a natural on stage, but Shemp was just along for the ride in an attempt not to let his younger brother down.  However, after dropping out of both high school and failing at being a plumber, not to mention a discharge from the army after it was discovered that he was a bed wetter, which saved him from the trenches of WWI, Shemp really had nothing else left to do.  As a result, by 1917 Shemp and Moe were working the vaudeville circuit as part of a blackface act but by 1921 the act broke up when Moe joined comedian Ted Healey as part of his roughhouse act.  As Ted Healy and his Stooge, Ted and Moe became a popular vaudeville act, and the foundations of The Three Stooges began.

Ted Healy and his Stooges - Larry Fine, Moe Howard, Shemp Howard and Ted Healey

Ted Healy and his Stooges - Larry Fine, Moe Howard, Shemp Howard and Ted Healey

It was in 1922, when Shemp went to one of Ted and Moe’s performances that Moe saw his older brother sitting in the audience and started to yell insults at him from the stage.  Shemp, in total sync to his brother’s sense of humor, got out of the audience and jumped on stage and he, Moe and Ted improvised the rest of the act together.  The result was a roaring success and after the performance Ted Healey asked Shemp to join the act.  At first Shemp was reluctant to join Healey and Moe, especially as a result of the protests of his mother.  Jennie Howard was against any of her sons being in show business, and having already lost Moe to vaudeville and with youngest brother Jerome (aka Curly) following in Moe’s footsteps, she didn’t want to lose Shemp to show business as well.  She had far bigger aspirations for her boys then to just be Stooges.  However, when Ted Healey, who was always a con man, gave a hundred dollars to the synagogue the Howard’s attended, Jennie reluctantly agreed.  Thus Shemp became the second Stooge.  Three years later, in 1925, a third Stooge, violinist Larry Fine, joined the act and the four were finally christened Ted Healy and his Three Stooges.

Shemp with Larry and Moe in the very first Three Stooges short, Soup to Nuts(1930)

Shemp with Larry and Moe in the very first Three Stooges short, "Soup to Nuts"(1930)

Yet life with Ted Healey was not always easy.  A con man, drinker, gambler and tyrant, Ted and the Stooges were always in conflict over money and billing.  A number of break ups and make ups occurred between 1925 and 1930, with Moe, Larry and Shemp even breaking away from Healey briefly as their own trio called The Three Lost Souls.  However, in 1930 Ted Healey patched things up with the Stooges when he got them their first film gig in a short called Soup to Nuts.  This lead to Healy and his Stooges becoming part of a Broadway revue called The Passing Show in 1932.  However, one night in a drunken rage Healy and the show’s producer J.J. Subert got into a disagreement over money.  Healey quit the show immediately, and was taking his Stooges with him.  However, finally fed up with Healey’s drunken bullying, Shemp decided that he was going to stay with the show and left the Stooges behind.  At Moe’s suggestion, Ted Healey replaced Shemp with youngest Howard brother Curly, who became the breakout star of the trio.  Thus, Shemp and the Stooges parted ways.  However, Shemp left at a time when doorways of opportunities were opening up for him.  Meanwhile, the Stooges would be forced to deal with Healey until the broke away from him for good in 1934.

Shemp left the Stooges and joined up with scandalized silent film comedian Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle for a series of shorts in 1933

Shemp left the Stooges and joined up with scandalized silent film comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle for a series of shorts in 1933

At the time of his break up with the Stooges, Shemp Howard became associated with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle who had moved away from Hollywood to New York and was attempting to make a comeback after being proven innocent of his much publicized scandalous rape and murder charge.  Arbuckle and Shemp, along with actor Lionel Standard, signed up to do six comedy shorts together for New York based Vitaphone studios.  As a result of his affiliation with Arbuckle, Shemp Howard became an important player at the Vitaphone studios, and between 1933 and 1937 Shemp appeared in over thirty shorts for the company.  His most important accomplishment during this period was taking over the role of Knobby Walsh from Jimmy Durante when Vitaphone acquired the rights to do a series of Joe Palooka films.  Shemp appeared as Palooka’s manager in seven films between 1936 and 1937.  However, as the Vitaphone process began to grow obsolete into the 1930’s, Shemp decided to try his luck elsewhere and left the studio after his final Joe Palooka film.  Shemp decided to join his brothers on the west coast, and so he packed up his wife and son and headed for the bright lights of Hollywood.

Shemp in The Bank Dick(1940)

Shemp in "The Bank Dick"(1940)

With his brothers riding high on their success as the Three Stooges by this point, Shemp had little problems finding work in Hollywood.  His affiliation with The Three Stooges, as well as his quick wit and easy going nature, made him a favorite amongst comedic short directors.  Calling himself “the ugliest man in Hollywood” Shemp Howard began to shop himself around with great success.  In fact, between 1940 and 1944 Shemp appeared in over forty films!  Highlights included playing a wisecracking bartender opposite W. C. Fields in The Bank Dick and alongside Bud Abbot and Lou Costello in Buck Privates, In the Navy, African Screams and Hold That Ghost.  In fact, it was reported that Abbot and Costello were constantly having Shemp’s performances trimmed back in fear that he was outshining them on the screen.

Shemp with Lou Costello in Africa Screams(1949)

Shemp with Lou Costello in "Africa Screams"(1949)

Yet Shemp wasn’t just restricted to appearing in comedies.  He offered comedy relief in a number of crime dramas, including Murder Over New York featuring Sidney Troler as Charlie Chan and Another Thin Man with William Powell and Myrna Loy.  Shemp also appeared in a pair of Universal horror films; The Invisible Woman and The Strange Case of Doctor Rx; and even ended up in such unlikely films as John Wayne’s Pittsburg playing a tailor and The Arabian Nights featuring Sabu where he actually had the chance to play Sinbad!  But there were some odder moment’s in his Hollywood career.  In 1941 director Charles Lamont thought that Shemp should be best utilized as part of a comedy duo in the fashion of Abbot and Costello.  His straight man was cast as horror legend Lon Chaney Jr!  The duo didn’t mesh as well as Lamont had hoped, and only appeared in one film together.  Furthermore, in an attempt to cash in on the success of the Three Stooges, Shemp was featured in one short, titled Knife of the Party, with his own set of stooges.  Once again, the idea didn’t take, and Shemp’s stooges never appeared again.

Shemp took the moniker Hollywoods Ugliest Man

Shemp took the moniker "Hollywood's Ugliest Man"

Living comfortably in North Hollywood, Shemp Howard had set himself up with a happy life.  However, Shemp lived in fear.  Despite his good nature, Shemp was a nervous and uneasy individual with a number of unrealistic phobias.  Shemp had a fear of heights, cars, airplanes, water and dogs and other large animals.  This would often affect his career.  Shemp never got his driver license and would only travel by train.  When going for a walk in his neighborhood he would carry a stick with him just in case he ran into a dog, despite the fact that he actually had a dog at home, and in films which featured animals, such as a lion in African Screams, directors couldn’t even get Shemp on the set.   Yet, as a result of his popularity with directors and producers, they would always find a way to accommodate Shemp and his many phobias.

The Howard Brothers - Curly, Shemp and Moe

The Howard Brothers - Curly, Shemp and Moe

It was in 1944 when Columbia Studios, which produced The Three Stooges popular shorts, came knocking on Shemp’s door and offered him his own series of shorts.  It seemed that Shemp had finally hit the big time.  However, tragedy struck the Three Stooges camp when Curly suffered a stroke on the set of Half-Wits Holiday in 1946.   Although it didn’t kill him, Curly was no longer able to work.  Moe turned to Shemp for help and asked him to rejoin the trio until Curly was able to rejoin the team.  With his solo career finally taking off, Shemp was reluctant to rejoin the Stooges, but he also knew that if he didn’t Moe and Larry would be out of work.  For the love of his brothers, Shemp gave up his solo career and became a Stooge once more under the conditions that it was only temporary.  Unfortunately Curly never recovered enough to rejoin the team and died in 1952.  Thus, Shemp became the new permanent Stooge for the next 73 shorts.  It was one step back on his way to solo success, but obviously one step forward in securing his footing in pop culture history.

When Curly suffered a stroke in 1946, Shemp rejoined the Stooges on a temporary basis until Curly could rejoin.  Unfortunatly for Shemps budding solo career, Curly never came back

When Curly suffered a stroke in 1946, Shemp rejoined the Stooges on a temporary basis until Curly could rejoin. Unfortunatly for Shemp's budding solo career, Curly never came back

Unfortunatly, as part of the Three Stooges Shemp never really was able to find his individual voice.  In the previous line up Moe was the leader and the meanest of the group, Larry was the quiet one and Curly was the zany missing link.  Yet Shemp’s comedic style wasn’t like the other Stooges.  Shemp was a far more subtle comedian, relying on word play, mugging and ad libs.  Fast and ferocious slapstick wasn’t his calling.  Thus, while the other Stooges maintained their individual personalities, Shemp just didn’t adopt a distinct personality to go along with the other Stooges.  Furthermore, Curly’s energy was sadly missing from the team, and audiences began to notice.  Although they were still going to see Three Stooges shorts, everybody missed Curly, and scorn was expressed towards Shemp as being the guy who replaced him.  The audience just never really accepted Shemp.

After Curly’s death, now being so connected to the Stooges, Shemp realized that solo success was most likely impossible and settled in comfortably in his new life as a Stooge and lasted with Moe and Larry for nine years.  However, in November 1955 Shemp Howard suffered a massive heart attack during his way home from a boxing match.  He was pronounced dead upon his arrival at the hospital.  His sudden death came as a shock to his family and friends, and suddenly Moe and Larry were, once again, without a third partner.  Shemp was laid to rest next to Curly at the Home of Peace Cemetery in East Los Angeles.

Shemping Shemp - Stand in Joe Fake Shemp Palma with Moe and Larry in Rumpus in the Harem (1946)

"Shemping" Shemp - Stand in Joe "Fake Shemp" Palma with Moe and Larry in "Rumpus in the Harem" (1946)

Yet Shemp’s story was far from done, and despite the fact that he was dead, his career in pictures wasn’t quite over yet.  In 1955 the Stooges were under contract to film eight shorts, but at the time of Shemp’s death only four had been completed.  As far as Columbia was concerned, death was not an excuse. Thus, by using recycled footage of old Stooges shorts featuring Shemp, four brand new films were written and produced.  For refilmed connecting scenes, Moe recruited actor Joe Palma to fill in for Shemp, who was usually filmed from the back in his scenes.  Thus, four brand new shorts were released featuring Shemp Howard, but completely written, produced and filmed after his death.  The use of Joe Palma as the “fake Shemp” was termed “Shemping” and has become a part of the filmmaker’s lexicon to this day to describe the use of replacement actors as body doubles on the screen when the actor they are portraying is otherwise not there.  When the Stooges renewed their contract with Columbia a year later, Shemp’s good friend Joe Besser, whom he met during his days with Abbot and Costello, joined the team as the fifth Stooge.  When Besser joined the Stooges, Shemp was finally able to rest in peace.

While he may not ever be remembered as the most popular of the Three Stooges, there is no denying that while he lived Shemp Howard worked just as hard, and in his own way, was just as prolific.  While Larry, Moe and Curly may have had the successful Three Stooges franchise securing their place in pop culture history, Shemp Howard worked continuously from 1932 to his death in 1952.  In his career he made 166 films.  Only 74 of those films were with the Stooges (one with Ted Healey and 73 after Curly’s illness).  That means, on his own, Shemp Howard made an additional 92 films.  While the Stooges needed each other, Shemp was able to make it on his own.  So whether he is the most unpopular Stooge or not, there is no denying that Shemp Howard was the little Stooge who could.

  1. Frank Traum’s avatar

    A fine synopsis on Shemp Howard’s life and career. Although Shemp was Curly’s brother, Shemp was the only “Third Stooge” who wasn’t a clone of Curly. (i.e. a fat, bald guy) Pardon the ostensible oxymoron, but Shemp was his own Stooge.

  2. Ivan Bismarck Schmidt Rodrigues’s avatar

    eu adorava o Shemp ele o mais engraçado

  3. Brad’s avatar

    With no disrespect to Curly, I actually LOVE Shemp a lot more. His style connects with me somehow. It amazes me that audiences back then didnt warm up to him as much and although they liked him, He was always a “lesser” stooge than Curly. I guess maybe they were familiar with Curly. I see Shemp as vastly different than Curly, But in a good way… he was Terrific in my opinion. Again, No disrespect to Curly, I love him!, But i look forward to seeing a Shemp short more!

  4. blankend’s avatar

    Everyone agrees the classic line-up is Curly, Moe, and Larry, but Shemp is the best Non-Curly Stooge. Most novice Stooge fans don’t know that he was an original Stooge. Most think that he was brought in to replace Curly because he was Moe’s brother. They probably don’t even know that Curly was his brother as well.

    I agree that Shemp’s comedic style is much more sophisticated than Curly’s Man-child routines. But Curly’s antics work much better in the context of The Three Stooges than Shemp’s. This doesn’t mean that Shemp didn’t have his moments in the Stooge shorts. He was good for quite a few laughs. I just think he worked better as a solo, or with a different partner. The 3 Stooges had already established their act and respective personalities when Shemp re-joined in 1955. Shemp was a good brother and a very caring person. He wasn’t going to ask the other 2 to change the act to accommodate him, even though he was giving up his solo deal in order to save their jobs.

    They must have hired Joe Besser because he had a similar child-like delivery to Curly, as well as a faint resemblance as far as size and hair go, but he was too prissy for my taste and not funny. He was a one trick pony who got old very quick. There was a rumor that he had it in his contract that Moe couldn’t hit him, so Larry took the extra punishment.

    Joe De Rita looked similar to Curly if Curly was taller and fatter, but that is where the resemblance ends. I can’t think of any skit where Joe De Rita has done anything funny or made me laugh. It was ironic that they didn’t get to make feature-length, starring role movies until he was part of the troupe. I did see De Rita in a serious western as a bad guy and it was better than anything I had ever seen him do as a Stooge.

  5. Keith George’s avatar

    Shemp was always my favorite. Even as a kid, I always looked forward to seeing Shemp. After Shemp, it was over.

  6. steph’s avatar

    I grew up with the stooges. Shemp was always my favorite. It never occurred to me to think of shemp as a lesser Curly because they are so different.

  7. Erika’s avatar

    LOVE Shemp!! Very underrated :(
    Named my wonderful cat after him ♡♡♡

  8. Blain’s avatar

    I always liked Shemp better than Curly. Shemp was more naturally funny. Curly was all about the routine and the gag. Shemp was able to be just more natural. I know that doesn’t really explain it. Youtube has some of the solo Shemp shorts. Quality isn’t great, but you do get to see him away from the other boys.

  9. DJS’s avatar

    I love Shemp. He is by far my favorite.

  10. charlie zarrell’s avatar

    I wonder what the Ted Healy’s stooges were like. Shemp might have had a more Marx Bros type role along with Moe and Larry. Still, Curly was magnetic on screen and I doubt the Stooges would have any shelf life without him.

  11. Steve Burstein’s avatar

    Was having you own series of shorts at Columbia really the beginning of a budding solo career? More like the beginning of the end(That was how Buster Keaton felt). The Stooge “Shemps” still made the Motion Picture Herald’s list of money-making shorts-I don’t think the disdain for Shemp happened until the television era.

  12. Keith Scott’s avatar

    Nice appreciation. (Note: SOUP TO NUTS wasn’t a short, but a feature.) Shemp could have been a silent film clown…Curly lacked Shemp’s dramatic range, even though Curly was the most striking Stooge with his cartoonish bag of mannerisms. But Shemp was subtle and overall the most accomplished actor…watch his timing in the famous tailor shop short (RIP, SEW & STITCH I think) where he is trying to iron a recalcitrant dress shirt. He is brilliant, and his soft shoe boxing routine is also top notch for such beauty of comedic movement that I’m sure Chaplin or Keaton would have given him a thumbs-up.

  13. Phil Raymond’s avatar

    @blankend: Joe DeRita taller than Curly? I don’t know about that. If anything, DeRita looked shorter than Curly (comparing how Curly and Curly-Joe stand against Moe respectively).

  14. Brian Perpiglia’s avatar

    The early Shemps ( 1946 – 1951 ) were by far the best of the shorts. The shorts of Curly’s illness ( late 1943 through 1946 ) were so slow and dragging. Shemp gave an immedite burst of energy. Who Done It, Squareheads of the Roundtable, Hold that Lion, Dopey Dicks should be in any serious fans top 10.

  15. T.Bowen’s avatar

    It’s a shame that so many of the Shemp rehashes were mixed in with his earlier films on late afternoon TV way back when. Also the Stooges general aging in the same period didn’t help. But Shemps “early” shorts after replacing Curly were just as good as any Curlies to me, then and now. I also liked how the Larry and Moe characters to moved up front a bit more in the Shemps.

    Here’s to you, Shemp.

  16. Geoff Dale’s avatar

    My name is Geoff Dale, a long-time writer from Canada (born in England). I’m in the second year of researching material for what will be the first and only biography (so far) on Shemp. I’m doing this in part because he is so overlooked and underrated and I have an intense dislike for that phrase Forgotten Stooge because it is simply not true.
    I’m also undertaking this task because of the incredible amount of inaccurate, half-correct and, in my cases, totally false information and unverified rumors about him – the majority of it online, where virtually anyone can contribute anything they want without any research.
    So hoping to finish the research and writing by the end of this December. BTW my favorite Stooges – Larry and Shemp….but I’m not about to quibble about the obvious talents of the others.

  17. bob howard’s avatar

    I am not going to argue who was better and who wasn’t. I feel that all three were great and that the world is a lesser place with out them,But a greater place for thier being here and shareing thier lives and talents with us all. Them, with the work of larry fine will never be forgotten,because thier gift to us was a timeless one. respectfully bob howard

  18. Rob Andrews’s avatar

    Shemp is also my favorite. I like the facial expressions and he’s funny because is older and so ugly; and that hair flopping around. His comedy is more subtle.

    By camparison curly is a child like persona that makes funny noises. But later in their carrier they’ve all slowed down with advancing age. But that works to Shemps advantage making him look more uncorordinated, whicj is part of his comedy style.

  19. Greg Goodwin’s avatar

    Curley was funny but, I think Shemp was the funniest. Curley was all crazy mannerisms. Shemp was a natural comedian plus by the second time Shemp was with the Stooges the sound effects were at their peak and added much humor to the shorts.

  20. Freddy Jaramillo’s avatar

    Shemp Howard had a style that was very funny and a change of pace from Curley that I really enjoyed,in many ways he was the best.His sound effects were priceless

  21. mindy’s avatar

    It took some time for me to appreciate the brilliance of Shemp. Like most Stooge fans, Curly was my favorite Stooge. But as I got older, I began to appreciate the more nuanced (if you can use that word for a Stooge) Shemp performances. His timing and delivery were perfect, and his facial expressions were always a joy to watch. Shemp never got his due. He was different than Curly, and that’s why it was unfair to compare. He put his own special (and wonderful) imprint on the later Stooge shorts. Favorite Shemp moment: “Moe, where’s your hat?” Curly lovers, go back and watch some Shemp. You’ll get hooked, too.

  22. Jim Mueller’s avatar

    To Geoff Dale who’s working on a Shemp biography. Be careful. For whatever reason, Shemp’s surviving grandchildren have not wanted this to happen. Be sure you have full and clear rights to any images you include. Good luck!

  23. Paul’s avatar

    Shemp was my favorite. Hold that Lion and Who done It are classics, never gets old. Did anyone see that Mel Gibson film on the stooges? Curly dies and the next scene they are at Shemp’s Funeral. I mean that was over 10 years talk about no respect. I guess 80% of that movie was untrue, like Moe being a delivery man. The Stooges got paid very well for the time. I sure they did not take odd jobs after they were done.

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