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Can you name the Three Stooges? The first two were always Moe and Larry. But what about number three? In truth, he was a rotating numbskull played by five actors over 50 years. The third Stooge was, at varying times, Shemp, Curly, Joe, Curly Joe, and for a while after Shemp's death, the "Fake Shemp" -- a mix of old Shemp footage and another actor's back and side. When you watch the classic Three Stooge shorts on various weekday mornings on AMC, pay close attention and then answer the following: Who is the funniest third Stooge? Need some help? Here you go...
Born Samuel Horwitz, Shemp got his nickname from his mother's Eastern European pronunciation of Sam. Shemp, who was the older brother of Moe and Curly, was the third Stooge early in the act, before parting over personal differences with Ted Healy, the creator of the act. He reprised the role from 1946, when Curly had a stroke, till his own death in 1955. Shemp was a relatively relaxed third Stooge, with fewer mannerisms than later third Stooges; he was famous for his hilarious high-pitched squeal of both terror and delight. He also appeared in comedies with WC Fields, Abbot and Costello, and Charlie Chan. When asked to return after Curly's stroke, Shemp was initially hesitant, but Shemp felt an obligation to Moe and Larry to help them keep the Stooges going.
Curly, born Jerome Horwitz, was the youngest of the Stooge brothers. At age 12, he accidentally shot himself in the foot while cleaning a rifle; to hide his slight limp from the injury, Curly developed his now-famous exaggerated walk. When Shemp left, Moe recommended his little brother, but Ted Healy (the act's original creator) didn't think his chestnut curls and formal mustache looked funny enough. Jerry disappeared and came back completely bald. Healy joked that Jerry looked "girlie," but Moe misheard his comment as "curly," and the name stuck. Curly was famous for having an indestructible head; for slapping himself silly and spinning like a top; and for his trademark "N'yuk, n'yuk, n'yuk," "soiteny, " and "woo-woo-woo." Oddly enough, Curly was an introvert off-screen. He developed hypertension and obesity, and while on the set of Half-Wits Holiday, he suffered a stroke. Curly never regained enough strength to act full-time but did make a cameo appearance (with hair) in Hold That Lion!, the only movies in which all of the original Stooges -- the three Howard brothers and Larry Fine -- appear together.
The Stooges were still under contract with Columbia Pictures when Shemp died in 1955, and the studio decided to hire an actor to "stand in" for him: Joe Palma. As the fake Shemp, Palma (born Joseph Provenzano) wore makeup and a wig, and was filmed from the back or the side; these shots were combined with stock footage of the real Shemp from past movies. Years later, director Sam Raimi, having lost most of his cast and crew in the middle of filming The Evil Dead, had to rely on stock footage and body doubles. A Stooges fan, Raimi thought of Palma and coined the term "a Fake Shemp," which has been used in the movies ever since.
Moe and Larry wanted to continue their act as the Two Stooges, but Columbia Pictures instead hired comedian Joe Besser and his established whiny man-child character. Even though the Three Stooges relied on heavy slapstick, Joe's contract stated that he couldn't be hit excessively (this was later revised), so Larry offered to take the slaps instead, changing the dynamics of the threesome. Joe was the only third Stooge to hit Moe back without repercussion. He was known for the lines "You crazy you" and "Not so fast." Joe appeared with Moe and Larry until Columbia shut down two-reel shorts production. Moe and Larry invited him to tour with them in a live Three Stooges act, but Joe, whose wife had suffered a heart attack, declined.
Curly Joe DeRita
In 1958, the Three Stooges shorts started appearing on television and suddenly they became household names. Moe wanted to take advantage of this new fame by reviving the act. Larry suggested Joe DeRita (born Joseph Wardell) for the third Stooge after seeing him in a Las Vegas show. When they discovered that Curly was the most popular among television viewers, he shaved his head and was called Curly Joe. Curly Joe was the first Stooge to talk back to Moe, saying "OK, buddy boy" and "One of these days, you gonna poke my eyes out." This lineup created movies geared more to children, including Snow White and the Three Stooges, and Have Rocket, Will Travel. They worked together until 1970, when Larry suffered a stroke. Curly Joe put together a new act with replacement Stooges, but it didn't pan out. He died in 1993; his tombstone reads "The Last Stooge."