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Shemp's Last Cigar

The original third Stooge, Shemp Howard spent the end of his career in brother Curly's shadow.
Jim Mueller
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

(continued from page 1)

Incidentally, Morton was a character in his own right, having originated the self-serve gas station with his Ce-How chain of service stations--18 Los Angeles locations replete with "Change Girls" on roller skates!

Shemp the family man is remembered by daughter-in-law Greenbaum as a doting father and devoted husband to Gertrude "Babe" Howard. A little-known fact about Shemp: He was, without question, the original "Third Stooge," not just a hasty replacement for the ailing Curly. Quite to the contrary, Shemp worked with younger brother Moe and Larry Fine as early as 1925, when the Stooges were part of comedian Ted Healy's act, one of the hottest tickets in vaudeville. Alternately billed as "Ted Healy and His Southern Gentlemen" and "Ted Healy and his Racketeers," the group performed together until 1930, when Shemp set out on his own. (The other Stooges, who also split that year, rejoined Healy in 1932.) Shemp appeared as Knobby Walsh in the Joe Palooka series and took on feature roles in such classics as The Bank Dick with W.C. Fields and In the Navy with Abbott and Costello. Shemp made 87 films apart from the Three Stooges before rejoining the team in 1946 for the first of his 77 Stooges shorts. Emil Sitka, the only surviving member of the Stooges stock company, witnessed the difficult transition from Curly to Shemp as Third Stooge.

"Curly Howard was terribly sick when I met him on the set of Half-Wits' Holiday in 1946," recalls Sitka, who, at 80, is still seen tearing up and down the streets of his Camarillo, California, neighborhood in a Toyota bearing the vanity plate STOOGES. "I'd heard the stories about Curly's wild life, his marriages and drinking, though by the time I came along he'd already had several strokes and Moe was literally coaching him through his scenes line by line. By the way, that's a side of Moe Howard the public never saw. I've heard him described as a stern, humorless guy, and that wasn't Moe at all. The Moe I knew was a loving brother who looked after Curly and cared deeply for Shemp.

"Now Shemp, he was a real original. We all loved Shemp! Forget that gruff, dominating voice; he was the most unselfish actor I ever worked with...and he was afraid of everything!"

Shemp's phobias were legend. He didn't drive or fly. He couldn't stand heights, elevators made him nervous and he'd only step into a fishing boat if it remained tethered to the dock. Shemp also had a deadly fear of working with animals. No matter how old and docile the stunt bear or lion might be, Shemp would insist on a glass barrier between himself and the critter.

Edward Bernds directed the Three Stooges in dozens of films from the mid-1940s until the end of their career. Today, at 91, he recalls the afternoon he asked Shemp to drive a Ford sedan: "Shemp hadn't been behind the wheel of a car in 25 years, not since he'd put one through a barbershop window in the mid-1920s. He really didn't want to drive in the scene, but I told him I needed a short turn out of a driveway, then we'd cut away. Shemp gave it a few tries and became so jittery, I didn't have the heart to make him continue. I think we ended up having two or three young grips pull the car on ropes. All Shemp had to do was sit behind the wheel and steer, which he managed without incident."

The image of Shemp Howard as confirmed coward seems at odds with his rough-around-the-edges screen persona, that is until old friends fill in the details by offering up his other side. Huntz Hall, of Bowery Boys and Dead End Kids fame, worked with Shemp in Private Buckaroo at Universal Studios and refers to him as "my father in this business." Hall became a close friend and regular visitor to Shemp's and Babe's home in Toluca Lake, California. (The loose-knit group also included Morey Amsterdam, Phil Silvers, Milton Berle, Martha Raye and a young Shecky Greene.)

"Shemp was a sweetheart," says Hall, "until you got him into a serious card game. Then he was all business. If Shemp didn't like your play at pinochle, he'd kick you under the table ... hard! He was ruthless that way; it didn't matter if you were a friend or not.

"But he also had this manner about him, like no other actor," Hall adds. "Shemp was naturally funny. I remember one morning, we were changing into our wardrobe and I noticed a huge, ugly carbuncle on Shemp's leg. I said, 'Shemp! You should see a doctor and have that thing removed.' He just shrugged and said, 'Nah, it holds up my socks.'"

Geri Greenbaum, who married Morton in the early 1950s, recalls the Howard home being a nightly stop on the social circuit. Shemp's wife, Babe, was "an excellent cook" and usually had a delicious meal warming on the stove for any and all unexpected guests.


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