A fake Shemp is a type of body double who appears in a film as a replacement for another actor or person, usually when the original actor has died, or is unable or unwilling to reprise their role. Their appearance is disguised using methods such as heavy make-up (or a computer-generated equivalent), filming from the back, dubbing in audio and splicing in past footage from the original actor's previous work, using a sound-alike voice actor, or using partial shots of the actor.
Coined by film director Sam Raimi, the term is named after Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges, whose sudden death in 1955 necessitated the use of these techniques to finish the films to which he was already committed. Once somewhat commonplace throughout the 20th century, the use of fake Shemps to emulate the likeness of another person without their permission is forbidden under Screen Actors Guild contracts, largely because of a lawsuit filed by Crispin Glover — following his replacement by Jeffrey Weissman in Back to the Future Part II — that determined that the method violates the original actor's personality rights. The method continues to be used in cases, such as Shemp's, where the original actor is deceased and permission from the deceased actor's estate is granted.
The term references the comedy trio The Three Stooges. On November 22, 1955, Stooge Shemp Howard died of an unexpected heart attack at age 60. At the time, the Stooges still had four shorts left to deliver (Rumpus in the Harem, Hot Stuff, Scheming Schemers, and Commotion on the Ocean), by the terms of their annual contract with Columbia Pictures. By this point in the trio's career, budget cuts at Columbia had forced them to make heavy use of stock footage from previously completed shorts, so they were able to complete the films without Shemp. New footage was filmed of the other two Stooges (Moe Howard and Larry Fine) and edited together with stock footage. When continuity required that Shemp appear in the new scenes, director Jules White used Joe Palma, one of Columbia's bit character actors, as a body double for him. Palma often appeared only from behind or with an object obscuring his face. Palma had appeared as a supporting character in numerous Three Stooges shorts before Shemp's death and would continue in that capacity for the trio's shorts with Joe Besser as the third stooge. These four shorts are the only documented times he performed as Shemp's stand-in; Shemp's usual stunt double was Harold Breen, and there were others from time to time, but these four shorts required someone to double as Shemp in an actor's capacity. While Palma was the inspiration for the term "fake Shemp", the phrase was not used at the time.
The concept predated its use for Shemp by several decades; it had mainly been used to replace actors who died or fell ill during production. Early examples included Shadows of Suspicion (1919, after Harold Lockwood died of the Spanish flu), Saratoga (1937, after Jean Harlow died after completing most of her scenes and fans lobbied to release the film anyway), and Return of the Ape Man (1944, where the illness of George Zucco led to heavyweight boxer Frank Moran stepping into the role Zucco originated midway through the film).
First use of the term
Aspiring filmmaker Sam Raimi, a professed Stooges fan, coined the term in his first feature-length movie The Evil Dead. Most of his cast and crew abandoned the project after major delays (mostly due to budget issues) pushed production well beyond the scheduled six weeks. He was forced to use himself, his die-hard friends Bruce Campbell, Rob Tapert, and Josh Becker, his assistant David Goodman, and his brother Ted Raimi as "fake Shemps". Sam Raimi's later productions in film and television have also often used the term to refer to stand-ins or nameless characters. For example, 16 fake Shemps were included in the credits for Army of Darkness, Raimi's second sequel to The Evil Dead.
There have been many fake Shemps over the years. The death of actor John Candy forced the use of a fake Shemp to complete filming of Wagons East!. Nancy Marchand died before the filming of the third season of The Sopranos, necessitating fake Shemp techniques such as reusing old footage and digitally superimposing Marchand's face onto the body of a stand-in to allow her character Livia Soprano to appear one final time before the character's death in "Proshai, Livushka", costing approximately $250,000.
For the 1989 film Back to the Future Part II, actor Crispin Glover was asked to reprise the role of George McFly. Glover indicated interest, but could not come to an agreement with the producers regarding his salary. For the George McFly character to appear, director Robert Zemeckis used some previously filmed footage of Glover from the first film and inter-spliced Jeffrey Weissman, who wore prosthetics including a false chin, nose, and cheekbones and used various obfuscating methods, such as background, sunglasses, rear shot, and even upside-down, to resemble Glover. Dissatisfied with these plans, Glover filed a lawsuit against the producers, including Steven Spielberg, on the grounds that they neither owned his likeness nor had permission to use it. Due to Glover's lawsuit, there are now clauses in the Screen Actors Guild collective bargaining agreements that state that producers and actors are not allowed to use such methods to reproduce the likeness of other actors.
Advances in visual effects, especially the development of automated deepfake technology, have allowed for more sophisticated fake Shemps. In 1999, during the filming of Gladiator, Oliver Reed passed away before filming all of his scenes. As a result he was replaced by a fake Shemp and the ending was changed. In 2013, Paul Walker died from a car crash before completing the filming of Furious 7. Subsequently, the story arc for Walker's character Brian O'Conner was rewritten to allow for his retirement from the series. To achieve this, co-star John Brotherton and Walker's brothers Caleb and Cody were used as Shemps, with computer-generated facial replacement used to recreate his likeness when necessary. In the 2016 film Rogue One, the 1977 likenesses of Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher were recreated using CGI over body doubles, using processes that Lucasfilm would not divulge, with Guy Henry and Ingvild Deila playing the parts. Similarly, for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, footage of Fisher shot for The Force Awakens was superimposed onto a digital body.
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