Shemp Howard

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Shemp Howard
Shemp Howard in Brideless Groom 1947.png
Howard in Brideless Groom (1947)
Samuel Horwitz

(1895-03-11)March 11, 1895
DiedNovember 22, 1955(1955-11-22) (aged 60)
Resting placeHome of Peace Cemetery
  • Comedian
  • actor
Years active1923–1955
Known forThe Three Stooges
Gertrude Frank
(m. 1925)
RelativesMoe Howard (brother)
Curly Howard (brother)
Joan Howard Maurer (niece)

Samuel Horwitz (March 11, 1895[1] – November 22, 1955), better known by his stage name Shemp Howard, was an American comedian and actor. He was called "Shemp" because "Sam" came out that way in his mother's thick Litvak accent.

He is best known as the third Stooge in the Three Stooges, a role he played when the act began in the early 1920s (1923–1932), while it was still associated with Ted Healy and known as "Ted Healy and his Stooges"; and again from 1946 until his death in 1955. During the fourteen years between his times with the Stooges, he had a successful solo career as a film comedian, including a series of shorts by himself and with partners. He reluctantly returned to the Stooges as a favor to his brother Moe and friend Larry Fine to replace his brother Curly as the third Stooge after Curly's illness.

Early life[edit]

Howard was born Samuel Horwitz in Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, NY on March 17,[1] 1895, and raised in Brooklyn. He was the third-born of the five Horwitz brothers born to Lithuanian Jewish parents Solomon Horwitz (1872–1943) and Jennie Horwitz (1870–1939). Irving (1891–1939) and Benjamin (Jack) (1893–1976) were his older brothers; Moses (Moe) (1897–1975) and Jerome (Curly) (1903–1952) were his younger brothers.[citation needed]

Howard's first name, Shmuel (after his grandfather), was anglicized to Samuel, and his parents and brothers usually called him Sam.[citation needed]


Show business[edit]

Shemp's brother Moe Howard started in show business as a youngster, on stage and in films. Moe and Shemp eventually tried their hands as minstrel-show-style "blackface" comedians with an act they called "Howard and Howard – A Study in Black". At the same time, they worked for a rival vaudeville circuit, without makeup.

By 1922, Moe had teamed up with boyhood-friend-turned-vaudeville star Ted Healy in a "roughhouse" act. One day Moe spotted his brother Shemp in the audience and yelled at him from the stage. Quick-witted Shemp yelled right back, and walked up onto the stage. From then on he was part of the act, usually known as "Ted Healy and His Stooges". The Howard brothers were the original Stooges; Larry Fine joined them in 1928.[2] On stage, Healy sang and told jokes while his three noisy stooges got in his way, and Healy retaliated with physical and verbal abuse. Shemp played a bumbling fireman in the Stooges' first film, Soup to Nuts (1930), the only film where he played one of Healy's gang.

After a disagreement with Healy in August 1930, Moe, Larry and Shemp left to launch their own act, "Howard, Fine & Howard," and joined the RKO vaudeville circuit. They premiered at Los Angeles's Paramount Theatre on August 28, 1930. In 1931 they added "Three Lost Soles" to the act's name, and took on Jack Walsh as their straight man. Moe, Larry and Shemp continued until July 1932, when Ted Healy approached them to team up again for the Shuberts's Broadway revue "Passing Show of 1932," and they readily accepted the offer. In spite of their past differences, Moe knew an association with the nationally known Healy would provide opportunities the three comics were not getting on their own.

On August 16, 1932, in a contract dispute, Healy walked out of the Shuberts's revue during rehearsals. Three days later, tired of what he considered Healy's domineering handling of the Stooges' career, Shemp left Healy's act to remain with "Passing Show", which closed in September during roadshow performances and after pan reviews in Detroit and Cincinnati. Shemp regrouped to form his own act and played on the road for a few months. He landed at Brooklyn's Vitaphone Studios for movie appearance opportunities in May 1933. When he split from Healy, Shemp was immediately replaced by his and Moe's younger brother Jerry Howard (known as Curly).[3]

Solo years[edit]

Shemp Howard, like many New York-based performers, found work at the Vitaphone studio in Brooklyn. Originally playing bit roles in Vitaphone's Roscoe Arbuckle comedies, showing off his comical appearance, he was given speaking roles and supporting parts almost immediately. He was featured with Vitaphone comics Jack Haley, Ben Blue and Gus Shy, then co-starred with Harry Gribbon, Daphne Pollard, and Johnnie Berkes, and finally starred in his own two-reel comedies. A Gribbon-Howard short, Art Trouble (1934), also features then-unknown James Stewart in his first film role. The independently produced Convention Girl (1935) featured Shemp in a very rare straight role as a blackmailer and would-be murderer.[citation needed]

Shemp seldom stuck to the script. He livened up scenes with ad-libbed dialogue and wisecracks, which became his trademark. In late 1935, Vitaphone was licensed to produce short comedies based on the "Joe Palooka" comic strip. Shemp was cast as "Knobby Walsh," and though only a supporting character, he became the comic focus of the series, with Johnnie Berkes and Lee Weber as his foils. He co-starred in the first seven shorts, released in 1936–1937. Nine of them were produced, the last two done after Shemp's departure from Vitaphone.[citation needed]

Away from Vitaphone, Howard unsuccessfully attempted to lead his own group of "stooges" in the Van Beuren musical comedy short The Knife of the Party. It was a rare failure in an otherwise successful solo career. In 1937 he followed his brothers' lead, moved to the West Coast, and landed supporting-actor roles at several studios, predominantly Columbia Pictures and Universal. He worked exclusively at Universal from August 1940 to August 1943, performing with such comics as W. C. Fields (playing Fields' bartender in the film The Bank Dick, 1940); and with comedy duos Abbott and Costello and Olsen and Johnson. He lent comic relief to Charlie Chan and The Thin Man murder mysteries. He appeared in several Universal B-musicals of the early 1940s, including Private Buckaroo (1942; in which he clowned onstage with The Andrews Sisters during their performance of "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree"), Strictly in the Groove (1942), How's About It? (1943), Moonlight and Cactus (1944) and San Antonio Rose (1941), in the latter of which he was paired with Lon Chaney, Jr. as a faux Abbott and Costello. Most of these projects took advantage of his improvisational skills. When Broadway comedian Frank Fay walked out on a series of feature films teaming him with Billy Gilbert, Gilbert called on his closest friend, Shemp Howard, to replace him in three B-comedy features for Monogram Pictures, filmed in 1944–45. He also played a few serious parts, such as his supporting role in Pittsburgh (1942) starring Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne.[citation needed]

The Three Stooges: 1946–1955[edit]

Moe, Shemp (bottom centre), and Larry in Malice in the Palace

During 1938–1940 and 1944–1946, Howard appeared in Columbia's two-reel comedies, co-starring with Columbia regulars Andy Clyde, The Glove Slingers, El Brendel, and Tom Kennedy. He was given his own starring series in 1944. He was working for Columbia in this capacity when his brother Curly was felled by a debilitating stroke on May 6, 1946. Curly had already suffered a series of strokes prior to the filming of If a Body Meets a Body (1945), and in January 1945 Shemp filled in for Curly at a week-long appearance at the St. Charles Theatre in New Orleans.

Shemp in Brideless Groom (1947)

Shemp agreed to fill in for Curly in Columbia's popular Stooge shorts, knowing that if he refused, Moe and Larry would be out of work. He intended to stay only until Curly recovered, which never happened as Curly's health continued to worsen. Curly died on January 18, 1952, at the age of 48. Shemp agreed to remain with the group permanently.

Shemp with his younger brother Moe Howard and partner Larry Fine in 1947's Sing a Song of Six Pants

Shemp's role as the third Stooge was much different from Curly's. While he could still roll with the punches in response to Moe's slapstick abuse, he was more of a laid-back dimwit as opposed to Curly's energetic man-child persona. And unlike Curly, who had many distinct mannerisms, Shemp's most notable characteristic as a Stooge was a high-pitched "bee-bee-bee-bee-bee-bee!" sound, a sort of soft screech done by inhaling. It was a multipurpose effect: He emitted this sound when scared, sleeping (done as a form of snoring), overtly happy, or dazed. It became his trademark sound as the "nyuk nyuk" sound had become Curly's. Because of his established solo career, he was also given opportunities in the films to do some of his own comic routines.

During this period, The Three Stooges ventured into live television appearances, beginning on Tuesday, October 19, 1948, with Milton Berle on his Texaco Star Theatre program.

Shemp appeared with Moe and Larry in 73 short subjects (77 when counting four that were made after Shemp's death by incorporating stock footage). The trio also made the feature film Gold Raiders (1951). Shemp suffered a mild stroke in November 1952, but recovered within weeks. The medical episode had no noticeable effect on his remaining films with the Stooges, many of which were remakes of earlier films that also used recycled footage to reduce costs.

Personal life[edit]

In September 1925, Shemp married Gertrude Frank (1905–1982), a fellow New Yorker. They had one child, Morton (1927–1972). Gertrude Frank Howard outlived her husband and son, and was living when her first cousin Barney Frank (born 1940, the son of her father's brother) became a US Congressman.

Shemp used his somewhat homely appearance for comic effect, often mugging grotesquely or allowing his hair to fall in disarray. He even played along with a publicity stunt that named him "The Ugliest Man in Hollywood". ("I'm hideous," he explained to reporters.) Notoriously phobic, his fears included airplanes, automobiles, dogs, and water. According to Moe's autobiography, Shemp was involved in a driving accident as a teenager and never obtained a driver's license.[4]


Crypt of Shemp Howard at the Home of Peace Cemetery

On November 22, 1955, Shemp went out with associates Al Winston and Bobby Silverman to a boxing match (one of Shemp's favorite pastimes) at the Hollywood Legion Stadium at North El Centro and Selma Avenues, one block above the Hollywood Palladium. While returning home in a taxi that evening, Shemp died of a massive heart attack, at the age of 60.

Cover of Los Angeles Examiner (24 November 1955)

Moe's autobiography gives a death date of November 23, 1955, as do most subsequent accounts, because of Moe's book. But much of that book was finished posthumously by his daughter and son-in-law, and some details were confused. The Los Angeles County Coroner's death certificate states that Shemp Howard died on Tuesday, November 22, 1955, at 11:35 [PM] PST. Howard's obituary also appeared in the November 23 afternoon editions of Los Angeles newspapers, citing the death on the night of November 22.[5] A different account is offered by his daughter-in-law Geri Greenbaum, wife of his son, who says Howard's death happened just as their taxi came over the rise on Barham Boulevard, heading to Howard's Toluca Lake home.[citation needed]

Shemp Howard was interred in a crypt in the Indoor Mausoleum at the Home of Peace Cemetery in East Los Angeles. His younger brother Curly is also interred there, in an outdoor tomb in the Western Jewish Institute section, as well as his parents Solomon and Jennie Horwitz and older brother Benjamin "Jack".


The Three Stooges earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1560 Vine Street on August 30, 1983.[6]

The "Fake Shemps" and legacy[edit]

Columbia had promised exhibitors eight Three Stooges comedies for 1956, but only four were completed at the time of Shemp Howard's death. To fulfill the contract, producer Jules White manufactured four more shorts by reusing old footage of Howard and filming new connecting scenes with a double, longtime Stooge supporting actor, Joe Palma, who is seen mostly from the back.

Palma came to be known by Stooge fans as the "Fake Shemp". Later, director Sam Raimi and his childhood friend actor Bruce Campbell referred to anyone playing body doubles or stand-ins in other films as "Shemp" or "a Fake Shemp", in reference to these postmortem Stooge scenes.

The re-edited films range from clever to blatantly patchy, and are often dismissed as second-rate. Rumpus in the Harem borrows from Malice in the Palace, Hot Stuff from Fuelin' Around, and Commotion on the Ocean from Dunked in the Deep (all originals released 1949; all re-edits released 1956). The best-received and most technically accomplished is Scheming Schemers (again 1956), combining new footage with recycled clips from three old Stooge shorts: A Plumbing We Will Go (1940), Half-Wits Holiday (1947) and Vagabond Loafers (1949).[7]

When it was time to renew the Stooges's contract, Columbia hired comedian Joe Besser to replace Shemp. Columbia discontinued filming new Stooge short subject comedies in December 1957, releasing the last new short in June 1959, but kept the series going into the 1960s by reissuing Shemp's Stooge shorts to theaters. This, as well as a TV release of Stooge shorts, allowed Shemp Howard to remain a popular star for long after he died.

In the television biopic film The Three Stooges (2000), Shemp Howard was portrayed by John Kassir, who donned a floppy, straight-haired wig.

Filmography (Non-Stooge)[edit]

Two Reelers
  • Salt Water Daffy (1933)
  • Close Relations (1933)
  • Paul Revere, Jr. (1933)
  • Gobs Of Fun (1933)
  • In The Dough (1933)
  • Here Comes Flossie! (1934)
  • Howd' Ya Like That? (1934)
  • Henry The Ache (1934)
  • The Wrong, Wrong Trail (1934)
  • Mushrooms (1934)
  • The Knife Of The Party (1934)
  • Everybody Likes Music (1934)
  • Pugs and Kisses (1934)
  • Very Close Veins (1934)
  • Pure Feud (1934)
  • Corn On The Cop (1934)
  • I Scream (1934)
  • Rambling 'Round Radio Row # 7 (Series 2 # 1) (1934)
  • Art Trouble (1934)
  • My Mummy's Arms (1934)
  • Daredevil O'Dare (1934)
  • Smoked Hams (1934)
  • So You Won't T-T-T-Talk (1934)
  • Dizzy & Daffy (1934)
  • A Peach Of A Pair, (1934)
  • His First Flame (1935)
  • Convention Girl (1935)
  • Why Pay Rent? (1935)
  • Serves You Right (1935)
  • On The Wagon (1935)
  • The Officer's Mess (1935)
  • While The Cat's Away (1936)
  • For The Love Of Pete (1936)
  • Absorbing Junior (1936)
  • Here's Howe (1936)
  • Punch And Beauty (1936)
  • The Choke's On You (1936)
  • The Blonde Bomber (1936)
  • Kick Me Again (1937)
  • Taking The Count (1937)
  • Hollywood Round-Up (1937)
  • Headin' East (1937)
  • The Leather Pushers (1938)
  • Home On The Rage (1938)
  • Behind Prison Gates (1939)
  • Glove Slingers (1939)
  • Money Squawks (1940)
  • The Lone Wolf Meets A Lady (1940)
  • Boobs In The Woods (1940)
  • Millionaires In Prison (1940)
  • Pleased To Mitt You (1940)
  • Pick A Peck Of Plumbers (1944)
  • Open Season For Saps (1944)
  • Off Again, On Again (1945)
  • Where The Pest Begins (1945)
  • A Hit With A Miss (1945)
  • Mr. Noisy (1946)
  • Jiggers, My Wife (1946)
  • Society Mugs (1946)
  • Bride And Gloom (1947)
with The Three Stooges


  1. ^ a b "Shemp's Birth Certificate". Archived from the original on December 15, 2013. Retrieved February 2, 2014.
  2. ^ Davidson, Robert. " :: The Three Stooges Journal – Issue No. 155".
  3. ^ Deezen, Eddie (January 18, 2012). "The Final Years of Curly (of Three Stooges Fame)". Mental Floss. Retrieved July 2, 2017.
  4. ^ Howard, Moe (1979) [1977]. Moe Howard and the Three Stooges. Broadway Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8065-0723-1.
  5. ^ "Comic Shemp Howard of 3 Stooges Dies. Veteran Actor, 60, Stricken by Heart Attack in Auto". Los Angeles Times. November 24, 1955. Retrieved August 12, 2011. Shemp Howard, 60, veteran stage and screen comedian and one of 'The Three Stooges,' died Tuesday of a heart attack.
  6. ^ "The Three Stooges". Retrieved April 20, 2018.
  7. ^ Forrester, Jeff (2002). Three Stooges: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Most Popular Comedy Team of All Time. Donaldson Books. pp. 151–152. ISBN 0-9715801-0-3.

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