Once described as "The Ugliest Man in Hollywood" as part of a publicity stunt concocted by his agent, comic actor Shemp Howard was an integral member of The Three Stooges for more than 70 films. Receiving his start on the vaudeville circuit, Shemp performed with his brother Moe and violinist Larry Fine alongside popular comedian Ted Healy on Broadway and in the two-reel short "Soup to Nuts" (1930) prior to venturing on to a solo career. Over the 15 years that followed, Shemp established himself as a film comedian opposite players like W.C. Fields and Abbott & Costello until the failing health of his younger brother Curly brought him back into the Stooges fold with the comedy "Fright Night" (1947). Less hyper-kinetic and childlike than Curly, Shemp's shameless mugging and trademark utterance of "Bee-bee-bee-bee!" - in addition to his willingness to take a mallet to the head or a pair of fingers to eyes - easily made him a welcome addition to the line-up. After appearing in dozens of shorts that included "I'm a Monkey's Uncle" (1948) and "Corny Casanovas" (1952), he died of a heart attack in 1955. And while replaced onscreen, the stringy-haired funny man would never be supplanted in the hearts of Stooge fans who truly appreciated what Shemp Howard and his fellow Stooges gave to the world of comedy, even if the critics did not.
Born Samuel Horwitz on March 17, 1895 in Brooklyn, NY, he was the third of five sons born to Jennie and Solomon Horwitz. Being from Lithuania, his mother's accent was so heavy that her attempts to pronounce the abbreviated version of his name came out sounding like "Shemp." For better or worse, the moniker stuck and, eventually, no one would remember him ever being called anything else. Although he was exceptionally mischievous as a child, Shemp initially viewed performing merely as a hobby, while his younger sibling, Moe, became obsessed early on with the theater. When he and Moe both dropped out of high school, the brothers attended Baron De Hirsch Trade School, where Shemp studied to be a plumber and Moe to be an electrician - both as a way to mollify their concerned parents. Eventually Moe left trade school for a life in the floodlights, and in a scenario that would replay itself again years later, soon convinced Shemp to join him. He and Moe began working on their evolving act, performing anywhere they could. For a time, they sang as part of a quartet at nearby Sullivan's Saloon - until their father put a stop to the late-night performances - and later joined a theatrical troupe aboard the river showboat Sunflower. Shemp and Moe toured the country for several years - interrupted only by Shemp's very brief stint in the Army - simultaneously working on the competing Leow's and RKO vaudeville circuits. An unheard of feat at the time, Shemp and his younger brother managed it by performing a blackface minstrel show for their work at the RKO venues.
Late in 1922, Shemp and Moe reconnected with an old friend from Brooklyn, Ted Healy, who was also a vaudeville performer and far more established than Shemp and his brother at the time. In need of a replacement for his act, Healy enticed the Howard brothers to join him onstage in a largely improvised routine that found Shemp heckling Moe from the audience. The crowd loved it and Shemp and Moe soon joined their associate in an act initially known as Ted Healy and his Racketeers, but later changed to Ted Healy and his Stooges. Upon seeing talented violinist-comedian Larry Fine perform a vaudeville act one night, Healy invited the frizzy redhead with the balding pate to become his third Stooge. Recently married, Shemp struggled to juggle his home life with his work in the act and a successful run on the vaudeville circuit throughout the remainder of the 1920s. In 1929, Healy and the boys made their Broadway debut in the popular musical revue, "A Night in Venice," followed by their first film appearance as a team in the Rube Goldberg comedy, "Soup to Nuts" (1930), in which the elder Shemp was clearly the Stooge in charge, as Moe had yet to assume his role of authority. Almost immediately after completing "Soup to Nuts," Shemp - tired of Healy's drinking, often abusive behavior, and his own yearning for a solo career - left the group, only to be replaced by another younger brother, Jerome Howard, later known to the world as "Curly."
Sticking close to home, Shemp soon signed with the Brooklyn-based studio, Vitaphone for which he appeared in numerous two-reel shorts alongside the likes of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Jack Haley. Initially landing only bit parts, the size of Shemp's roles gradually increased until he was starring in shorts like "Why Pay Rent?" (1935) and "On the Wagon" (1935) with fellow Vitaphone player, Roscoe Ates. Intended as a supporting character, Shemp's wild card performances as Knobby Walsh in Joe Palooka shorts like "Kick Me Again" (1937) soon overshadowed those of series star Robert Norton. Shemp moved Hollywood in 1937, where he opened the Stage One Nightclub with his business partner, actor Wally Vernon. On the big screen, he continued to experience success with roles in features like the classic W.C. Fields comedy "The Bank Dick" (1940) and the army romp "Buck Privates" (1941), the big screen debut of the comedy team of Abbott & Costello. In a rare dramatic role, Shemp even appeared opposite John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich in "Pittsburgh" (1942). Primarily working for Columbia Pictures, Shemp was building a growing name for himself in comedy shorts like "Open Season for Saps" (1944) and "Society Mugs" (1946) when a family tragedy would alter his professional life forever.
When Curly Howard suffered a debilitating stroke after completing the Three Stooges comedy short, "Half-Wits Holiday" (1947), Moe and Columbia Pictures urged Shemp to rejoin the roster. Not wanting to put his younger brother out of work and assured that the position would be only temporary - it was hoped Curly would recover sufficiently to return to The Stooges - a reluctant Shemp joined Larry and Moe for "Fright Night" (1947). Sadly, Curly's health problems only grew worse, and other than a brief cameo in "Hold That Lion!" - the only film to feature Larry, Moe, Curly and Shemp - he would never perform again. Now a permanent member of The Three Stooges, Shemp - whose comedic persona was considerably mellower than Curly's manic man-child - went on to appear in more than 70 shorts as a fulltime Stooge in memorable efforts like "I'm a Monkey's Uncle" (1948) and "Corny Casanovas" (1952). In addition to the steady output of short films, Larry, Moe and Shemp also took a stab at television with the unaired pilot "Jerks of All Trades" (ABC, 1949) and made an appearance in the comedic Western feature "Gold Raiders" (1951).
Sadly, a mere three years after Curly's passing, Shemp died from a heart attack on Nov. 22, 1955 while returning from watching a boxing match in Hollywood. The heartbreak of losing his two brothers in quick succession proved almost too much for Moe, who seriously considered ending the act permanently. While Moe contemplated what to do next, the final few films scheduled to feature the elder Stooge were cobbled together using a combination of existing footage of Shemp and performances by stand-in Joe Palma - referred to as "Fake Shemp" in Stooges lore - for efforts like "Rumpus in the Harem" (1956) and "Commotion on the Ocean" (1956). Although Shemp would eventually be replaced in the lineup by comedian Joe Besser, his contributions as a Stooge were not only substantial, but an essential part of the group's comedic legacy.