Joe Besser (August 12, 1907 - March 1, 1988) was a comedian, known
for his impish humor, and is now best remembered for his brief stint as
part of the Three Stooges.
He was born in St Louis, the ninth child of Morris and Fanny Besser
(Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe). He had seven older sisters,
and an older brother Manny who was in show business. From a young age,
Joe was also fascinated with show business, especially the magic act of
Howard Thurston that came annually. For years, he asked Thurston if he
could join the act, and Thurston kept telling him to wait until he was
older. When he was twelve, Thurston allowed Besser to play a minor
audience plant (as in, "stooge"). Besser was so excited by this, he
snuck into Thurston's train after the St. Louis run of the show was
over, and was discovered the next day sleeping on top of the lion's
cage in Detroit.
Thurston gave in, informed Besser's parents of the situation, and
trained him as an assistant. The first act involved pulling a rabbit
out of a hat. The trick involved two rabbits, one hidden in a pocket of
Thurston's cape. But young Besser was so nervous that he botched badly,
pulling out the rabbit from the cape at the same time as the other
rabbit was on display, before the trick had been performed. The
audience roared with laughter, and Besser from then on was assigned
comic mishap roles only.
Besser ended up in vaudeville, doing comedy in general, and was a
headliner. He specialized in playing a bratty, whiny child. His
catchphrases "You crazy you!" and "Not so fast!" became well known.
In 1932, he married the dancer Erna Kay, real name Erna Dora
Kretschmer, known as "Ernie". They were neighbors and friends of Lou
Costello, of Abbott and Costello fame. He was in demand in movies,
radio, and eventually television. One of his most famous roles was
"Stinky", the bratty child dressed in an oversized Little Lord
Fauntleroy outfit, shorts, and a flat top hat with overhang. He played
that for the first season of The Abbott and Costello Show. (In the
second season, he was replaced by a chimpanzee.)
When Shemp Howard died of a sudden heart attack in November 1955, Moe
Howard recruited Besser to join the Three Stooges. He agreed, but had a
clause in his contract prohibiting being hit excessively, insisting
that his humor was more about comedic revenge for being bullied. In
1958, Columbia Pictures ended their "shorts" film making, and the Three
Stooges were without a contract. Ernie had had a heart attack, so
Besser was unwilling to travel, and he quit the team.
Besser returned to films and television, most notably as the
superintendent "Jillson" for four seasons (1962-1966) of The Joey
Bishop Show, and the voice of Babu the genie in the animated I Dream of
The majority of Stooge Fans tend to dislike the Besser-era shorts,
because of the profusion of reused scripts and stock footage and feel
he is the worst Stooge. A minor contingent of Stooge fans feel Besser
brought his own (quite amusing) character to the role and feel he did
right in not trying to replicate Curly or Shemp, who he met with the
other Stooges in 1932 and had especially formed a friendship with.
These fans tend to view him as being better than Curly Joe DeRita.
Considered a kind man, Besser enjoyed meeting fans of all ages as well
as giving his time to the children of his community. He died of heart
failure on March 1st 1988.