Usually thought of as the “other” third stooge, Shemp Howard’s work with the Three Stooges is underrated by most fans and he is still seen as working in the shadow of his brother Curly. While Curly was a tough act to follow, Shemp more than held his own with the rest of the team.
Shemp Howard was born Samuel Horwitz on the March 17, 1895 in Brooklyn, New York. Shemp was given the Hebrew name Schmool, after his mother's grandfather. Schmool was Anglicized to Samuel and then shortened to Sam. When his mother would call him with her broad Lithuanian accent, the name 'Sam' would come out sounding like Shemp. This was the name he was known as for the rest of his life.
After dropping out of high school, Shemp enrolled in trade school with his brother Moe and studied to become a plumber. Shemp and Moe were not very serious about their studies, and soon found that the theatre was the last place for them to find a job they liked. The two boys wrote a short skit, rehearsed it and went on stage at a local amateur night. Three minutes into their performance, they were physically thrown out of the theater.
The brothers were undeterred by their early failure. They continued to work on their act, but just as they began to find success touring the vaudeville circuit doing blackface, Shemp was drafted into the army to fight in World War I. Fortunately he was discharged after a few months because it was discovered that he suffered from enuresis (bed wetting). The brothers went back out on the road and ended up joining with an old schoolmate of theirs named Ted Healy in 1922. The act became more and more popular, especially after the addition of violinist and comedian Larry Fine in 1925.
Ted Healy and His Three Stooges made their first film appearance in the Rube Goldberg-written comedy Soup to Nuts in 1930. They also starred in “The Passing Show of 1932”, a Broadway comedy revue. Healy left the show after a contract dispute and Moe and Larry joined him. Shemp decided to stay behind and make it on his own, leaving a hole in the Stooge act that would be filled by his brother Curly.
Shemp went out to Hollywood and signed a contract with Columbia Pictures. He appeared in numerous early screen comedies and had 68 film credits to his name over the next fourteen years, including the W.C. Fields classic The Bank Dick, and several Abbot and Costello movies.
While Shemp was hammering out a solo career, his brothers had separated from Ted Healy and started making comedy shorts for Columbia Pictures under the name The Three Stooges. After Curly suffered a stroke in 1946, Moe asked Shemp to rejoin the act. Shemp’s signature style as a Stooge was different from that of his younger brother. While Curly acted very innocent and childish, Shemp was gruff and thickheaded. He would question Moe’s decision-making abilities, which would usually lead to his big nose being pulled by a pair of pliers. Shemp also had his signature sound of “Eee-b-b-b-b-b-b-b.”
Shemp ended up appearing in 77 short films as a Stooge, the most out of any of the men who were third Stooge. On November 23, 1955, Shemp suffered a heart attack in the backseat of a taxicab on the way home from a boxing match and died. He was seemingly in excellent heath, but was dead by the age of 60. Four Stooge shorts were still being filmed when he died, and they were completed by using old stock footage and the “fake Shemp” Joe Palma as his stand-in. He was eventually replaced by his friend Joe Besser.
Most people remembered Shemp as being a kind and easygoing man and a rabid environmentalist. Many said that he was the funniest of all his brothers, while at the same time being the most introverted. He would always travel by train because it was impossible to get him on an airplane. He had several phobias he was never able to outgrow, such as a fear of heights, a fear of driving or being driven in a car and a fear of drowning. Some even wonder if it was that final car ride that did him in.