Joe Besser

Last updated

Joe Besser
Bessergood.jpg
Besser in 1956
Born
Joseph Besser

(1907-08-12)August 12, 1907
DiedMarch 1, 1988(1988-03-01) (aged 80)
Resting place Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California, U.S.
OccupationActor, comedian, musician
Years active1938–1988
Spouse(s)
Erna Kay
(m. 1932)
Family Matt Besser (cousin's grandson)
Website threestooges.net

Joe Besser (August 12, 1907 – March 1, 1988) was an American actor, comedian and musician, known for his impish humor and wimpy characters. He is best known for his brief stint as a member of the Three Stooges in cinematic short subjects of 1957–59. He is also remembered for his television roles: Stinky, the bratty man-child in The Abbott and Costello Show , and Jillson, the maintenance man in The Joey Bishop Show .

Contents

Early life

Besser was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on August 12, 1907. He was the ninth child of Morris and Fanny [Fecht] Besser, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He had seven older sisters, and an older brother Manny who was in show business, primarily as an ethnic Jewish comic. From an early age, Joe was fascinated with show business, especially the magic act of Howard Thurston that visited St. Louis annually. When Joe was 12, Thurston allowed him to be an audience plant. Besser was so excited by this, he sneaked 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 relented, 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 was placed by St. Louis juvenile authorities in a "corrective school" (reform school) at age 12. [1]

Acting career

Besser remained in show business and developed a unique comic character: a whiny, bratty, impish guy who was easily excitable and upset, throwing temper tantrums with little provocation. Besser, with his frequent outbursts of "You crazy, youuuuu!" and "Not so faaaaaast!" or "Not so harrrrd!!" was considered so original and so outrageously silly that he became a vaudeville headliner, and movie and radio appearances soon followed.

The zany comedy team of Olsen and Johnson, whose Broadway revues were fast-paced collections of songs and blackouts, hired Joe Besser to join their company. Besser's noisy intrusions were perfect for their anything-can-happen format. Besser's work caught the attention of the Shubert brothers, who signed Besser to a theatrical contract. Columbia Pictures hired Besser away from the Shuberts, and Besser relocated to Hollywood in 1944, where he brought his unique comic character to feature-length musical comedies like Hey, Rookie and Eadie Was a Lady (1945). On May 9, 1946 Besser appeared on the pioneer NBC television program Hour Glass , performing his "Army Drill" routine with stage partner Jimmy Little. According to an article in the May 27, 1946 issue of Life magazine, the show was seen by about 20,000 people on about 3,500 television sets, mostly in the New York City area. [2] During this period, he appeared on the Jack Benny radio program in the episode entitled "Jack Prepares For Carnegie Hall" in June, 1943. Besser also starred in short-subject comedies for Columbia from 1949 to 1956. By this point, his persona was sufficiently well known that he was frequently caricatured in Looney Tunes animated shorts of the era. He appeared in the action film The Desert Hawk (1950).

Besser had substituted for Lou Costello on radio, opposite Bud Abbott, and by the 1950s he was firmly established as one of the Abbott and Costello regulars. When the duo filmed The Abbott and Costello Show for television, they hired Joe Besser to play Oswald "Stinky" Davis, a bratty, loudmouthed child dressed in an oversized Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit, shorts, and a flat top hat with overhanging brim. He appeared during the first season of The Abbott and Costello Show. Besser was cast for the role of Yonkel, a chariot man in the low-budget biblical film Sins of Jezebel (1953) which starred Paulette Goddard as the titular wicked queen.

The Three Stooges

After Shemp Howard died of a heart attack on November 22, 1955 at age 60, his brother Moe suggested that he and teammate Larry Fine continue working as "The Two Stooges".[ citation needed ] Studio chief Harry Cohn rejected the proposal. Although Moe had legal approval to allow new members into the act, Columbia executives had the final say about any actor who would appear in the studio's films, and insisted on a performer already under contract to Columbia, Joe Besser. At the time, Besser was one of a few comedians still making comedy shorts at the studio. He successfully renegotiated his contract, and was paid his former feature-film salary, which was more than the other Stooges earned.

Besser refrained from imitating Curly or Shemp. He continued to play the same whiny character he had developed over his long career. He had a clause in his contract prohibiting being hit excessively. Besser recalled, "I usually played the kind of character who would hit others back". He claimed that Larry volunteered to take the brunt of Moe's screen abuse. In a 2002 E! channel program which used file footage of Besser, the comic stated that the left side of Larry Fine's face was noticeably coarser than the other side, which he attributed to Moe's slaps.

As a result of his whiny persona and lack of true slapstick punishment against him (the cornerstone of Stooge humor), Joe has been less popular with contemporary Stooge aficionados, so much so, that "Stooge-a-Polooza" TV host Rich Koz has even apologized on the air before showing Besser shorts; during the show's tenure he received more than a few letters from viewers expressing their outrage over his airing them. Besser does have his defenders, however. Columbia historians Edward Watz and Ted Okuda have written appreciatively of Besser bringing new energy to what was by then a flagging theatrical series. [3]

The Stooges shorts with Besser were filmed from the spring of 1956 to the end of 1957. His Stooge tenure ended when Columbia shut down the two-reel-comedy department on December 20, 1957. Producer-director Jules White had shot enough film for 16 comedies, which were released a few months apart until June 1959, with Sappy Bull Fighters being the final release.

After Besser joined in, for the first time in their career, the Stooges did not go to any personal appearance during their lay-off season started from 1956. [4] There was a long-time belief, based on an existing ad, that the Stooges once performed live, with Besser as the third stooge, at the Paramount Theatre, Los Angeles, sometimes around 1957. [5] It was later found that the ad was erroneously used for the act's personal appearances in December 1959, with Joe DeRita, rather than Besser, as the part of line-up. In fact, Besser never made any personal appearances as a member of the Three Stooges. [6]

After their contract with Columbia ended, Moe Howard and Larry Fine discussed plans for a personal appearance tour, but Besser declined. His wife had suffered a heart attack in November 1957, and he was unwilling to leave without her. In later life, Besser praised Moe and Larry in a 1985 radio interview, of which a quote from said interview was aired on A&E Network's Biography . Besser said:

... Moe and Larry, they were the best. I enjoyed every minute of it with them. In fact, to show you how wonderful they were, I never liked to be hit with anything. And Larry would always say to me, 'Don't worry Joe, I'll take it.' Now that's the kind of guys that they were ...

After the Stooges

Besser returned to films and television, most notably as the superintendent Jillson for four seasons (1961–1965) of The Joey Bishop Show . He also made occasional appearances on the ABC late-night series, also called The Joey Bishop Show between 1967 and 1969. Besser also had roles on The Mothers-in-Law , Batman , The Good Guys , That Girl , and Love, American Style . [7] He provided the voice of the dragon on The Alvin Show (1961)

Besser also provided voices for several Saturday Morning cartoon series in the 1970s. He voiced the character Putty Puss in The Houndcats (1972), bumbling genie Babu in Jeannie (1973), (inspired by I Dream of Jeannie ) and Scooby's All-Star Laff-A-Lympics , and as Scare Bear in Yogi's Space Race (1978). [7] Besser's career slowed somewhat after he suffered a minor stroke in 1979, resulting in considerable weight loss. [7]

Later in life, Besser expressed some dismay that people only recognized him for his brief tenure with the Stooges. However, he eventually softened, realizing that the Stooges continued to bring him his greatest exposure. [7]

In 1984, Besser co-wrote with authors Jeff and Greg Lenburg his autobiography, Not Just a Stooge, for Excelsior Books. [7] The book would be later retitled and re-published as Once a Stooge, Always a Stooge following his death in 1988.

Joe Besser recalled his friendship with the Stooges in an emotional speech referring to "the four boys [Moe, Larry, Curly, and Shemp] ... up in heaven" looking down at the dedication of a star to The Three Stooges on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on August 30, 1983. Stooges co-actor Emil Sitka also spoke; the only other surviving Stooge, Joe DeRita, was ill at the time, though he outlived Besser by five years. [7]

In the spring of 2000, ABC aired a made-for-television movie about the Stooges, with actor Laurence Coy appearing briefly as Besser. This depiction of Besser has been criticized as being unfairly negative.

Personal life

In 1932, Besser married dancer Erna Kay (born Ernestine Dora Kretschmer), known as "Ernie". [8] The couple had no children. They were neighbors and friends of Lou Costello, of the Abbott and Costello duo. Besser appeared in the Abbott and Costello movie Africa Screams (1949), which also featured Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges. Joe and Shemp were old friends, having met in 1932.

His cousin's grandson is Upright Citizens Brigade theater co-founder and improviser/comedian Matt Besser. [9]

Death

Joe Besser was found dead in his home on March 1, 1988. He was aged 80 and died of heart failure. [10] His wife Erna died on July 1, 1989, from a heart attack at age 89. Both spouses are buried in the same plot in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, in Glendale, California. Joe's marker reads, "Joe Besser / August 12, 1907-March 1, 1988 / He Brought the World Love and Laughter", while Erna's reads, "Ernestine Besser / March 14, 1900-July 1, 1989 / In Loving Memory." Besser's Stooge partner Larry Fine is in a crypt at the Freedom Mausoleum, which is a short distance away from the tomb.

Selected filmography

Related Research Articles

The Three Stooges American comedy team

The Three Stooges were an American vaudeville and comedy team active from 1922 until 1970, best known for their 190 short subject films by Columbia Pictures that have been regularly airing on television since 1958. Their hallmark was physical farce and slapstick. Six Stooges appeared over the act's run : Moe Howard and Larry Fine were mainstays throughout the ensemble's nearly 50-year run and the pivotal "third stooge" was played by Shemp Howard, Curly Howard, Shemp Howard again, Joe Besser and "Curly" Joe DeRita.

Moe Howard American actor and comedian

Moses Harry Horwitz, known professionally as Moe Howard, was an American actor and comedian, best known as the leader of the Three Stooges, the farce comedy team who starred in motion pictures and television for four decades. That group originally started out as Ted Healy and His Stooges, an act that toured the vaudeville circuit. Moe's distinctive hairstyle came about when he was a boy and cut off his curls with a pair of scissors, producing a ragged shape approximating a bowl cut.

Larry Fine

Louis Feinberg, known professionally as Larry Fine, was an American actor, comedian, violinist, and boxer, who is best known as a member of the comedy act the Three Stooges.

Shemp Howard American actor and comedian

Samuel Horwitz, known professionally as Shemp Howard, was an American actor and comedian. 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 series of shorts by himself and with partners, and reluctantly returned to the Stooges as a favor to his brothers Moe and Curly.

Curly Howard American actor and comedian

Jerome Lester Horwitz, known professionally as Curly Howard, was an American vaudevillian actor and comedian. He was best known as a member of the American comedy team the Three Stooges, which also featured his elder brothers Moe and Shemp Howard and actor Larry Fine. In early shorts, he was billed as Curley. Curly Howard was generally considered the most popular and recognizable of the Stooges. He was well known for his high-pitched voice and vocal expressions, as well as his physical comedy, improvisations, and athleticism. An untrained actor, Curly borrowed the "woob woob" from "nervous" and soft-spoken comedian Hugh Herbert. Curly's unique version of "woob-woob-woob" was firmly established by the time of the Stooges' second Columbia film, Punch Drunks (1934).

Joe DeRita American actor and comedian

Joseph Wardell, known professionally as Joe DeRita, was an American actor and comedian, who is best known for his stint as a member of The Three Stooges in the persona of "Curly-Joe."

<i>Have Rocket, Will Travel</i>

Have Rocket, Will Travel is a 1959 American science fiction comedy film starring The Three Stooges. By this time, the trio consisted of Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and new "third Stooge" Joe DeRita. Released by Columbia Pictures, the feature was produced to capitalize on the comedy trio's late 1950s resurgence in popularity.

<i>Muscle Up a Little Closer</i>

Muscle Up a Little Closer is a 1957 short subject directed by Jules White starring American slapstick comedy team The Three Stooges. It is the 176th entry in the series released by Columbia Pictures starring the comedians, who released 190 shorts for the studio between 1934 and 1959

<i>Hoofs and Goofs</i>

Hoofs and Goofs is a 1957 short subject directed by Jules White starring American slapstick comedy team The Three Stooges. It is the 175th entry in the series released by Columbia Pictures starring the comedians, who released 190 shorts for the studio between 1934 and 1959.

<i>Triple Crossed</i>

Triple Crossed is a 1959 short subject directed by Jules White starring American slapstick comedy team The Three Stooges. It is the 189th entry in the series released by Columbia Pictures starring the comedians, who released 190 shorts for the studio between 1934 and 1959.

<i>Flying Saucer Daffy</i>

Flying Saucer Daffy is a 1958 short subject directed by Jules White starring American slapstick comedy team The Three Stooges. It is the 187th entry in the series released by Columbia Pictures starring the comedians, who released 190 shorts for the studio between 1934 and 1959.

<i>Commotion on the Ocean</i>

Commotion on the Ocean is a 1956 short subject directed by Jules White starring American slapstick comedy team The Three Stooges. It is the 174th entry in the series released by Columbia Pictures starring the comedians, who released 190 shorts for the studio between 1934 and 1959.

<i>Space Ship Sappy</i>

Space Ship Sappy is a 1957 short subject directed by Jules White starring American slapstick comedy team The Three Stooges. It is the 178th entry in the series released by Columbia Pictures starring the comedians, who released 190 shorts for the studio between 1934 and 1959.

<i>Scheming Schemers</i>

Scheming Schemers is a 1956 short subject directed by Jules White starring American slapstick comedy team The Three Stooges. It is the 173rd entry in the series released by Columbia Pictures starring the comedians, who released 190 shorts for the studio between 1934 and 1959.

<i>Hot Stuff</i> (1956 film)

Hot Stuff is a 1956 short subject directed by Jules White starring American slapstick comedy team The Three Stooges. It is the 172nd entry in the series released by Columbia Pictures starring the comedians, who released 190 shorts for the studio between 1934 and 1959.

<i>Sweet and Hot</i>

Sweet and Hot is a 1958 short subject directed by Jules White starring American slapstick comedy team The Three Stooges. It is the 186th entry in the series released by Columbia Pictures starring the comedians, who released 190 shorts for the studio between 1934 and 1959.

<i>Outer Space Jitters</i>

Outer Space Jitters is a 1957 short subject directed by Jules White starring American slapstick comedy team The Three Stooges. It is the 182nd entry in the series released by Columbia Pictures starring the comedians, who released 190 shorts for the studio between 1934 and 1959.

<i>Horsing Around</i>

Horsing Around is a 1957 short subject directed by Jules White starring American slapstick comedy team The Three Stooges. It is the 180th entry in the series released by Columbia Pictures starring the comedians, who released 190 shorts for the studio between 1934 and 1959.

<i>Cuckoo on a Choo Choo</i>

Cuckoo on a Choo Choo is a 1952 short subject directed by Jules White starring American slapstick comedy team The Three Stooges. It is the 143rd entry in the series released by Columbia Pictures starring the comedians, who released 190 shorts for the studio between 1934 and 1959.

<i>The Three Stooges</i> (2000 film)

The Three Stooges is an American biographical television film about the slapstick comedy team The Three Stooges directed by James Frawley. This television film was entirely shot in Sydney, Australia. It was broadcast on ABC on April 24, 2000.

References

  1. http://0-persi.heritagequestonline.com.iii.slcl.org/hqoweb/library/do/census/results/image?surname=besser&givenname=joseph&series=14&state=5&hitcount=2&p=1&urn=urn%3Aproquest%3AUS%3Bcensus%3B14842165%3B105172537%3B14%3B5&searchtype=1&offset=0
  2. Life Magazine May 27, 1946
  3. Okuda, Ted; Watz, Edward (1986). The Columbia Comedy Shorts. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. pp. 60–102, 237–239. ISBN   0-89950-181-8.
  4. Feinberg, Morris Moe; G. P. Skratz (1984). My Brother Larry: The Stooge in the Middle. San Francisco: Last Gasp. p. 165, 168. ISBN   978-0-86719-324-4.
  5. Maurer, Joan Howard; Jeff Lenburg; Greg Lenburg (2012) [1982]. The Three Stooges Scrapbook. Citadel Press. p. 97. ISBN   978-1-61374-074-3.
  6. Lassin, Gary (2014). Lassin, Gary (ed.). "Three Stooges on Tour, The: 1957 - "Say It Ain't So, Joe," The Besser Appearance That Wasn't". The Three Stooges Journal. Spring 2014 (149): 8–9. Retrieved March 23, 2020.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Besser, Joe; Jeff Lenburg; Greg Lenburg (1984). Not Just a Stooge. Orange, California: Excelsior Books. pp. 200–201, 203–205. ISBN   978-0918283009.
  8. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1988/03/03/three-stooges-actor-joe-besser-dies-at-age-80/45f229e2-31a4-422a-8cb8-7ba75f9739e8/
  9. "A Couple of Stooges, episode #9 of Who Charted? on Earwolf". www.earwolf.com. Retrieved October 7, 2018.
  10. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1988/03/03/three-stooges-actor-joe-besser-dies-at-age-80/45f229e2-31a4-422a-8cb8-7ba75f9739e8/

Further reading