Besser was born in St. Louis, Missouri, making him the only Stooge member not born on the East Coast. He was 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, 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 his town annually. When Joe was 12, Thurston allowed him to play an audience plant (as in "stooge"). 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.
Began to acting
Besser remained in show business and developed a unique comic character: a whiny sissy who flew into temper tantrums with his painfull whimpers . Besser, with his frequent outbursts of "You crazy, youuuuu!" and "Not so faaaaaast!," was so original and so outrageously silly that he became a vaudeville headliner, and movie and radio appearances soon followed.
In 1932, Besser married dancer Erna Kay (born Ernestine Dora Kretschmer), known as "Ernie". They were neighbors and friends of Lou Costello, of Abbott and Costello fame. In 1949, Besser appeared in one of Abbott and Costello's movies, Africa Screams, which also featured Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges. Joe and Shemp were old friends, having met in 1932.
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 the anything-can-happen O & J 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. During this period he appeared on the Jack Benny radio program in the episode entitled "Jack Prepares For Carnagie Hall". 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.
In 1950 he appeared in the action film The Desert Hawk.
Besser had substituted for Lou Costello on radio, opposite Bud Abbott, and by the 1950s he was firmly established as one of the A & C regulars. When Bud and Lou filmed The Abbott and Costello Show for television, they hired Joe Besser to play "Stinky," 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. In 1953, Joe was cast for the role of Yonkel, a chariot man in the biblical low-budget film Sins of Jezebel which starred Paulette Goddard as the titular wicked queen.
The Three Stooges years
After Shemp Howard died of a sudden heart attack on November 22, 1955, at the age of 60 his brother Moe suggested that he and his teammate Larry Fine continue working as "The Two Stooges". Studio chief Harry Cohn rejected the proposal. Although Moe had legal approval to allow new members into the act, Columbia executives had 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 (early 1956), 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).
Joe 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 (one that would be rescinded later on), insisting that his humor was more about comedic revenge for being bullied. (He usually reacted to Moe's anger by wimpily hitting Moe's shoulder and complaining. "Not so harrrrd!") 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 Entertainment" episode 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 less-than-staged slaps. (Larry Fine's daughter attributes this, plus scars to the comic's left hand, to a chemical spill that occurred when Larry was a child.)
"Stooge-a-polooza" TV host Rich Koz has even apologized on the air before showing Besser shorts, as during the show's tenure he had gotten more than a fair share of emails and letters from fans expressing their outrage over his airing them. Third-stooge Joe does have his defenders—Koz himself once hosted an episode featuring only Besser shorts, and Columbia historians Ted Okuda and Edward Watz have written appreciatively of Besser bringing new energy to what was by then a flagging theatrical series.
Besser was a Stooge 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.
Moe Howard and Larry Fine discussed plans to tour with a live act, 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 honorably called his Stooges shorts "The Two Stooges featuring Joe Besser" and 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...
Moe Howard, however, was much less charitable when talking about Besser, calling him "a prissy little snot with a star ego" and "a pain."
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, and the voice of Babu the genie in Jeannie, an animated version of I Dream of Jeannie. He also made occasional appearances on the ABC late-night series, also called The Joey Bishop Show between 1967 and 1969. Besser also voiced the character Putty Puss on the DePatie-Freleng cartoon series The Houndcats in 1972. He appeared on the NBC variety show, Club Oasis in the 1957-1958 season.
Later in life, Besser expressed some dismay that fans only recognized him for his brief tenure with the Stooges. His autobiography title, Not Just a Stooge, bears this out. However, he eventually softened, realizing that the Stooges continued to bring him his greatest exposure. As such, the book would later be retitled as by his publisher, and remarketed to emphasize the Stooge connection.
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 on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on August 30, 1983. He was the only official Stooge to speak at the event, as Joe DeRita was ill at the time, although he outlived Besser by five years. Stooge supporting player Emil Sitka also appeared at the dedication.
In the spring of 2000, ABC aired a made-for-television movie about the Stooges, with actor Laurence Coy appearing briefly as Joe Besser. This portrayal drew criticism from fans as it portrays Besser as mean and arrogant, while there was much more respect between him, Moe and Larry in reality.
Joe's Picture In Rusty Romeos
Joe Besser died of heart failure on March 1, 1988. His wife Erna died on July 1, 1989, from a heart attack at age 80, the second longest living member of all the stooges after Joe DeRita who died at the age of 83. Both spouses are buried in the same plot in Glendale's Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery.