Joe DeRita (July 12, 1909 – July 3, 1993), born Joseph Wardell, was an American comedian who is best known as Curly-Joe DeRita, the "sixth" member of the Three Stooges. DeRita was born into a show-business family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Wardell's father was a stage technician, his mother a professional stage dancer, and the three often acted on stage together from his early childhood. Taking his mother's maiden name, DeRita (Portuguese), the actor joined the burlesque circuit during the 1920s, gaining fame as a comedian. During World War II, DeRita joined the USO, performing through Britain and France with such celebrities as Bing Crosby and Randolph Scott.
Career with The Three Stooges
The Three Stooges (Curly Howard, Larry Fine, and Moe Howard) had been making short comedies for Columbia Pictures since 1934. Curly suffered a stroke in 1946, forcing him to retire; his brother Shemp Howard, the original third Stooge before leaving the act in 1932 for a solo career, only wanted to be a temporary replacement. Joe DeRita was also making short slapstick shorts until 1948. (DeRita's own short-subject contract was not renewed.) DeRita returned to burlesque thereafter, and in the 1950s he recorded a risque LP called "Burlesque Uncensored".
Shemp Howard died in 1955. There have been rumors that Moe and Larry tried to contact some comedians (including Mantan Moreland and Mousie Garner, Buddy Hackett, Bert Lahr and Joe Derita to replace Shemp as the third Stooge. There is no real evidence for this. Joe Besser under contract with Columbia at the time was suggested by Jules White and approved of by Moe to become a part of the Three Stooges at the end of December 1955. Joe Derita explains in a later interview stated that he did not first hear from Moe about joining the Three Stooges until August 1958. He had been working in Burlesque from the mid 1950s until the spring of 1958.
Columbia shut down the short-subjects department at the end of 1957, and Besser quit the act to take care of his ailing wife. Joe Derita officially became a new "third stooge" in September 1958 after he met with Moe and Larry and his agent..
When he first joined the act in 1958, Joe wore his hair in a style similar to Shemp Howard. However, with television's restored popularity of the Three Stooges shorts featuring Curly Howard, it was suggested that Joe shave his head in order to look more like "Curly". Because of his physical resemblance to both Curly and Joe Besser, and to avoid confusion with his predecessors, DeRita was renamed Curly Joe.
The team embarked on a new series of theatrical Three Stooges films, including Have Rocket, Will Travel and Snow White and the Three Stooges. Aimed primarily at children, these films rarely reached the same comedic heights as their shorts. (Moe and Larry's advanced ages, plus pressure from the PTA and other children's advocates, led to the toning-down of the trio's trademark violent slapstick.) While DeRita's physical appearance was reminiscent of the original "Curly," his characterization was milder, and not as manic or surreal. Curly-Joe also showed a bit more backbone, even occasionally talking back to Moe, calling him "buddy boy".
Through the 1960s, DeRita remained a member of the team, participating in animated cartoons (with live-action introductions) and a failed television pilot titled Kook's Tour. However, Larry Fine suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1970, putting all new Stooges-related material on hold. Emil Sitka was named as "the middle stooge", but never got to perform with the team. Before Moe's death in 1975, the Stooges (with Emil Sitka taking on the role as the middle stooge) had planned to film an R-rated movie called The Jet Set (later produced with the surviving members of the Ritz Brothers and released as Blazing Stewardesses).
In the 1974, DeRita attempted to form a truly "new" Three Stooges. He recruited burlesque and vaudeville veterans Mousie Garner and Frank Mitchell to replace Moe and Larry for nightclub engagements in 1974. But, the act shortly disbanded after Joe suffered diabetes and nearly lost his sight.
On July 3, 1993, DeRita died of pneumonia at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California at the age of 83, the longest living of all 6 stooges. He was buried in the Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery in North Hollywood; his epitaph reads "The Last Stooge" 9 days just before his 84th birthday on Monday July 12. 1993
Derita has gone on record in stating that he did not find The Three Stooges brand of comedy that funny, but also stated his amazing amount of respect for the group.