He was the tallest of all the stooges, at 5'6", and dying at the age of 60, he is also the second shortest living stooge after his younger brother Curly who died at the age of 48, making them the only stooges who did not live up to the age of 70.
Shemp, like his brothers Moe and Curly, was born in Brownsville, Brooklyn. He was the third of the five Horwitz brothers and of Levite and Lithuanian Jewish ancestry. In September 1925, Shemp (age 30) married Gertrude Frank (age 28), a fellow New Yorker. They had one child, Morton (1926–1972). (U.S. Representative Barney Frank is the son of Gertrude's cousin, Sam Frank.)
Shemp used his somewhat homely appearance for comic effect, often mugging grotesquely or allowing his hair to fall in disarray. He even played along with a publicity stunt that named him "The Ugliest Man in Hollywood." ("I'm hideous," he explained to reporters.) Notoriously phobic, his fears included airplanes, automobiles, dogs and water. According to Moe's autobiography, Shemp was involved in a driving accident as a teenager and thus never obtained a driver's license.
Moe Howard entered show business as a youngster, on stage and in films. By the 1920s he was part of a roughhouse act with vaudeville star Ted Healy. One day Moe spotted his brother Shemp in the audience, and yelled at him from the stage. Quick-witted Shemp yelled right back, and walked onto the stage. From then on, Shemp was part of the act, usually known as "Ted Healy and His Stooges." On stage, Healy would sing and tell jokes while his three noisy stooges would get in his way. Healy would retaliate with physical and verbal abuse. Healy's original stooges were the Howard brothers and Larry Fine. Shemp played a bumbling fireman in the Stooges' first film, Soup to Nuts, the only film in which he plays one of Healy's gang.
Healy was always the main attraction of the act, and his stooges were in constant disagreement with him over billing, money, and management. Tired of Healy's shenanigans, Shemp left Healy's act in 1932 to pursue a solo film career.
Shemp Howard, like many New York-based performers, found work at the Vitaphone studio in Brooklyn. Originally playing bit roles in Vitaphone's Roscoe Arbuckle comedies, showing off his goofy appearance, he was entrusted with speaking roles and supporting parts almost immediately. He was featured with Vitaphone comics Jack Haley, Ben Blue, and Gus Shy, then co-starred with Harry Gribbon, Daphne Pollard, and Johnnie Berkes, and finally starred in his own two-reel comedies. (A 1934 Gribbon-Howard short, Art Trouble, also featured the then unknown James Stewart in his first film role). Shemp would seldom stick to the script, and would liven up a scene with ad-libbed, incidental dialogue or wisecracks. This became a trademark of his performances. Late 1935 Vitaphone licensed rights to produce short comedies based on the "Joe Palooka" comic strip. Shemp was cast as "Knobby Walsh" and although he was only a supporting character, Shemp became the comic focus of the series, with Johnny Berkes and Lee Weber as his foils. Shemp costarred in the first 7 shorts, released during 1936 and 1937; 9 were produced all together, with the last 2 done after Shemp left Vitaphone to move to greener pastures on the West Coast.
Away from Vitaphone he attempted, unsuccessfully, to lead his own group of "stooges" in the Van Beuren musical comedy short The Knife of the Party. Otherwise, Shemp Howard's solo career was very successful. He followed his brothers' lead, moved to the west coast in 1937, and picked up supporting actor roles at several studios, predominantly at Columbia Pictures and Universal Studios. He performed with such comic greats as W. C. Fields with whom he played the bartender in the 1940 film, The Bank Dick, and the comedy team Abbott and Costello, who would reportedly trim his scene-stealing material. He also lent comic relief to Charlie Chan and The Thin Man murder mysteries, and was in several Universal B-musicals of the early 1940s, among them Strictly in the Groove, How's About It?, Moonlight and Cactus, and San Antonio Rose, in which he is paired with Lon Chaney, Jr. as a faux Abbott and Costello. In most of these, his improvisational skills are highlighted. He was briefly teamed with comedians Billy Gilbert and Maxie Rosenbloom for three B-comedy features in 1944-45. He also played a few dramatic parts, such as his supporting role in Pittsburgh (1942) starring Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne.
The Three Stooges: 1946-1955
From 1939 onwards, Shemp appeared frequently in Columbia's two-reel comedies, co-starring with Columbia regulars Andy Clyde, The Glove Slingers, El Brendel, and Tom Kennedy. Howard was given his own starring series in 1944; he was working for Columbia in this capacity when his brother Curly was felled by a debilitating stroke on May 6, 1946. Shemp reluctantly replaced Curly in Columbia's popular Stooge shorts, knowing that Moe and Larry would be out of work if he refused. Initially, Shemp rejoined the Stooges on a temporary basis until Curly recovered, but as Curly's condition worsened, it became apparent that Shemp's association with the Stooges would be permanent. (Prior to replacing Curly on film, Shemp had substituted for his brother in some personal appearances in the early 1940s.)
Shemp's take as the third Stooge was much different from Curly's. While he could still roll with the punches as the recipient of Moe's slapstick abuse, he was more of a laid-back dimwit versus Curly's energetic man-child persona. And unlike Curly, who had many distinct mannerisms, Shemp's most notable characteristic as a Stooge was a high-pitched "heep-heep-heep!" sound, a sort of soft screech done by inhaling. This was rather multi-purpose, as Shemp uttered this sound when scared, sleeping, overtly happy, or dazed.
Shemp appeared with Moe and Larry in 73 short subjects and the feature film Gold Raiders. Like both Curly before him and Larry decades later, Shemp suffered a mild stroke in November 1952, possibly a cumulative effect of countless blows to the head, though he recovered from it within weeks and without noticeable effect on his remaining films with the Stooges, which were largely remakes of earlier films that recycled footage to reduce costs. Some fans, however, contend that in these later cheapies, Shemp looks weak, pale, and even disoriented, similar to many of Curly's later appearances.
On November 22, 1955, while returning home by taxicab from attending a boxing match (one of Shemp's favorite pastimes), Shemp died of a massive heart attack. Shemp was lighting a cigar after telling a joke when he suddenly slumped over on his friend Al Winston's lap. Al thought Shemp was clowning around, but soon realized that Shemp was actually dead. Moe's autobiography states that Shemp died on November 23, 1955 and most subsequent accounts point to that date due to Moe's book. But much of Moe's book was finished posthumously by his daughter and son-in-law, and some specific details were confused as a result. The Los Angeles county coroner death certificate states that Shemp Howard died on Tuesday November 22, 1955 at 11:35 PST; confirming that, Shemp's obituary appeared in the November 23 afternoon editions of L.A. newspapers, establishing the night of November 22 as the date of death. He was entombed at Home of Peace Cemetery in East Los Angeles, the same place his brother, Curly, was buried.
"Fake Shemp"Columbia had promised exhibitors eight Three Stooges comedies for 1956, but only four were completed when Shemp died. To fulfill the contract, producer Jules White manufactured four more shorts by reusing old footage of Shemp and filming new connecting scenes with a double (longtime Stooge supporting actor Joe Palma), seen mostly from the back.
The re-edited films range from clever to blatantly patchy, and Stooge fans often dismiss them as second-rate. Rumpus in the Harem borrows from Malice in the Palace, Hot Stuff from Fuelin' Around, Commotion on the Ocean from Dunked in the Deep. The best (and most technically accomplished) is Scheming Schemers, combining new footage with recycled clips from three old Stooge shorts: A Plumbing We Will Go, Half-Wits Holiday, and Vagabond Loafers.
When it was time to renew the Stooges' contract, Columbia hired comedian Joe Besser to replace Shemp. After 16 films, Columbia replaced Joe by (in a sense) bringing back Shemp: Columbia kept the series going into the 1960s by reissuing Shemp's Stooge comedies. Thus, Shemp Howard remained a popular movie star for more than a decade after his death.
Director Sam Raimi and his childhood friend actor Bruce Campbell refer to body doubles and stand-ins as "Shemps" or "Fake Shemps" in reference to the postmortem Stooges shorts.
In a 2000 TV-movie, Shemp was portrayed by John Kassir, who donned a floppy, straight-haired wig to portray the comic.