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. 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.
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". 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". 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.
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. 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 praised Moe and Larry.
While Joe Besser was a great character actor, his stint as a Stooge was largely forgettable. He died on March 1. 1988 - a forgotten footnote in Stooge history...