Friday, July 26, 2019

JOE BESSER: THE WORST STOOGE

Actor Joe Besser had a long career as a character actor in Hollywood. He was known for his impish humor and wimpy characters. He is best known for his brief stint as a member of the Three Stooges in movie 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. Even though it is just my opinion. Joe Besser never really fit in as a Stooge, and I believe he was the worst Stooge of all of them.

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...



24 comments:

  1. While Joe being under contract to Columbia was a factor, Moe claimed in his autobiography that he and Larry went after Joe DeRita first but because he was doing a show in Vegas the producers refused to release him from his contract. Needing someone else they decided to go to Joe. Joe was friends with the Shemp in real life and Jules White, the producer thought his childlike mannerisms was similar to Curly's.

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  2. I disagree with the title of this article. Joe Besser was my favorite stooge after Curly.
    Just like Curly, I felt the same way for Joe Besser. I really loved Joe, I couldn't wait to see him too. He was Hysterical.

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    1. Me too...some of my favorite 3 Stooges shorts were the hokiest ones with Joe Besser in them.

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    2. I've been watching the Stooges since the mid 70's. Out of the 6 different Stooges, I'd put Joe somewhere in the middle. His character had a unique persona, which after all these years I have a new appreciation for.

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    3. Agreed. I love Joe Besser as one of the Stooges, but especially as "Stinky" on the 1st season of the Abbott and Costello. show.

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    4. You're out of your mind

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  3. Curly was a tough act to follow yet both Shemp and later Joe were both great comedic actors as replacement 3rd stooges. However each of them made 1 or 2 shorts that were rather lame. IMHO worst of Shemp was Cuckoo In The Choo Choo & Joe's worst was dead sister reincarnated as a horse. Yet both of them also did did some good post-Curly stuff. Brideless Groom (Shemp) & A Merry Mix-Up (Joe) both good comedy classics! ☺

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  4. I thought Joe was underrated as a Stooge.I also felt Shemp was funnier than Curly.My favorite was Larry.Just my opinion.

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    1. Many people feel differently Curly was the funniest

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  5. Joe Besser the worst stooge? Compared to Curly Joe DeRita,Besser was a comic genius! DeRita was a bland,low-key,barely memorable stooge!

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  6. Curly was the replacement for Shemp who is a original.

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    1. Shemp left because he didn't like Ted Healy

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  7. Joe Besser was one of my favorite Stooges and character actors. I think your title is a grossly demeaning one.

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    1. Nah the titles fine, if it walks like the worst stooge and talks like the worst stooges, its the worst stooge

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  8. Anybody who places Joe Besser as anything but the worst Stooge isn't a true Stooge fan.

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  9. Joe Besser and Curly Joe both sucked donkey balls.

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  10. I remember as a kid on Saturdays at the movie theater (1960s & 70s) they would show a 3 Stooges short before the movie. Whenever they'd show one with Joe Besser, everyone in the theater would boo real loud. I never met a Stooges fan that cared for him. He was NOT funny. He was annoying and a big whiny fairy.

    I agree Joe DeRita sucked as well. He was boring and not funny at all.

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  11. While I agree that Joe definitely wasn't the best stooge. He at least added something new. Sure his whole immature cry baby act didn't fit well with the stooges but I can see where it would at least cause some laughs.

    I think the over all problem was how poorly written his shorts were. Like the weird one where the stooges' sister dies and becomes reincarnated into a horse and had a child...

    Curly Joe was the worst in my opinion because he didn't really add anything new to the table. Moe was the sadistic leader, Larry was the introverted reactor, Curly was the maniacal idiot, Shemp was the anxious dope and for better or worse, Joe was the whimpy nagger. Curly Joe was just bland.

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  12. Moe was the sadistic leader, Larry was the surreal reactor, Curly was the energetic idiot, Shemp was the anxious doofus, AND for better or worse, Joe was the immature nagger. Curly Joe was just bland and didn't add anything to the table. To me, he was the worse.

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  13. I think part of the problem was that the shorts themselves just were just not as funny. The ideas and premises were not as good as those in the earlier shorts with Shemp and Curly, probably because Columbia was getting ready to shut the shorts department down.

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  14. I never liked Shemp, Joe or Curly Joe. Whenever an episode with any of them came on, I would watch something else. Larry had his moments, but generally, I didn't find him funny...he was just there to fill the trio. Curly is my favorite with Moe just behind.

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  15. Well Joe Besser was not my favorite Stooge, but he wasn't the worst either. That award goes to Curly Joe Derita.
    My favorites in order are Moe,Curly, Larry, Joe and lastly Curly Joe.
    After Joe left in early 1958 they had last their mojo ) or should I say Moe-Joe). They were never as funny ever again. Some Curly Joe movies are just plain embarassing.
    I remember once reading about Joe dedicating a star on the Hollywood walk of Fame and he was indeed happy to have been a stooge and said he was proud of that fact. On the other hand Joe Derita was interviewed about the same time and all he had to say was that it was " just a job".

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