Joe Besser (August 12, 1907 – March 1, 1988) was an American comedian, 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 spoiled impish bratty overgrown man-child in The Abbott and Costello Show, and Jillson, the maintenance man in The Joey Bishop Show.
Besser was born in St. Louis, Missouri. He was the ninth child of Morris and Fanny Besser, who were 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. Besser was placed by St. Louis juvenile authorities in a "corrective school" (reform school) at age 12.
Besser remained in show business and developed a unique comic character: a whiny, bratty, impish guy who was easily excitable and upset, throwing temper tantrums with little provocation. Besser, with his frequent outbursts of "You crazy, youuuuu!" and "Not so faaaaaast!" or "Not so harrrrd!!" was so original and so outrageously silly that he became a vaudeville headliner, and movie and radio appearances soon followed.
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 likeHey, Rookie and Eadie Was a Lady. On May 9, 1946 Besser appeared on the pioneer NBC television program Hour Glass (TV series), performing his classic "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". 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 Tunesanimated 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 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. In 1953, Joe was cast for the role of Yonkel, a chariot man in the low-budget biblical film Sins of Jezebel which starred Paulette Goddard as the titular wicked queen.
The Three Stooges: Joe, Larry, and Moe
After Shemp Howard died of a heart attack on November 22, 1955, 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 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 (end of 1955), 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. (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.)
As a result of his whiny persona and lack of due slapstick punishment against him (the cornerstone of Stooge humor), Joe has been less popular with contemporary Stooge fans, 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 fans expressing their outrage over his airing them. Third-stooge Joe does have his defenders, however: 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.
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 in a 1985 radio interview, of which a quote from said interview was aired on A&E Network's Biography. Besser said:
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 inJeannie, 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.
Several online sources indicate Besser was approached for the role of "Irwin," one of the gas station attendants at war with Jonathan Winters, in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World"; however, his schedule requirements for "The Joey Bishop Show" prevented this, and Marvin Kaplan played the role.
Later in life, Besser expressed some dismay that fans only recognized him for his brief tenure with the Stooges. However, he eventually softened, realizing that the Stooges continued to bring him his greatest exposure.
In 1984, Besser co-wrote with authors Jeff and Greg Lenburg his autobiography, Not Just a Stooge, for Excelsior Books. The book would be later retitled and re-published as Once a Stooge, Always a Stooge following his death in 1988.
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 to The Three Stooges on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on August 30, 1983. Stooges co-actor Emil Sitka also spoke; the only other surviving Stooge, Joe DeRita, was ill at the time (though he would outlive Besser by five years).
In the spring of 2000, ABC aired a made-for-television movie about the Stooges, with actor Laurence Coy appearing briefly as Joe Besser.
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 the Abbott and Costello movie Africa Screams, which also featured Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges. Joe and Shemp were old friends, having met in 1932. His cousin's grandson is Upright Citizens Brigade theater co-founder and improviser/comedian Matt Besser.
Joe Besser died of heart failure on March 1, 1988. His wife Erna died on July 1, 1989, from a heart attack at age 89. Both spouses are buried in the same plot in Glendale's Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery. The couple had no children.