Emil Sitka was an actor in Hollywood for over forty years who played hundreds of roles on stage in theater, on television, and in the movies. You may not recognize his name but if you’ve ever watched The Three Stooges, chances are very good you have seen him perform.
Emil appeared in dozens of Three Stooges comedy shorts, as well as most of their feature films and TV shows, always playing different characters to contrast with and set up the Stooges humor. Emil is one of very few actors who worked with all four versions of The Three Stooges. Starting with original Stooges Larry, Moe and Curly in 1946, Emil appeared frequently during the Shemp years and the Besser period and then continued to show up throughout the De Rita era.
Emil even came very close to joining the team as a Stooge himself in the early 1970’s when Moe wanted to carry on with the act. By this time, Larry’s health had forced him to retire so Moe asked Emil to join the group as Larry’s replacement. Unfortunately, Moe’s own health issues prevented them from ever filming the “fifth set of The Three Stooges” in action (see below).
For decades after the last Three Stooge film images were recorded, Emil contributed to the legacy of the Three Stooges by representing them at numerous events and conventions. He gave frequent interviews and corresponded with literally thousands of Stooge fans. He assisted with efforts to put their star on the Hollywood Walk-of-Fame, and he contributed to quite a few notable Stooge books and video retrospectives. Up until his passing in 1998, he was fond of entertaining Three Stooges fans from out of town and welcomed them into his home. Emil Sitka was proud of his work with the comic trio, and he truly appreciated being a “small footnote in the history of the Three Stooges.”
For this long close association with the men, the films, and the legend of The Three Stooges, Emil Sitka has occasionally been called “The Fourth Stooge.” It has a nice ring to it, so it’s been adopted here as our official slogan…
Joe DeRita’s real name was Joseph Wardell. He was born July 12, 1909 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Joe was the only one of the Stooges to come from a show biz family. His mother, Florenz DeRita, was a dancer and his father, Frank Wardell, was a stage technician. Joe was in show business from the age of seven. Joe’s roles included the title role in the stage version of “Peck’s Bad Boy” with his mother and father.
In 1921 Joe went into burlesque because vaudeville was just about gone. Joe’s film debut was in “The Doughgirls” in 1944 with Ann Sheridan for Warner Brothers. During the war, Joe worked with the USO and traveled extensively overseas with many Hollywood stars including his friend, Randolph Scott. He made several tours with Bing Crosby to entertain servicemen in England and France. After the war, Joe made guest appearances on radio shows including Burns & Allen and guest appearances in films and television shows such as The Desilu Playhouse, This is Alice, and Bachelor Father.
Joe appeared in Columbia shorts such as “Slappily Married” and “The Good Bad Egg,” these shorts featured some of the same supporting actors who were in the Stooge Shorts. In 1958 the Columbia short subjects department was disbanded, and The Three Stooges no longer had a contract with Columbia.
Joe Besser did not want to travel with the act so Moe and Larry needed a third stooge. Joe DeRita was asked to join the act, and at this time the Stooges formed Comedy III Productions, Inc., a company which still holds The Three Stooges rights and manages their affairs.
In 1958 Columbia released the old Three Stooges shorts to television and there was an immediate resurgence of popularity of the Stooges. The Stooges with Curly Joe as the third Stooge made numerous personal appearances all around the country and made six full length feature motion pictures. This period of time from 1958 and throughout the 60′s was described by Larry Fine as the Stooges’ golden years. While filming “Kook’s Tour” in 1970 Larry suffered a stroke which left him paralyzed on the left side of his body. There was some talk of replacing Larry with Emil Sitka, but The Three Stooges never performed together again.
Curly Joe formed an act called The New Three Stooges with Mousie Garner and Frank Mitchell, but the act only made a few appearances. Joe was just too old to do the Stooge shtick anymore. Curly-Joe married Jean DeRita in 1966 and they were married 25 years until his death. Joe DeRita died on July 3, 1993 at the Motion Picture Hospital in Los Angeles. He was the last stooge.
After Shemp Howard died in 1955, the Stooges replaced him with Joe Besser. Joe Besser was born in Saint Louis, Missouri on August 12, 1907 to Fannie and Morris Besser. His parents were Orthodox Jews and moved to the United States from Poland in 1895 where Morris worked as a baker.
By 1928 he was well on his way to being a solo comedian. While on tour he was introduced to Erna Dora Kretschmer (Erna Kay) whom he married on November 18, 1932. Erna Kay served as a choreographer on the 1929 Paramount film “The Coconuts,” which featured the Marx Brothers. Around 1940, Joe took Columbia Pictures contractee Jimmy Little on tour as his straight man. Soon Joe became a headliner on the Orpheum, RKO, Paramount, and Loew’s theater circuits. He also appeared on the Broadway stage.
Eventually Columbia Pictures signed Joe to an exclusive contract and cast him in features and Comedy two reelers. Slowly making his climb to stardom, radio comedians like Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Eddie Cantor, and Milton Berle were all clamoring to have him on their shows. Besser made frequent appearances on the Jack Benny Show, The Fred Allen Show, The Eddie Cantor Show, Tonight on Broadway, The Vaughan Monroe Show, and from 1945 to 1949 he played with Milton Berle on Let Yourself Go.
Besser made many comedy shorts for Columbia before joining The Three Stooges in 1956. Joe left the Stooges in 1958 and went on to star in feature films and had a successful television career. On March 1, 1988, Joe passed away in his North Hollywood home of heart failure. Fourteen months later, his wife Erna died on July 1, 1989.
Shemp was born Samuel Horwitz in Brooklyn, New York on March 17, 1895. He acquired the name “Shemp” when his mother, with her broad European accent, would call him “Sam,” which sounded like “Shemp.” Shemp graduated from P.S. 163 in Brooklyn. Shemp enrolled along with Moe at the Baron De Hirsch Trade School in New York where Shemp took up plumbing and Moe studied to be an electrician.
Shemp, like his brother Moe, had ambitions to be an entertainer. Shemp worked with his brother Moe in various amateur and vaudeville acts until 1922 when a former school mate and vaudeville comedian, Ted Healy, was playing at the Brooklyn prospect theater and needed a replacement in his current act. Moe and Shemp joined the act. In 1925 Shemp married Gertrude “Babe” Frank. She gave birth to a son, Morton, in 1927.
In that same year Larry joined Moe and Shemp with Ted Healy. In 1930, Shemp went with Healy and Moe and Larry to co-star in “Soup to Nuts.” A short time later, Healy left the JJ Shubert Broadway review, taking Moe and Larry with him. Shemp decided to stay with the show. On his own, Shemp went on to star in countless comedies for Vitaphone in 1932, and he later played the role of Knobby Walsh in the Joe Palooka series. Shemp did feature film roles at RKO, MGM, and Monogram.
In the 1940′s he was given numerous roles in such Universal films as “Buck Privates,” “The Bank Dick,” and “Hellzapoppin!” After Curly had to leave the act because of his illness, Shemp become one of The Three Stooges. Shemp not only made 77 Stooge shorts, but also a feature film, “Gold Raiders” (1951). Shemp also appeared in the TV pilot “Jerks of All Trades.”
On November 23, 1955, Shemp went out with his friends to a boxing match at the Hollywood Legion Stadium. After the fights were over, Shemp hailed a taxicab to take him to his North Hollywood home with friend Al Winston. Shemp set back and lit up his cigar. Suddenly he slumped over into Winston’s lap. Shemp had a heart attack and was dead at the age of 60.