The Real Shemp
Born Samuel Horwitz, he was nicknamed Shemp because that’s what Sam sounded like with his mother’s thick Latvian accent. He was one of the original 3 Stooges on vaudeville, along with his younger brother Moe and Larry Fine. Back then they were sidekicks to Ted Healy (who later appeared in many of their shorts) and were known as ‘Healy’s Stooges’. Tired of Healy’s low-and-late payments, Shemp left the act in 1932 to pursue a solo career, and was replaced by kid brother Curly.
Shemp’s career took off. He worked with Fatty Arbuckle during his (brief) comeback, and quickly became known for his witty ad-libs. By 1940, he was a go-to character actor comedian (the Paul Rudd of his day?), appearing in W.C. Fields The Bank Dick and several Abbott and Costello, Charlie Chan and Thin Man films. He also tried his hand at drama, co-starring in Pittsburgh with John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich.
The Bank Dick (Shemp sighting at 3:40). Ah, the good old days, when alcoholism was hilarious! In a strange, unforeseen synchronism, W.C. mentions Fatty Arbuckle! And slams absinthe!
It’s laughs ahoy with Abott and Costello, In The Navy!
In the 40s, he had his own series of shorts. Some highlights:
Clowning around with baseball greats Daffy and Dizzy Dean
Mr. Noisy, a shot-for-shot remake of Charley Chase’s The Heckler
Pleased to Mitt You
Fun fact: in September 1925, Shemp (age 30) married Gertrude Frank (age 28), a fellow New Yorker. Congressman Barney Frank is the son of Gertrude’s cousin, Sam Frank. Coincidence? You tell me…
In 1946, Curly had a stroke and Shemp, knowing his brothers would be out of work if he didn’t help them out, essentially gave up his own career to rejoin the Stooges. He went on to film 76 shorts with the Stooges.
The Fake Shemp
In 1955, in a cab on his way back from a prize fight, Shemp lit a cigar, told a joke and died of a heart attack. 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.
The collected works of Fake Shemp (Joe Palma)
The New Shemps
The director Sam Raimi (Evil Dead trilogy, Spider-Man) brought the term Fake Shemp or simply, “Shemp,” into modern usage, meaning someone who appears in a film under heavy make-up, filmed from the back, or perhaps only showing an arm or a foot. According to frequent Raimi collaborator actor Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead, Burn Notice):
“We were all big fans of The Three Stooges growing up (Sam Raimi, filmmaker friend Scott Spiegel and myself)…The double(s) they used [for Shemp] were often the wrong height/weight and lacked in the true Shemp mannerisms. Even in high school (in the mid-70’s), distracted by commercials, eating bowls of Captain Crunch, we could tell whenever the obviously fake Shemp made his appearances – which is in about 3 or 4 shorts – and we were amused to no end.
We then began to use the term ‘Fake Shemp’ for a any actor (in our early Super-8 flicks) who didn’t have any lines, or was doubling for another actor or who was just way in the background doing ridiculous things. This happened a lot when you couldn’t pay an actor to stay around.
So, in the first Evil Dead film, we decided to designate Fake Shemps as an official credit category. The names listed were people who we shot ‘parts’ of – a hand, a foot, someone under heavy make-up, etc. It seemed to be handy, since films (particularly low-budget ones) are usually pieced together in many different ways over a long period of time.
It became an expanded term – “What are you doing on Saturday night?” “Nothing, I’m just shemping.” “Let’s go shemp around somewhere,” “What’s the guy like, is he an idiot?” “Nah, he’s just a shemp,’ meaning he’s no big deal. “Did you have a good time?” “It was sort of a shemp time, we didn’t really do anything.” So the term became synonymous with things that aren’t substantial, or are fake, or whatever. We’ve been trying to spread it on different film shoots out here, and it works well, cause you can go, “Ah, shemp that thing over about a foot,” or whatever.”
Today, fans of Raimi, Spiegel and Campbell refer to them as “The Shemps”.
Here’s a classic scene from Evil Dead 3, in which Bruce does his best Shemp impersonation:
Why not use the term today in casual conversation, and amaze your friends? Me, I’ll just be shemping around…