BESSER, who replaced Shemp Howard as the third Stooge in 1956 (not
1955), caught the attention of theater goers with his impish grin
and child like demeanor. He was certainly a comedian in his own right.
stooging began as a youngster growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, where
he was born on August 12, 1907, to Fanny and Morris Besser. His parents,
orthodox Jews, had moved to the United States from Poland in 1895
where Morris worked as a baker. Joe became the ninth child (two died
before his birth) in a family comprised of seven daughters: Rose,
Esther, Molly, Lilly, Gertrude, Florence, Henrietta, and an older
brother, Manny, who entered show business as a comedian and Jewish
became enthralled with magic and show business at an early age and
was encouraged by his parents. They might have thought twice about
this had they known their son would spend more time watching vaudeville
matinees than attending Glascoe Elementary School. Besser once remarked:
"I learned more in the theater than I did in school."
his age, Joe was a very independent and enterprising young man, working
as a Western Union delivery boy, a song- plugger for the Waterson,
Berlin and Synder sheet music store and as a distributor of handbills
for the Fox Theater Circuit in St. Louis. By age 13 Joe decided to
become a professional magician. His favorite magician was Howard Thurston
who appeared in St. Louis annually. Whenever Thurston was in town,
Joe eagerly went backstage to ask the world-renowned magician if he
could join his act. Each time Thurston replied, "When you get a little
bit older, we'll talk about it." Thurston gave Besser the same answer
for five years!
in 1920, the night Thurston's act closed in St. Louis, Joe watched
avidly as the stagehands loaded all the scenery and trunks into a
nearby freight train. Besser remembers: "I was so anxious to join
his act that I stowed away that night on the train with Thurston's
act on board, heading for Michigan. The following morning as the train
pulled into Detroit, Thurston and his manager found me fast asleep
on top of the lion's cage. They wired my folks to tell them where
I was and from that day on I was part of the act." On stage, Joe would
comically foil Thurston's feats of legerdemain. He would tip-toe in
from the audience and reach into Thurston's coat pocket, yanking out
trick flowers and other magic-shop props.
1923, once Besser discovered that comedy was his forte, he decided
to leave Thurston and went on to serve as magician's assistant to
Madame Herrman; six months later he became prop assistant to Queenie
DeNeenen, a circus tightrope performer. Eventually, Joe teamed with
several vaudeville acts, including the popular comedy team Alexandria
and Olsen. This was John Olsen, the brother of Chic from the comedy
team of Olsen and Johnson.
career was quickly finding a direction; his current pursuit, in 1928,
was that of a solo comedian. While on tour, he was introduced to an
Allan K. Foster dancer, Erna Dora Kretschmer (who shortened her name
to Erna Kay-then was nicknamed "Ernie"). They courted for four years
and were married on November l8, 1932. Ernie served as a choreographer
on the 1929 Paramount film The Coconuts, featuring the Marx Brothers.
1930, Joe toured the Keith Theater Circuit with a new act containing
two hilarious skits, "Wild Cat Duggan" and "Spanish Omelet." Sam Critcherson
(known on stage as Dick Dana) signed as Joe's first professional straight
man. By 1938, however, Besser broke in a new act with nightclub singer
Lee Royce, who sang a baritone rendition of "Ol' Man River." Then,
two years later, Besser took Columbia Pictures contractee Jimmy Little
on tour as his straight man. These acts weren't billed jointly, but
as "Joe Besser with An Added Attraction." Soon Besser became a headliner
on the Orpheum, RKO, Paramount and Loew's theater circuits. He also
appeared on the Broadway stage in two J.J. Shubert revues, The Passing
Show of 1932 and The Greenwich Village Follies. (In 1946, Besser returned
to Broadway in If the Shoe Fits, a Cinderella story.)
portrayal of an exasperated, whining child earned him a spot in Olsen
and Johnson's long-running Broadway Show Sons of Fun, and a chance
to spring his act on audiences everywhere. In times of mass confusion,
his retort was a simple wave of his hand and a sputtering assault
of such catch phrases as "Not so fast!" and "You crazy you!" He was
occasionally booked to bolster Fatty Arbuckle's personal appearance
tours (Arbuckle, before his untimely death, entertained thoughts of
starring Besser as his younger brother in a series of comedy shorts),
but Sons of Fun was the biggest break of his career.
was Columbia producer Irving Briskin and director Charles Barton who,
upon seeing Besser during Sons of Fun, urged the studio to sign him.
Barton recalls his initial reaction to Besser's antics: "I had never
seen anything so wild in my whole life. Irving's and my reactions
were `Get the little guy.... get him...` because he was so cute.
Pictures signed Besser to an exclusive contract and cast him in features
and comedy two reelers. He made his screen debut in a 1938 AllStar
Comedy short for Columbia, Cuckoorancho. His credits at Columbia include
Hey, Rookie! (1944) with Ann Miller and Larry Parks, and Eadie Was
a Lady (1945) and Talk About a Lady (1946) with Jinx Falkenburg.
Besser made his climb to stardom. Soon 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
(a summer replacement show in 1946), The Vaughan Monroe Show and,
from 1945 to 1949, as the delirious character, Mr. Know It All, on
Let Yourself Go, starring Milton Berle.
television debut came on Standard Brands' variety series, Hour Glass,
the first live, hour-long entertainment series of any kind produced
for network television. It aired on NBC, May 9, 1946. Besser stole
the opening with his hilarious military sketch, "The Rookie."
producers of the l950 then clamored for Besser casting him on Hollywood
House with Jim Backus, The Ken Murray Show, The Private Eyes (a never-shown
pilot which teamed Joe with Sheldon Leonard), Mr. District Attorney,
The Abbott and Costello Show (as a malevolent brat named "Stinky"
in 13 episodes), The Spike Jones Show, Alan Young's Saturday Night
Revue, My Favorite Story (as a Small-town Mayor in "No Tears") and
My Little Margie ("Vern's Butterflies").
also wowed audiences on such television programs as The Millionaire
(in "Harvey Blake," the premiere episode, which was directed by Stooge
alumnus Edward Bernds), The Martha Raye Show, The Damon Runyan Theater
("The Mink Doll"), I Married Joan, The Jack Benny Show (a record seven
appearances, his most memorable being with Tennessee Ernie Ford),
The Ray Milland Show, Private Secretary, The Dennis O'Keefe Show,
December Bride, Willy, and even The Gene Autry Show.
continued making his own comedy shorts for Columbia before joining
the Three Stooges in 1956. His series' straight man was Jim Hawthorne,
who went on to produce and narrate a series of television blackouts
called Jim Hawthorne's Funnyworld. Hawthorne has nothing but high
praise when speaking of Besser. He credits Joe with helping him develop
into a comedian: "I believe Joe gave of his talents what others would
jealously guard. I felt the relationship was short lived, but a fascinating
one for me, with fond memories. I think Joe and I might have developed
into a good comedy team which could have replaced the Stooges. The
comedies were really fun to make and he was so good in them."
Jules White produced and directed most of Besser's solo comedies.
He also believed Besser and Hawthorne were a natural combination.
"Joe was the little boy with the temper who clenches his fist, threatens,
backs away, runs and never really wants to fight you. That was Joe's
character," White explained. "This fellow Hawthorne was a good foil
for Joe. He was a comic straight man. They were two dummies, each
telling the other how dumb they are and neither believing each other.
This was a good combination. "
the scenes, Joe got along with everybody on the set. Such directors
as Jules White and Charles Barton have said that Besser didn't make
demands as to how his character should be played. "Joe was a real
gentleman," Jules White said in an interview. "He had good ideas for
his character. But if I asked him to do something that wasn't quite
right, although he wasn't happy at first, he'd never let me down once
we talked things out."
didn't do much socializing after or during working hours. He got strictly
down to business when it came to performing. Seldom did Besser take
the initiative in starting up new friendships. He just went to the
studio, did his job and returned home for the quiet life. Concerning
his association with the Stooges, whom he didn't see off screen, Joe
has nothing but fond memories. Besser recalls, "Moe and Larry were
great. We had a lot of fun and I had no problems with them. I knew
them when they were with Ted Healy. So we all went back some years
together. After the Healy days, I continued to follow their careers.
I'm glad I did join the Stooges and I have never regretted it."
the Stooges in 1958, Besser went on to star in feature films for 20th
Century-Fox, in Jerry Lewis comedies, and served up laughs on many
more popular 196Os television shows, including: Spike Jones's Club
Oasis, The Kraft Music Hall (twice with Milton Berle), The TV Guide
Awards Show with Fred MacMurray and Nanette Fabray, The Shirley Temple
Theater (joining comics Carl Ballantine and Jerry Colonna in "Babes
in Toyland"), General Electric Theater hosted by Ronald Reagan (as
Charles Bronson's fight manager in "Memory in White" co-starring Sammy
Davis, Jr.) and The Alvin Show (as the voice of a Fire-Breathing Dragon).
popularity, however, soared to new heights when Joe became a regular
on The Joey Bishop Show from 1962 to 1965 as the apartment superintendent,
Jillson, in an astronomical 88 episodes.
Besser's memorable association with the Bishop show ended, he was
continually called upon to grace the small screen in cameo roles on:
The Hollywood Palace (three appearances, twice with Milton Berle),
Batman ("His Honor the Penguin"), The Danny Thomas Special ("It's
Greek to Me"), The Mothers-in-Law ("How to Manage a Rock Group," "The
First Anniversary Is the Hardest" and "Two on the Aisle"), That's
Life ("Bachelor Days"), That Girl ("Eleven Angry Men and That Girl"),
The Don Rickles Show, and The Jerry Lewis Show.
also evoked laughs in My World and Welcome to It ("The Night the House
Caught Fire"), The Good Guys ("Win, Place and Kill" and "No Orchids
for the Diner"), Arnie, The Bing Crosby Christmas Special (of 1970),
The Monk (a made-for-TV movie), commercials for Off! insect repellent
and Scope mouthwash, and Love American Style (four appearances, his
funniest being as a Toupee Salesman in "Love and the Lady Barber"
(1971), with his customer the late Frank Sutton of Gomer Pyle fame).
enjoyed spending his time building toys for neighborhood children
and gardening with his wife, Ernie. He is also a camera buff. His
favorite comedians were Jack Benny and Abbott and Costello, and Ann
Miller is his choice for actress. Joe hasn't seen all of his Stooges
comedies, but his favorite is Flying Saucer Daffy (1958). (His fans
prefer Hoofs and Goofs (1957) and A Merry Mix-Up (1957).
March 1, 1988, Joe Besser's life ended sadly. He was found dead in
his North Hollywood home of heart failure. Fourteen months later,
his wife Ernie succumbed on July 1, 1989, as a result of septic shock,
at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills. She
the one element that kept Joe going in later years was the knowing
that fans still loved him.