Joe Besser was a man of many talents. He was star of vaudeville, films, and television known for his mischievous sense of humor. And also the decidedly wimpy characters that he would typically play. He gave memorable performances in a variety of television roles like that of the bratty, man-child character Stinky in The Abbott and Costello Show and Jillison the maintenance man on The Joe Bishop show. Besser best known for his brief stint as one of The Three Stooges appearing in a series of short subject films between 1957 and 1959.
Generally speaking, Besser isn’t typically remembered as one of the best Stooges. In fact, some critics even think of him as being the worse Stooge to ever hold the title. It’s not that Besser wan’t a gifted comedian. In fact, his unique brand of zany humor well received by audiences back in the day. And the man clearly had a knack for comedy, it’s just that he never quite seemed to fit in with the rest of the Stooges. Besser was the odd-man-out amongst a group of famously off-beat oddballs.
Since he spent such a short period of time as a member of The Three Stooges, it could argued that he simply never had a chance to really settle into the role. He likely would have had the opportunity to hone his “Stooge-ness,” so to speak, if he didn’t choose to quit the comedy troupe as abruptly as he did. For the remainder of his life, Besser would regret the fact that he bowed out of the comedy trio. But few realize why he made this life-changing decision in the first place.
Join Facts Verse as we explore the underlying reason why Joe Besser quit Three Stooges and never looked back. But first, let’s take a look back at Joe’s early life and rise to fame. In order to fully understand the kind of man that he was and what motivated him to make the life choices that he did. It’s important to take the time to reflect on his past.
Joe Besser Had A Profound Love For Showbiz Since Childhood
Besser was born in St. Louis, Missouri on the 12th of August, 1907. He came from a rather large family. In fact, he was the ninth child of Eastern European Jewish immigrant parents, Fanny and Morris Besser,
Joe likely introduced to show business by his older brother Manny who primarily worked as a comic. From a young age, Besser fascinated by the entertainment industry and everything that went along with it. He particularly enamored by the magic act of Howard Thurston, who would visit Besser’s hometown of St. Louis every year to perform.
When Joe was just 12, Thurston selected him to be one of his audience plants. Besser so thrilled at this prospect that he even sneaked into Thurston’s train after the St. Louis leg of his tour was over. He discovered the following day sleeping on top of a lion cage when the train stopped in Detroit, Michigan.
Thurston sent a message out to Besser’s parents to inform them about the situation. But instead of just sending the boy back home, he trained him to be one of his assistants. One of the first acts that Besser got a chance to take part involved the old magician’s trope of pulling a rabbit out of a hat. The trick pulled off by making use of two rabbits. One of which hidden in the pocket of Thurston’s cape.
Besser so nervous, having finally gotten the chance to perform alongside his childhood hero. And that he totally botched the trick. He ended up pulling the hidden rabbit out of the cape at the same moment that the other one was still visible.
The audience, having thought that the flub was intentional, roared with laughter. From that point on, Besser demoted to only ‘comic mishap’ roles. While little Joe probably embarrassed by his mistake, it would one blunder that would ultimately set him up for a life of comedy. He might have made for one lousy magician, but he sure knew how to make people laugh. Join Facts Verse as we explore the underlying reason why Joe Besser quit Three Stooges.
Besser’s Early Acting Roles
Besser stuck with show business after finishing up his schooling. In the process of developing his acting skills, Joe developed a comic character that would end up becoming his biggest asset. The character was this somewhat shrill, whiny, impish man who was overly excitable and constantly upset about something. He would throw these bratty, childlike temper tantrums at the slightest provocation.
After developing a few signature catchphrases, Besser became a headliner in the vaudeville scene. Soon thereafter, he would make his radio and film debuts.
One of the top comedy teams of the time, Olsen and Johnson, whose Broadway revues featured a fast-paced compilation of whimsical songs and blackouts, reached out to Besser offering him a position as a cast member with their company.
Besser’s performances quickly caught the attention of the famed Shubert brothers, whose family was instrumental in establishing the Broadway district in New York. The brothers signed Besser to a theatrical contract with their company. But that proved to short-lived as Columbia Pictures ended up hiring Besser away from them.
Besser moved to Hollywood in 1944. Once there, he brought his trademark comic character to big-screen feature-length musical comedies like Eadie was a Lady and Hey, Rookie.
Besser made his television debut in May 1946. Appearing on NBC’s groundbreaking variety show Hour Glass performing his ‘Army Drill’ bit alongside his stage partner Jimmy Little. The routine was a huge hit with audiences.
From 1949 to 1956, Besser starred in a series of Columbia short-subject comedy films. By this time, he was so well-known, his persona was often parodied in Looney Tunes cartoon shorts.
Breaking from his usual formula, Besser appeared in an action film titled The Desert Hawk in 1950. Join Facts Verse as we explore the underlying reason why Joe Besser quit Three Stooges.
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Abbott and Costello
Besser was frequently called in to substitute for Lou Costello on the radio. By the 50s, he was considered to be one of Abbott and Costello’s regulars. When the comedy team transitioned to television in 1952 with The Abbott and Costello Show, they hired Besser to play the character Oswald ‘Stinky’ Davis’.
Stinky was a troublemaking, bratty child in an oversized “Little Lord Fauntleroy” outfit. If you don’t know what that is, Little Lord Fauntleroy was a novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett published in 1885 about a young American boy who ended up being the long-lost heir to a sizable British fortune.
Anyway, Besser was featured on the first season of The Abbott and Costello Show. His next major role was playing the chariot man Yonkel In the 1953 biblical film Sins of Jezebel. Join Facts Verse as we explore the underlying reason why Joe Besser quit Three Stooges.
The Three Stooges
After Shemp Howard passed away after having a heart attack at the age of 60 in 1955, his brother Moe proposed that he and Larry Fine keep the team going as ‘The Two Stooges’.
Infamous Columbia studio chief Harry Cohn hated the idea and quickly rejected it. While Moe was the one who had legal approval to add new members to the act, Columbia brass would still have the final word about any actor who would make an appearance in one of their films.
Studio execs insisted that whoever would be chosen to play the Third Stooge had to already be under contract with Columbia. And the man that they had their sights on was none other than Joe Besser.
Since Besser was one of only a few comics who was still making shorts with the Columbia at the time, he was able to renegotiate his contract successfully so that he was paid the same salary as when he was making feature films. This resulted in him earning more than any of his fellow Stooges.
Instead of imitating his predecessors, Curly or Shemp, Besser continued to play the same old tried and true whiny character that helped launch his career. In stark contrast with the other Stooges, Bessser had a clause written into his contract prohibiting him from being hit in excess. What’s strange about this is that one of the very foundations of The Three Stooges brand of humor was slapstick.
Clearly not fitting in with the mold of his comic cohorts, Joe wasn’t well received by Stooges fans. During his tenure as a Stooge, hundreds of viewers wrote in to the studio expressing their outrage at him being ad to the trio.
Stooge-A-Palooza TV Host Rich Koz, even felt compelled to apologize before airing Besser shorts.
Despite these criticisms, however, Besser did have some defenders. Columbia historians Ted Okuda and Edward Watz would later write that Besser brought new energy to what was then a stagnate, plaid-out theatrical series.
Besser appeared in more than a dozen Three Stooges shorts released between 1956 and 1959. After their contract with Columbia had lapsed, Moe and Larry had been contemplating going on tour with a live act. But Besser ended up declining and ultimately left the comedy team entirely. Join Facts Verse as we explore the underlying reason why Joe Besser quit Three Stooges.
Why Besser Left
The reason Joe Besser provided for declining to go on tour with Larry Fine and Moe Howard was personal. He wanted to take to spend with his wife who had suffered a heart attack in November 1957. Besser was unwilling to venture out on a nationwide tour without her by his side.
Joe would later praise Larry and Moe In a radio interview he gave in 1985. He considered his time as a Stooge as being one of the biggest highlights of his career.
After leaving the Stooges, Besser returned to appearing in films and television programs. His most notable role post-Stooges was playing the character Jillison for four seasons on The Joey Bishop Show. Later he would provide the voice of Babu as a series regular on the animated series Jeannie which debuted in 1973. Join Facts Verse as we explore the underlying reason why Joe Besser quit Three Stooges.
Besser died of heart failure at the age of 80 on March 1, 1988, in Hollywood, California.
While Joe Besser was a fantastic character actor, his tenure as a Stooge was largely forgettable.
Who was your favorite actor to play one of the Three Stooges? And how did you feel about Joe Besser’s stint with the comedy trio? Let us know in the comments.
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