Emil Sitka, despite being a veteran American actor who made appearances in hundreds of films and television shows. And best known for his numerous appearances alongside The Three Stooges. He held the unique claim to fame of being just one of two actors who got the chance to work with all six actors who played the iconic comedy trio both in films and in the various other Three Stooges offerings. In case you’re curious, Harold Brauer, a recurring Stooge villain, was the other.
You may not recognize Sitka’s name, if you’ve ever seen any of the Three Stooges productions. Then there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve seen him perform. He made appearances in dozens of Three Stooges short films, feature films, and television shows. Each time that he would show up, Sitka would play a different character as a literal ‘stooge’ or ‘straight man’ to contrast with and help set up the Stooge’s humor.
Sitka first got his start working with the original Stooges, Larry Moe, and Curly back in 1946. He would go on to frequently show up in the Shemp and Besser years before continuing to pop up throughout the De Rita period.
Sometimes endearingly referred to as ‘the fourth stooge’, Emil even came pretty close to joining the trio as a bonafide Stooge himself in the early 70s. And when Moe determined to keep the act going. By this point, Larry’s declining health had forced him into retirement. So, Moe inquired if Sitik wanted to join the group as his replacement.
Sadly, Moe was dealing with his own health issues. And which ultimately took his life and prevented them from ever shooting the ‘fifth set’ of the Three Stooges.
For many years after the final Three Stooges films made, Emil continued to contribute to the group’s legacy by representing them at various events and conventions across the world. He would frequently give interviews and correspond with the Stooges’ legion of adoring fans.
He is credited with helping get the Stooges their very own star on the famed Hollywood Walk. And called in to contribute in the development of several notable Stooge books and documentaries. Right up until his death in 1998, Sitka would regularly welcome Three Stooges fans into his home. Before he passed away, he made sure that his gravestone would bear a message that would pay tribute to his decades-long tenure with the Stooges. Keep watching to learn what that heartwarming message was. But first, we’ll be taking an in-depth look back at Emil Sitka’s storied life and career.
Sitka was born on the 22nd of December, 1914, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He was the eldest child of five born to Slovak immigrant parents, Emil and Helena Sitka. Emil’s father was a coal minor who unfortunately died of the dreaded ‘black lung’ when Sitka was just 12.
Soon after, his mother became gravely ill and had to be hospitalized. As such, she was unable to take care of her kids. Emil’s siblings were all placed into foster care. But he went off to live in a church in Pittsburgh under the care of a Catholic priest for several years.
During this time, Emil became an alter boy and even planned on one day entering into the priesthood.
Emil Sitka given his first acting opportunity performing in the church’s yearly Passion Play. When he was 16, he and one of his younger brothers traveled across the US as vagrants in search of work. After a year of living the nomadic hobo lifestyle, the two boys returned back to Pittsburgh. Sitka then got a job working at a local factory. But after the great St. Patrick’s Day Pittsburgh Flood hit in 1936, he set out to pursue his dream of becoming an actor in Hollywood.
Once in Tinsel Town, Sitka managed to find some affordable housing in a small acting theater. While living there, he did handiwork for the theater in exchange for his rent. Eventually, he landed several minor roles.
After gaining a bit of experience, Sitka given more prominent roles in theatrical productions. Eventually, he was even directing plays. Since the theater didn’t pay, Emil got a job working as a civil engineer in order to pay the bills and keep food on the table. In the evenings after he would clock out, he would act whenever and wherever he could.
By the mid-40s, Sitka had appeared in dozens of roles playing everything from lawyers, businessmen, construction workers and butlers. This extensive experience would help him to hone his craft. He would rely heavily on what he had learned back in his theater days later on once he had transitioned into film.
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Sitka’s Big Break
In 1946, Sitka found himself running his very own acting troupe when he was spotted by a Columbia Pictures talent scout. After being instructed to get in touch with Columbia’s short film department head, Jules White, Emil was cast in a short film that White was directing called Hiss and Yell. The film starred Babara Jo Allen as her signature character Vera Vague and ended up receiving an Academy Award nomination.
Not long after that, Emil Sitka joined the cast of his very first Three Stooges film Half-Wits Holiday, in which he played the character Sappington. The film was the last time that Curly Howard would appear in a starring role. As he suffered a stroke shortly after it’s filming had wrapped.
Sitka Almost Made A Full-Fledged ‘Stooge’
Sitka went on to make appearances in dozens of Stooges shorts, features. And live-action segments for The New Three Stooges cartoon series which debuted in 1965. He also got the chance to appear in shorts and feature-length films alongside stars like Lucille Ball, Red Skelton, Alan Hale, Bob Denver, Milton Berle, and Tony Curtis, just to name a few.
Still, he will always best remembered for his close association with the Stooges and his utterance of one particular oft-repeated line ‘ Hold hands, you lovebirds!’. The line originally came from the Three Stooges short ‘Brideless Groom’. More on that in a bit.
In January of 1970, Larry Fine suffered a major stroke during the production of Kook’s Tour. At the time, it planned that Sitka would replace him as the second Stooge. But nothing ever came of this. There a few production photos taken featuring him as the middle Stooge, but that’s about it.
Sitka was going to portray Larry’s brother, Harry. He would quoted as saying that the character as being so conscientious that it became ridiculous. Two full-length Three Stooges films featuring him as Harry were at one point in pre-production. But sadly the public would never get a chance to see these projects come to fruition.
The main reason why these plans scrapped and never developed had to do with Moe falling ill and passing away before they could be executed.
Hold Hands, You Lovebirds!
In the 1947 Three Stooges short film Brideless Groom Shemp Howard had to married by 6:00pm so that he could inherit 500 grand. Shemp’s first couple attempts at finding a suitable marriage partner ended with him striking out. But he eventually managed to find a girl willing to exchange marriage vows and they subsequently rushed off to the justice of the peace to seal the deal.
Sitka played the justice. He kicked off the ceremony by instructing Shemp and his bride-to-be to ‘hold hands, you lovebirds’. Suddenly, the other girls who had all turned down Shemp burst into the courthouse apparently having just learned of the hefty inheritance.
A wild and raucous free-for-all then expectedly ensued in typical Stooges fashion. In the midst of the brawl, Sitka struck in the face repeatedly. Each time that he would attempt to restart the ceremony, he would look more and more disheveled while his instruction to ‘hold hands, you lovebirds’ got humorously weaker and weaker.
The short received extremely wide distribution and proved to be quite popular. As such, it’s just one of four ‘Stooge’ films that have managed to slip into the public domain. Since it’s initial release, it has been broadcast on local TV thousands of times. One station in particular in Richmond, Virginia even would run it every Sunday afternoon for several years in the 80s.
Not surprisingly, owing to it’s widespread distribution, the scene has become the one that Sitka is most famous for.
Sitka would utter the line once more in a cameo appearance in the 1989 horror flick Intruder.
In 1994, Quinten Tarantino included a clip of the short in his film Pulp Fiction. Tarantino has stated that he is a longtime fan of the Three Stooges. To pay Sitka tribute, he even included his name in the film’s credits along with the line ‘Hold Hands You Lovebirds.
Declining Health And Death
Emil Sitka continue to act later on in his life more so because he loved doing it than because he needed the cash. He appeared in movies and television shows mainly in minor roles up until 1992. And would regularly show up at Three Stooges conventions and events right up until his final years.
He was also very fond of his fans and would often take requests to appear at their weddings to say his famous ‘Hold Hands’ line.
Sitka was hosting a few Stooges fans in his home in June of 1987 when he suffered a massive stroke. Sadly, he would never regain consciousness. One of the fans that was staying at his place was an EMT who was able to keep Sitka alive until the paramedics showed up.
Sitka passed away a little under a month after his 83rd birthday on January 16, 1998.
He was laid to rest alongside his wife Edith at the Conejo Mountain Memorial Park in Camarillo, California.
As a tribute to his many years performing alongside the Three Stooges, Sitka’s gravestone reads ‘Hold Hands, You Lovebirds!’ in addition to the words ‘He danced all the way’.
Did you know that Emil Sitka was almost made an official member of The Three Stooges in the 1970s? And what are some of your fondest memories of Sitka’s tenure with the comedy troupe? Let us know in the comments.
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