Biography

As Stinky with Lou Costello.
While the name Joe Besser (August 12, 1907 – March 1, 1988) may not be a household name, for six generations, he is best remembered for two famous roles: as a member of the iconic Three Stooges comedy team replacing Shemp Howard as the third stooge from 1957-1959 and as the malevolent brat “Stinky” on The Abbott and Costello Show TV series of the 1950s.

New generations have also discovered him in recent years in his regular role of Jillson, the henpecked and frustrated building superintendent, on The Joey Bishop Show TV series of the 1960s, thanks to the broadcast of these long lost episodes on MeTV and Antenna TV as well as their release to DVD and free streaming on Tubi.com.

But these roles are just the tip of the iceberg. From the 1920s to the mid-1980s, Joe worked in virtually every medium including vaudeville, Broadway, stage, radio, motion pictures and television, including voicing popular Saturday morning animated cartoon series.

As a stooge in A Merry Mix Up (1957).
He first honed his comedy craft when he worked as a bumbling assistant to the world-famous Thurston the Magician in the 1920s. With Thurston, he carved out success with his own act—that of a childlike sissy who brandished his foils with a flick of the wrist and such hilarious verbal assaults as “Ooh, you cr-a-a-zy you!” and “Not so f-a-a-s-t!” 

It was that character that first caught the nation by surprise with such hilarious antics on popular radio shows of the 1930s, making Joe an instant hit with audiences.


Joe left an indelible mark, making audiences howl with laughter on the Jack Benny, Milton Berle and Fred Allen radio shows. His success later led him to signing a contract with Columbia Pictures and to starring roles in three feature films-- Hey, Rookie, (1944) Eadie Was a Lady (1945) and Talk About a Lady (1946)--and his own short-subject series in the 1940s and 1950s.

His first feature film appearance was as Siggie Landers in Hot Steel (1940) starring Richard Arlen and Andy Devine for Universal Pictures.


With Joey Bishop.
Most memorable highlights of Joe's long film career include: playing Sheriff Sharkey Dolan opposite Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride (Ma and Pa Kettle) and actor-singer-dancer Donald O'Connor in Feudin', Fussin,' and A-Fightin' (1948), cast with Shemp Howard in Abbott and Costello's Africa Screams (1949), being teamed with the Great One, Jackie Gleason, in The Desert Hawk (1950), cast in his first dramatic role in Bing Crosby's Say One for Me (1959), and playing another serious role, as a joke writer, in Marilyn Monroe's Let's Make Love (1960).

A favorite of the critics, Besser has rightly earned the title of most prolific third stooge because of his huge legacy without the Stooges: in all, he appeared in 28 feature films from 1940 to 1978, 11 short subjects of his own, and nearly 300 television appearances! 


That’s quite a career which also includes 56 known radio show appearances (as well as his own radio series, Tonight on Broadway) and stage and Broadway shows such as the immensely popular Sons O’ Fun starring Olsen and Johnson which catapulted him to stardom. 

He also voiced more than 120 Saturday morning cartoon episodes which he truly enjoyed.

Joe addresses 3,000 fans at the Hollywood Walk
of Fame Star unveiling in 1983. To his left is 
Stooge author Greg Lenburg. To his right is
Jean DeRita, wife of Joe DeRita.
(Courtesy of OldShowBiz)
Ironically, Besser had the distinct honor to unveil the Stooges’ Hollywood Walk of Fame star at a ceremony on August 30, 1983. His replacement as third stooge, Joe DeRita, was too ill to attend. His former Stooge partners, Moe Howard and Larry Fine, died in 1975. The unveiling set an attendance record with more than 3,000 fans on hand. It was, and still is, the largest attended unveiling in Walk of Fame history.

Besser did have another honor, only posthumously: a Joe Besser Film Festival on June 9, 2013 at the Esquire Theater in St. Louis, Mo. where he was born and raised. The film festival was part of a campaign to raise awareness in St. Louis that Joe Besser is one of their very own and to perhaps get him a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

Films shown at the festival which was strongly attended included a sampling of Besser’s solo shorts before he was a stooge, Fraidy Cats (1951) and Army Daze (1956). Stooges shorts shown featuring him as the third stooge were A Merry Mix-Up (1957), Flying Saucer Daffy (1958) and Sappy Bullfighters (1959).

Marquee of Joe Besser Film Festival in 2013.
Photo:Wearegeeks.com
In addition to achievements in show business, Joe also accomplished one other significant milestone in his life: he was married to the same woman for over 55 years. Ernie. He married her on November 18, 1932 and she was truly the love of his life.

Besser died of heart failure on March 1, 1998 in North Hollywood, Calif. at the age of 80.  His wife, Ernie, died on July 1, 1989 in Los Angeles, Calif. at the age of 88. They are interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif.

(A complete and detailed filmography and television listing may be found in Joe's updated and enlarged autobiography, Once a Stooge, Always a Stooge published by Moonwater Press).