The Fourth Stooge: Memories Of 'Uncle Shemp'

Apr 14, 2012
Originally published on April 16, 2012 10:02 am

This weekend, the Farrelly Brothers' version of The Three Stooges arrives in theaters. You'll see plenty of Larry, Moe and Curly. But who won't you see? Shemp. Or, as NPR's Sue Goodwin calls him, "Uncle Shemp."

That's right. Uncle Shemp was married to Gertrude, the aunt of Sue's father, Bill Goodwin. Bill even lived with Aunt Gertrude and Uncle Shemp for a time and remembers his uncle as a man who never hesitated to help others during the hard times of the Depression. While Sue never met Shemp Howard herself, as she reports on Saturday's Weekend Edition, her father remembers that life wasn't always easy in slapstick.

"Well, I remember once he came home with a black eye," Bill Goodwin says, "and I asked him what had happened, and he told me that they accidentally — I forget which one, whether it was Moe or Larry that did it, but, uh, he accidentally got hit very hard when he was supposed to, you know, not get hit hard."

Eventually, Shemp left the group he'd formed with his brothers to go solo in Hollywood, and his brother Curly took over. Later, when Curly was unwell, Shemp returned until his death in 1955. Sue, who's the executive producer of Talk Of The Nation, says she was born too late to know Uncle Shemp, but she's always known he was part of the family. "Just being related made me feel a little bit famous myself," she says.

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This weekend, The Three Stooges once again make their way to the big screen. Modern day versions of Larry, Moe and Curly pull off classic Stooge moves: pokes in the eye, slaps on the face and falling over just about everything. What you will not see is the fourth Stooge.

NPR's Sue Goodwin calls him Uncle Shemp.

SUE GOODWIN, BYLINE: In the world of Stooge fans, most everyone has their favorite. For me, there's no doubt about which one it is.


GOODWIN: That's Shemp Howard, playing a voice instructor in the 1947 film "Brideless Groom," one of many films he made with The Three Stooges. Their madcap antics and bruising physical humor made them a box office hit from the earliest days of film. Think slapstick, extreme edition.

In this film, called "For Crimin' Out Loud," Shemp drinks some poison and responds in classic Stooge style.



GOODWIN: First, he's yanking hair off his head.


GOODWIN: Then he's bouncing up and down on the couch.


GOODWIN: And finally, he's jumps off the couch, does three full body flips, landing flat on his back each time.

Shemp was one of the original Stooges, along with his brother Moe Howard and Larry Fine, they played the vaudeville circuit in the 1920s in an act called "Ted Healy and his Southern Gentlemen." To his fans, Shemp was a goofy looking master of wisecracks and quick-witted improv. To me, he is Uncle Shemp, great uncle to be exact. Shemp married the love of his life, my father's Aunt Gertrude. Dad's family hit a rough spot when he eight, so Aunt Gertrude and Uncle Shemp took him in as one of their own.

BILL GOODWIN: Well, I remember once he came home with a black eye. And I asked him what had happened and he told me - I forget which one - Moe or Larry that did it. But he accidentally got hit very hard when he was supposed to, you know, not get hit hard. It just happened in slapstick comedy.

GOODWIN: My dad, Bill Goodwin also remembers when Shemp was proud to be promoted as The Ugliest Man in Hollywood. He was also known for his humility and kindness. In the midst of the Depression, Shemp could always be counted on for a loan. As film began to take over vaudeville, Shemp left the trio to pursue a successful career in Hollywood. The act went on with another Howard brother, Curly.

When Curly fell ill, Shemp returned until he died in 1955. I was born too late to meet him, but I can't remember a time when I didn't know about Uncle Shemp. Just being related made me feel a little bit famous myself.

WERTHEIMER: Our own Sue Goodwin, she's the executive producer of NPR's TALK OF THE NATION.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.