Curly Joe DeRita

Active - 1943 - 2001  |   Born - Jul 12, 1909   |   Died - Mar 7, 1993   |   Genres - Comedy, Western

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Joe DeRita, sometimes known as "Curly Joe DeRita," was the last of the six members of the Three Stooges to join that august comedic trio. Born Joseph Wardell in Philadelphia in 1909, he came from a show business family, his mother a dancer and his father a stage hand. DeRita accompanied his parents on tour from the age of seven, and he soon had a dancing act with his sister. He continued working as a single after she married and their parents had retired, and his comedic specialty involved lots of dancing, which would serve him in good stead when he later joined the Three Stooges. He worked in burlesque comedian from the early '20s until 1942, when he went out to California to headline a show. He got a film contract out of the trip, and in 1944 made his screen debut at Warner Bros. in The Doughgirls starring Ann Sheridan. In 1946, following appearances in two more comedy features, DeRita jumped to Columbia Pictures for a series of comedy shorts. He also entertained the troops during World War II, touring with Randolph Scott, a good friend with whom he did a comedy act. After World War II, DeRita returned to the stage and also began working on radio. In 1958, he made his return to movies in his only non-comedic acting role, playing the phony, murderous hangman in Henry King's Western chase-drama The Bravados. He also began showing up on television occasionally in comedy roles on series such as Bachelor Father. That same year, fate would take a hand in his career with the crisis affecting the Three Stooges -- the 30-year-old comedy team had reached an impasse with the decision by Joe Besser, the fat "third" stooge who'd come in to succeed Shemp Howard following the latter's death in 1955, to leave the act. Partners Moe Howard and Larry Fine needed a new partner with none in sight, and that was when Fine happened to go to Las Vegas and caught DeRita's act in a revue called Minsky's Follies of 1958. He was impressed and duly informed Moe Howard, who was similarly enthusiastic after meeting DeRita and testing him in performances at different nightclubs. In October of 1958, Joe DeRita -- christened "Curly Joe" because of his resemblance to the group's most famous member, Curly Howard -- made his debut as a member of the trio. DeRita may have missed the trio's busiest years, but he got in on their most profitable era, appearing as the comically goofy member of the trio in six full-length feature film in which they starred, as well as two more movies, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Four for Texas, in which the group had bit parts. Beyond that, however, were innumerable personal appearances, lots of merchandising, and television work by the trio, all of which was enough to keep DeRita busy and solvent for the rest of his life. With his goofy physiognomy and dancer's agility, DeRita was the sparkplug for much of the trio's physical comedy during this period, as well as some of its zaniest moments; he had an acrobat's grace, reminiscent of Curly Howard, but also a childlike innocence and good-nature that made younger audience members love him as well as laugh at him -- this was especially true in Have Rocket, Will Travel, the all-important 1959 feature that established the trio in full-length movies. He remained with the Three Stooges until Moe Howard's retirement in the mid-'70s. Such was his relationship with Howard that the oldest surviving Stooge, who controlled the group's name, broke precedent and gave DeRita permission to put together a new, very short-lived group of Three Stooges. That project didn't last, however, and DeRita retired in the 1970s. The youngest of the Three Stooges, he passed away after all of the others, in 1993.

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