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(Curly) Joe DeRita (July 12, 1909 – July 3, 1993), born Joseph Wardell, was an American actor and comedian who is best known for his stint as the sixth member of The Three Stooges, and the second to be billed as Curly, under the persona of "Curly Joe".
The Three Stooges (Curly Howard, Larry Fine and Moe Howard) had been making short comedies for Columbia Pictures since 1934. Curly suffered a stroke in 1946, forcing him to retire; his brother Shemp Howard, the original third Stooge before leaving the act in 1932 for a solo career, only wanted to be a temporary replacement. Joe DeRita was also starring in his own series at Columbia (in such entries as The Good Bad Egg, Wedlock Deadlock and Slappily Married). Stooges producer-director Jules White attempted to recruit Joe DeRita for the Three Stooges, because he wanted "another Curly." However, the strong-willed DeRita refused to change his act or imitate another performer, and White eventually gave up on DeRita (DeRita's own short-subject contract was not renewed after four films, the final entry being Jitter Bughouse). DeRita returned to burlesque, and recorded a risque LP in 1950 called Burlesque Uncensored.
Shemp Howard died in 1955, and was succeeded by Joe Besser. Columbia eventually shut down the short-subjects department at the end of 1957, and Besser quit the act to take care of his ailing wife. The two remaining Stooges seriously considered retirement. Then Columbia's television subsidiary, Screen Gems, syndicated the Stooges' old comedies to television, and The Three Stooges were suddenly television superstars.
Moe and Larry now had many job offers, but were in need of a "third Stooge." Larry had seen DeRita in a Las Vegas stage engagement, and told Moe that DeRita would be "perfect for the third Stooge." Howard and Fine invited DeRita to join the act, and this time he readily accepted. When he first joined the act in 1958 (shortly after appearing in a dramatic role in the Gregory Peck western, The Bravados), DeRita wore his hair in a style similar to that of former Stooge Shemp Howard, and did so during initial live stage performances. However, with television's restored popularity of the Three Stooges shorts featuring Curly Howard, it was suggested that Joe shave his head in order to look more like "Curly". At first, DeRita sported a crew cut; this eventually became a fully shaven head. Because of his physical resemblance to both Curly and Joe Besser, and to avoid confusion with his predecessors, DeRita was renamed Curly Joe.
The team embarked on a new series of six theatrical Three Stooges films, including 1959's Have Rocket, Will Travel (DeRita's on-screen debut with the Stooges) and Snow White and the Three Stooges. Aimed primarily at children, these films rarely reached the same comedic heights as their shorts and often recycled routines and songs from the older films. (Moe and Larry's advanced ages - Moe was 62 and Larry 57 at the time of the first Curly Joe film - plus pressure from the PTA and other children's advocates, led to the toning-down of the trio's trademark violent slapstick.) While DeRita's physical appearance was vaguely reminiscent of the original "Curly," his characterization was milder, and not as manic or surreal. Curly Joe also showed a bit more backbone, even occasionally talking back to Moe, calling him "buddy boy."
Through the 1960s, DeRita remained a member of the team, participating in animated cartoons (with live-action introductions) and a failed television pilot titled Kook's Tour. However, Larry Fine suffered a paralyzing stroke in January 1970 during production of Kook's Tour, putting all new Stooges-related material on hold. Emil Sitka was named as "the middle stooge", but never got to perform with the team. Before Moe's death in May 1975, the Stooges (with Sitka succeeding the deceased Larry) had planned to film an R-rated movie called The Jet Set (later produced with the surviving members of the Ritz Brothers and released as Blazing Stewardesses).
In the 1970s, at an ailing Moe's suggestion, DeRita attempted to form a truly "new" Three Stooges. He recruited burlesque and vaudeville veterans Mousie Garner and Frank Mitchell, who had worked with original Stooges organizer Ted Healy decades earlier in an abortive attempt to replace the Stooges after they had split from Healy (Mitchell had also actually replaced Shemp as the "third stooge" in a 1929 Broadway play), to replace Moe and Larry for nightclub engagements, but DeRita himself was eventually forced by health issues to retire, ending the group..
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