DeRita was born into a show-business family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Wardell's father was a stage technician, his mother a professional stage dancer, and the three often acted on stage together from his early childhood. Taking his mother's maiden name, DeRita (Portuguese), the actor joined the burlesque circuit during the 1920s, gaining fame as a comedian.
Early CareerFrom age seven, Joe accompanied his parents on tour, going with them from theatre to theatre across the country. He made his stage debut with his sister Phillis at a Topeka Kansas, Red Cross benefit during World War I.Joe's roles included the title role in the stage version of "Peck's Bad Boy" with his mother and father.
By age eighteen, with his mother retired and his sister married, Joe decided to joined the burlesque . As DeRita recalls:
- "I originally started out as a dancer because my mother was a dancer. Then I went into burlesque in 1921 because vaudeville was just about gone. At least my type of vaudeville was gone. I never worked too risque."
Joe's film debut was in The Doughgirls in 1944 with Ann Sheridan for Warner Brothers. During World War II, DeRita joined the USO, performing through Britain and France with such celebrities as Bing Crosby and Randolph Scott. After the war, Joe made guest appearances on radio shows including Burns & Allen and even regular on "The Fred Brady Show" for 13 weeks, and also guest appearances in films and television shows such as The Desilu Playhouse, This is Alice, and Bachelor Father.
Before joining the Stooges in 1958, he had a major role as the hangman in The Bravados for 20th Century-Fox, which starred Gregory Peck
In 1946, he also starred in a series of two-reel comedies for Columbia; he made four shorts in all.
The Three Stooges: Larry, Moe & Curly-Joe
Curly Howard 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 starred in a series of two-reel comedies for Stooges producer-director Jules White at the time.According to one legend, 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.). But, DeRita's later years interview confirmed that was to be untrue. DeRita returned to burlesque, and in the 1950s he recorded a risque LP called Burlesque Uncensored.
Shemp Howard died in 1955, and was succeeded by Joe Besser. Columbia 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.
Now Moe and Larry had many job offers, but they needed a new partner. Larry saw Joe 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 he readily accepted.
When he first joined the act in 1958, Joe wore Shemp Howard-like hair style. 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". 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 theatrical Three Stooges films, including Have Rocket, Will Travel and Snow White and the Three Stooges. Aimed primarily at children, these films rarely reached the same comedic heights as their shorts. (Moe and Larry's advanced ages, 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 reminiscent of the original "Curly," his characterization was very good natured, gentle, and milder, also not as manic or surreal , making him sympathetic to the audience. Curly Joe also showed a bit more backbone, even occasionally talking back to Moe, calling him "buddy boy."
Later yearsThrough 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 1970, 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 1975, the Stooges (with Emil Sitka taking on the role as the middle stooge) 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, DeRita attempted to form a truly "new" Three Stooges. He recruited burlesque and vaudeville veterans Mousie Garner and Frank Mitchell to replace Moe and Larry for nightclub engagements. But, DeRita's health soon worsened cause of diabetes and the act retired in 1979.
DeRita was married to a chorus girl named Bonnie Brooks in 1935. After her death in 1965, he married Jean Sullivan.
Off screen, Joe led a rather quiet life. At the last part of his life, Joe usually stayed at his home in North Hollywood and read or watched television. He was a regular kind of guy. His friends were all average people. He didn't hang out with the Hollywood crowd like the other Stooges. Even during his years as a Stooge, Joe recalled that he seldom saw Moe and Larry off the set.
Although DeRita enjoyed working with Moe and Larry, and made a good living doing it, he was not a fan of the Stooges' humor. He told an interviewer the following:
- “I don't think the Stooges were funny. I'm not putting you on, I'm telling the truth — they were physical, but they just didn't have any humor about them. Take, for instance, Laurel and Hardy. I can watch their films and I still laugh at them and maybe I've seen them four or five times before. But when I see that pie or seltzer bottle, I know that it's not just lying around for no reason. It's going to be used for something. I was with the Stooges for 12 years and it was a very pleasant association but I just don't think they were funny”.
On July 3, 1993, DeRita died of pneumonia at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California, nine days before his 84th birthday. He was buried in the Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery in North Hollywood; his epitaph reads "The Last Stooge".
- Reighter, Frank. The Three Stooges Journal #133 (2010) p. 5
- Forrester, Jeff (2004). The Three Stooges: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Most Popular Comedy Team of All Time. Donaldson Books. ISBN 0971580103.
- Pace, Eric (1993-07-05). "Curly Joe DeRita, 83, Last of the Three Stooges". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-08-07.
- Lenburg, Jeff; Howard Maurer, Joan; Lenburg, Greg; (1982). The Three Stooges Scrapbook, p. 93, Citadel Press. ISBN 0806509465.