Emil Sitka, whose numerous appearances with the Three Stooges earned him the nickname “the Fourth Stooge,” was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1914. He was the oldest of five children, born of Hungarian immigrant parents. His father, Emil Sitka, a coal miner, died of black lung disease when Sitka was 12 years old, and his mother, Helena Matula Sitka, was hospitalized, unable to take care of the children. His siblings were placed in foster homes, but Sitka went to live in a church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with a Catholic priest for the next few years. At this time, he became an altar boy and made plans to enter the priesthood, and had his first acting opportunity in the church’s annual Passion Play. At the age of 16, he and one of his brothers traveled across the U.S.A., riding the rails hobo-style, looking for work. After a year, they returned to Pittsburgh, where Sitka found a job working in a factory. He stayed there until the great St. Patrick’s Day Pittsburgh Flood of 1936, after which he departed to pursue his dream of acting in Hollywood, California.
Sitka’s first Three Stooges’ film was Half-Wits Holiday. It was a reworking of their earlier Hoi Polloi. Both films were adaptations of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion (1913). The Three Stooges’ films dealt with the idea that two professors bet on the outcome of turning the Three Stooges into gentlemen—with predictable results. Sitka played Sappington, the upper-crust butler, who was an excellent foil for the Three Stooges—and the target of several pies as well. Sitka’s most famous scene was when he approached a woman with a cocktail and stated, “Your drink madam,” and was plastered with a pie. Without changing expression, he says, “Pardon me madam” and walks off. However, during the filming on May 6, 1946, Jerome “Curly” Howard suffered a devastating stroke, another after a series just before Beer Barrel Polecats was filmed. Curly died 6 years later.
Despite this bittersweet beginning, Sitka went on to appear in dozens of Three Stooges short films, as well as most of their feature films and the live-action segments for The New Three Stooges 1965 cartoon series. He worked in both short films and feature films with others as well, including Lucille Ball, Milton Berle, Red Skelton, Tony Curtis, Alan Hale, Walter Brennan, Dan Blocker, Joey Bishop, Bob Denver, and many others. However, Sitka is best remembered for his association with the Three Stooges, and with one line in particular which he repeated several times: “Hold hands, you lovebirds!” from Brideless Groom.
Almost a Middle Stooge
In January 1970, Larry Fine suffered a stroke during the filming of Kook’s Tour. Plans were in the works for Sitka to replace him as the Middle Stooge in late 1970 and again in ’75, but nothing other than a few promotional pictures were ever made. Sitka was to play Larry’s brother, Harry. He later described him as being “conscientious to the point of ridiculousness.” Two feature film offers for the Stooges had been considered, but this proposed version of the group would never transpire, due to Moe falling ill and dying shortly after its conception. One of the film offers was Blazing Stewardesses, which would go on to feature the surviving members of the Ritz Brothers.
“Hold hands, you lovebirds”
In the 1947 Three Stooges short Brideless Groom, Shemp Howard must be married before 6:00 p.m. in order to inherit $500,000.00. After striking out, Shemp finally finds a girl willing to marry him, and they rush off to a justice of the peace (Sitka). As he starts the ceremony, initially telling the couple to “hold hands, you lovebirds”, the other girls that turned down Shemp’s proposal burst in, having heard of the inheritance. A free-for-all then ensues, with poor Sitka being struck again and again, attempting to start the ceremony, each time more disheveled and his “hold hands, you lovebirds” a bit weaker.
Because of the widespread distribution of this short (it is one of four Three Stooges shorts that slipped into public domain and was broadcast countless times on local television stations as a result—one station in Richmond, Virginia ran it almost every Sunday afternoon for years in the 1980s), this scene is the one that Sitka has become best known for.
Notably, a clip of this short is featured in Pulp Fiction, for which Sitka’s name even appears in the credits as “Hold Hands You Lovebirds.” He continued his association with the Stooges for the next 25 years, and in 1975, was offered the chance to finally join the trio.
Sitka continued with the acting career, more out of love for acting than the need for money (including a cameo as a supermarket customer in the 1989 horror film Intruder, in which he said his signature line), appearing in films as late as 1992. He was in demand at various Three Stooges conventions, and had numerous requests from Three Stooges fans to appear at their wedding to say “Hold hands, you lovebirds!”