New Fake Shemp

The odd state of affairs that leads film studios to fake an actor so that they can keep shooting. A CGI Jeff Garlin was just added to the Fake Shemp pantheon.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: Recently, I caught an episode of a show that’s been on the air seemingly forever, but is clearly on its last legs—The Goldbergs, a show about a Philadelphia-area family in 1980-something that’s overloaded with random pop culture references. One of the main stars of the show, comedian Jeff Garlin, left in a fairly dramatic way in the middle of the season, the result of HR complaints he received while on the show. Given that he’s the patriarch of the family, it’s the kind of character that would certainly be missed in any traditional family sitcom. And how did The Goldbergs handle it? They ran old footage of him, found a body double, and superimposed CGI onto the body double’s face, of course. It went over as well as you would expect—mocked by Twitter, but only about a week and a half after the episode aired—which of course raised an important question for me: Is this the worst example of an Ed Wood-style body double in film or television history? It may or may not be, but today’s Tedium is all about Fake Shemps. — Ernie @ Tedium

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1978

The year science commentator and TV host Bill Nye won a Steve Martin look-a-like contest, a victory that earned Nye some early notice in the entertainment industry, inspiring Nye to launch a comedy career that eventually led to Nye becoming the Science Guy. (Before that happened, he was on his way to becoming an aerospace engineer.)

The Goldbergs CGI Jeff Garlin

Imagine the amount of money that was spent to create this Jeff Garlin rendering. (And note how dark they made it!)

What do you do when an actor can’t show up on the set? Call in a Fake Shemp

Jeff Garlin’s departure in The Goldbergs stands out in large part because it comes at a bad time in the show’s run.

Being a family comedy based on the life of its creator, the father character of Murray Goldberg plays an important role in the show, even if he’s not on screen. He’s a difficult character to kill off, and at this point in the history of the show, which is likely crawling towards an ending (after all, could the show really keep going for a full decade and still pretend it’s in the ’80s?) the primary concern is likely finishing the series by putting a bow on the final few episodes. (ABC is currently denying any cancellation plans, however, though it’s yet to renew the show, either.)

In some ways, Garlin’s departure—caused by bad on-set behavior, largely of the verbal kind—creates a potential continuity gap that would be an issue in syndication. And because he has appeared in so many episodes already, he can basically be pulled in at random intervals using stock footage.

But the scene in which CGI Garlin appears basically was necessary because of the symbolic nature of the moment—in honor of the show’s 200th episode, Erica Goldberg (Hayley Orrantia) and Geoff “Madman” Schwartz (Sam Lerner) get married. Murray Goldberg’s absence at his own daughter’s wedding would stand out too much. Hence, the render, which is well on the path to becoming a classic meme.

In some ways, a very similar state of affairs—a missing star who needed to be accounted for—led to the creation of the “Fake Shemp” concept in the first place. In 1955, late in the Three Stooges’ original run with Columbia Pictures, Shemp Howard unexpectedly died, and in an effort to ensure that the last four short films in the Stooges’ contract could be completed, the directors used a mixture of stock footage of Shemp, along with a character actor, Joe Palma, as Shemp’s stand-in. Largely seen from the rear view, he was not particularly convincing—and nor was he Shemp’s usual stand-in—but he nonetheless helped the Stooges fulfill their contract.

(Shemp, as was discussed in our prior Stooge piece, was eventually replaced with Joe Besser, who finished out the Stooges’ run with Columbia.)

A few years later, director Ed Wood, looking to draw some kind of attention, any kind, for his film Plan 9 From Outer Space, used a (famously uncharacteristic) body double for the actor who was to be the film’s marquee name, Bela Lugosi, along with whatever other footage they had of Lugosi lying around.

However, neither of these incidents led to the term entering the public consciousness. Rather, it was the result of filmmakers who watched those Joe Palma mimicry jobs as kids. When Sam Raimi first worked on Evil Dead, the director and his star, Bruce Campbell, decided to turn the Shemp thing into something of an artform, in an effort to work around an extremely fluid cast.

As Campbell recalled in his autobiography If Chins Could Kill:

Being fans of The Three Stooges growing up, we discovered that their shorts of about twenty minutes in length were filmed two or three at a time—thereby capitalizing on sets from the big, Columbia “A” pictures, currently in production. It allowed them, for example, to use a large castle set (and shoot a pie fight or something) before it was torn down. As a result, they often shot overlapping scenes from different shorts.

One day, Shemp (the really ugly one with long, stringy black hair) had a heart attack and the rest of the Stooges, distraught as they were, had to finish off scenes from several shorts. To do this, a “fake Shemp” was brought in. The double, actor Joe Palma, was the wrong height and weight and lacked the true Shemp mannerisms. Even as teenagers watching the Stooges after school, we could tell whenever the fake Shemp made his appearances (which amounted to four shorts) and it amused us to no end.

We then began to use the term “Fake Shemp” for any actor in our Super-8 flicks who didn’t have any lines, or was doubling for someone else, (which seemed to happen a lot when you couldn’t pay actors to stay around). With Evil Dead, we decided to elevate “Shemping” to an official, on-screen credit category mainly because they soon constituted the bulk of our cast.

In recent years, CGI has become a more common tactic for ensuring that actors can appear in films in which they cannot take part. One infamous example occurred during the third season of The Sopranos, after actress Nancy Marchland, who played Tony’s mother Livia, had died. In 2000, the show’s creators had to spend a whole lot of money to recreate Livia Soprano for one scene that basically was the maximum of what CGI could do to recreate people at the turn of the 21st century.

The technology gradually improved over time. After dying in an unrelated car accident during production, Paul Walker was CGI’d into the Furious 7 thanks in part to body doubles—who just so happened to be Walker’s brothers. It was a challenge—despite Walker having largely shot his part for the film, the film had to be rewritten to account for his departure.

But when an actor dies, as in the case of Walker or Marchland, or is cancelled, as in the case of Garlin, it helps to have a Plan B (or Plan 9, honestly) at the ready. You never know when you’ll have to use it.

$125k

The amount that Crispin Glover said he was offered for his appearance in Back to the Future II, which he reportedly rejected, asking for $1 million instead, in part because he hated the script. Director Robert Zemeckis (who, if The Polar Express is anything to go by, might be the patron saint of Fake Shemps) replaced Glover with a prosthetic-covered new actor, Jeffrey Weissman, while working in scenes of Glover from the first film. Glover sued, but eventually came to an agreement with the studio—which led to a Screen Actors Guild contract clause that bars filmmakers from reproducing an actor’s likeness without their permission. In other words, no Fake Shemps without asking.

This Pink Panther scene, despite being filmed in 1976, wasn’t actually used until 1982—two and a half years after Peter Sellers had died.

Five notable examples of the Fake Shemp phenomenon

  1. Harrison Ford’s lookalike Indiana Jones stuntman. Vic Armstrong, who worked on the first three Indiana Jones films, was very close in appearance to Ford—so much so that he was able to take over for the actor after Ford aggravated a back injury while filming Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
  2. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’ creative workaround. After Heath Ledger died in the middle of filming Terry Gilliam’s fantasy film, Gilliam rolled with the punches, leveraging other famous actors to fill in for Ledger, with a little CGI magic to sell the vision. According to Gilliam, “no one actor who could replace Heath and what he’s doing in the film.”
  3. David Beckham in Bend It Like Beckham. Despite giving the film its title, Beckham doesn’t actually appear in the film beyond stock footage. (Though, per Insider, he did give his OK for the film’s use of his name.) And while Beckham and his wife, Victoria, seems to appear near the end of the movie, it’s actually Andy Harmer, a professional Beckham lookalike portraying the iconic football star.
  4. Recent Star Wars films. No, Disney didn’t bring Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher back from the dead, but the studio did find ways to use their modest CGI resources to create films that featured the characters. The best of these efforts was less CGI-driven—J.J. Abrams used some creative filmmaking techniques, including a whole bunch of crate-digging, to work Carrie Fisher into The Rise of Skywalker. (Ironically, Garlin had a very small role in that movie.)
  5. Peter Sellers in Trail of the Pink Panther. Sellers had been dead for more than a year before this 1982 film started shooting, and yet they still made the film based around deleted scenes of Sellers in five previous films from The Pink Panther series—a series that ran over a nearly 20-year period, which meant that Sellers’ age varied greatly onscreen. The film was controversial enough that Sellers widow, Lynne Frederick, sued over the production—and won. “It was an appalling film: Not a tribute to my husband but an insult to his memory,” she said in a Reuters article from the period.

Fake Shemp

The guy on the right: Not Shemp Howard.

What a “Fake Shemp” would look like for a writer

So, let’s say that, like Jeff Garlin or Paul Walker, I suddenly was unable to continue writing this newsletter, but there needed to still be issues of Tedium hitting your inbox. What would that look like?

It turns out that the answer is a lot different from what it might have been half a decade ago. See, technology for the processing and creation of text has significantly improved over the past few years, with one particular big gain coming from OpenAI’s Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3 (GPT-3), which was so impressive that Microsoft licensed it and exclusively put it on its cloud service.

If I were to “Fake Shemp” it up, the whole piece would have to be written as if it were a Tedium piece, and this fact would have to basically be hidden from the readership somehow. I can’t do that at this point—and good thing, I’d be out of a job—and I probably wouldn’t want to, because of the ethical issues it would raise.

So I’m fully admitting that I asked a bot to take a stab at writing about this topic. See, it turns out the new search engine You.com recently released a tool that does just that. Offered the prompt “The history of the Fake Shemp phenomenon, inspired by the use of CGI to replace Jeff Garlin in The Goldbergs’ 200th episode,” the AI wrote this in response:

The Goldbergs’ 200th episode is a milestone for any show. But to commemorate this occasion, the producers of The Goldbergs used CGI to replace Jeff Garlin with a Fake Shemp.

For those not familiar with the term, “Shemp” is an industry term used to describe a fake or stand-in actor. The name comes from Shemp Howard, who was one of the Three Stooges after Curly Howard died. When Moe and Larry needed someone to fill in for Curly, they would use Shemp as his replacement.

In recent years, Hollywood has relied more on CGI effects to create believable replacements for actors who have passed away or are unable to appear in certain scenes due to health reasons. For example, Paul Walker was replaced by his brothers in some scenes of Furious 7 after he died in a car accident during production. And Peter Cushing was brought back to life using CGI for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (although some fans criticized Disney for their decision).

But while CG effects can be convincing when used sparingly, there’s something about seeing a Fake Shemp that just feels … off. It reminds us that we’re watching a movie or TV show and breaks our suspension of disbelief. In fact, many viewers were so distracted by the appearance of the Fake Shemp that they took to social media shortly after episode aired airing to express their disappointment with the 200th episode milestone stunt.

The fascinating part to me is that I tried this very trick nearly six years ago, and the result was way worse. That’s not to say that the bot has it right—for one thing, it failed to properly describe the “Fake Shemp” phenomenon, nor properly articulate the circumstances of why CGI was used to replace Garlin.

But it did properly describe how CGI is used to create modern-day Fake Shemps, which is actually pretty nuanced … to the point where I can actually give this bot some credit for doing a good job.

It can be easy to forget that filmmaking is a sort of practical magic, a way to convince us that what’s happening on screen is not only convincing but realistic.

But in a way, the Fake Shemp is often a reminder that filmmakers can only make that magic go so far on their own. In many cases, filmmakers are working within tight restrictions—deadline and budget, just to name two—to complete a production, and when an actor is no longer available, it can be complicated to compensate.

Just think about your own job for a second—if a tool you use to complete your work just disappeared one day, and that tool was vital enough that you couldn’t complete your job in quite the same way, you might have to improvise and consider strategies to resolve the problem, at least temporarily.

That’s kind of what the film industry did in all of these cases: Maybe your star’s back goes out but stopping shooting now would cost a lot of money; maybe an actor, at least in your view, grossly overestimates how much of a salary he can command for his relatively small part in a popular film series; maybe your small production wants to highlight someone ultra-famous, but that ultra-famous person is way out of your budget; maybe your production is so barebones that, to use the original actors would slow the whole production down.

Or maybe your family sitcom’s patriarch won’t stop running his mouth on set, creating an uncomfortable work environment that threatens more than just his lines.

Ultimately, these productions needed a Fake Shemp. Perhaps you might need a Fake Sheep in your life, too.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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