For Emil Sitka, the past is as sweet as the countless cream pies that once plastered his mug.
"All those hits. . ." he recalls, stretching out in an easy chair at his Camarillo home. "Moe was really very soft with them, very gentle. He was a master."
Sitka should know. As a favorite foil of the Three Stooges, he endured the twisted nose, the gouged eye, the pounded head and the artfully flung pie. In some 70 zany episodes, he was the Stooges' first-chair second-banana, playing butlers, scientists, businessmen and other models of uprightness ensnared and undone by the unholy trio.
"I did authority parts, dominant parts, high-society parts, whatever," he says. "In my roles, I'm in conflict with the Stooges. I'm dignified. I'm someone they're always trying to get around."
And so they did for more than 20 years, chortling, wisecracking and nyuk-nyuk-nyuking all the way from "Halfwits Holiday" to "Flying Saucer Daffy," with stops at "Pies and Guys," "Three Hams on Rye," "Vagabond Loafers," "Jungle Gents," "The Three Stooges Meet Hercules" and other minor classics.
A veteran character actor who also worked with the likes of Lucille Ball, Red Skelton and Cesar Romero, Sitka still takes the occasional movie role. He last appeared in "The XYZ Murders" in 1987.
A hearty 74, he is living out the perfect retirement. He swims and dances. He plays paddle tennis. He has a wide circle of friends.
But his heart belongs to the Stooges. He talks about them at schools and colleges. He keeps up a brisk correspondence with fans, whose outpourings are stacked around his dining-room table and on his kitchen counters. His Leisure Village condo is packed with Stooges memorabilia. His license plate says STOOGES. Weekends, he tries to catch their ancient antics on TV.
"They used to call me One-Take Sitka," he proudly recalls. "At first, they gave me six shirts for the pie fights, because the pies would have to hit just the right way. If they missed by even a little bit, it was off to the showers.
"But I'd already been on the stage for 10 years. I was used to doing things just once. I'd do it--bingo!--in just one take."
Sitka did not begin life as a straight man.
An orphan, he was raised in a Catholic church home in Pittsburgh, where he spent his youth studying for the priesthood. His first theatrical role was in a church Passion play, leading the mob that wanted to crucify Jesus.
"I was sold on acting from then on," he says.
But the Depression ended his budding career with a Pittsburgh stock company. He and his brother lived under a bridge in New York for six months, rode the rails and begged food and work from coast to coast.
In 1936 he landed in Los Angeles, where he happened by a rehearsal in a small theater. He wound up living in the dressing room for two years as he honed his craft. By day, he worked a series of odd jobs; by night, he starred in works as somber as Maxim Gorky's "The Lower Depths."
He was recognized as the year's best local actor by Playgoer Magazine in 1946--which also was the year he was plucked from a play called "The Viper's Fang" and thrust into his first film with the Stooges.
"A scout from Columbia found me," he recalls, "playing a maniac dentist who wanted to pull teeth. They kept me chained in a basement."
But different roles awaited him under the tutelage of director Jules White in Columbia's comedy department.
"My first Stooges role was as a butler in 'Halfwits Holiday.' He told me to do it like William Powell in 'My Man Godfrey'--very sophisticated, very smooth. Curly called me 'sir' almost through the entire shooting."
"Halfwits Holiday" ended in tragedy. It was to be the last major role for Curly--by far the most popular of all six men who were to perform as Stooges. He suffered a stroke on the set and died six years later.
"He slumped over in his chair and couldn't get up," says Sitka. "They had to redo the pie fight."
Sitka quickly scaled the ladder of low comedy. "They'd rely on me for anything special," he says. "I'd be the one with the hose up my sleeve for the water that's supposed to come out the phone."
Today, he is a legend. Stooge entrepreneurs sell signed Emil Sitka notes and canceled Emil Sitka checks for $10 and up. Stooge scholars call him for his reminiscences.
In a recent survey by Gary Lassin, president of the 2,000-member Three Stooges Fan Club, Sitka was named second most popular Stooge supporting actor. The most popular, Vernon Dent, is dead. He edged Sitka out by a hair, Lassin said.
"He's the closest thing to a Stooge that people can get to right now," said Lassin, an accountant for a Philadelphia mail-order company. "Emil is the next best thing to a Stooge."
Stooge fans, a tightknit group of folks who tend to say "Keep Stoogin' " instead of "Goodby"--seek Sitka's blessings -- literally.