Sitka served the role of a literal "stooge," or straight man, to the Three Stooges throughout nearly 40 of their short films, most of which were filmed during Shemp's run as the third stooge. In addition to one single appearance during Curly's run with the trio, and a limited number of appearances during Besser's, Sitka returned as a near-regular character when the trio returned to film and television with DeRita. His frequent appearances with the trio, and his role as stooge to the stooges, have earned him the informal title of being the "fourth stooge."
Sitka was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1914. He was the oldest of five children, born of Slovak 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 found inexpensive lodging in a small acting theater, doing handiwork to pay his rent, and gradually acting in small parts in the theater. With time and experience, the parts became larger, and eventually Sitka was directing plays as well. Since the theater did not pay, Emil always kept a job as a civil engineer to pay the bills as well as his acting career at night. By 1946, he had played dozens, if not hundreds of roles; this breadth of experience would help him in his later film career, playing everything from butler to lawyer to businessman to construction worker.
In 1946, Sitka was leading his own acting troupe when he was spotted by a talent scout for Columbia Pictures. He was told to contact Jules White, head of Columbia Pictures' short film department, and was cast in a short film that White was directing — Hiss and Yell. starring Barbara Jo Allen as her character "Vera Vague." Hiss and Yell was nominated for an Academy Award. Several months and many films later, he was cast in his first Three Stooges film — Half-Wits Holiday. At the time, Sitka did not know who the Three Stooges were.
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, who was never able to return to a regular performing role, 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 (one of the four Three Stooges shorts that lapsed into the public domain and thus was distributed freely and widely).
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.
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!"
Sitka and first wife Donna Driscoll married in the 1940s and divorced in the 1960s. He married longtime girlfriend Edith Weber in the 1970s; they were married until her death in 1981.
Sitka had seven children: daughters Elonka and Little-Star; and sons Rudigor, Storm, Tao, Darrow, and Saxon. All children are from the first marriage. Saxon carries on his father's legacy by appearing at Stooge conventions as often as possible.
While hosting several Stooge fans in his home in June 1997, Sitka suffered a massive stroke and never regained consciousness (one fan was a certified EMT and was able to keep Sitka alive until paramedics arrived). He died on January 16, 1998 in Camarillo, California, less than a month after his 83rd birthday. He is interred next to his wife Edith at Conejo Mountain Memorial Park in Camarillo. As a tribute to his tenure with the Stooges, Sitka's gravestone reads "Hold hands, you lovebirds!", as well as "He danced all the way."