Emil Josef Sitka was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on December 22, 1914, to a young immigrant couple from Czechoslovakia. Emil's father was welder by trade, but he found it hard to get work of any kind. Searching for employment, the family moved soon after Emil's birth to Pittsburgh, the city he grew up in and considered his hometown. Over the next decade, the family settled into an area called the Strip and grew until Emil found himself the eldest of five young children.
One week after Emil's fourteenth birthday, tragedy struck when his father died suddenly of stomach cancer. Emil tried to help his mother take care of the family but it wasn't enough. Eventually she became ill and had to be hospitalized. While his brothers and sisters went to live in foster homes, Emil was taken in by the Reverend Father James R. Cox, the priest at Old St. Patrick's Church where Emil served as an altar boy. Emil moved into a small unused room in an old convent next door to the church. He planned to study to someday become a Catholic priest himself.
By chance, the artist John Kane was living in the same old convent building, also as a guest of Father Cox. Emil developed an interest in art and began expressing himself by drawing great men of the era. He was evidently inspired by the success of John Kane, who, despite his continuing poverty, was achieving worldwide fame for his inclusion in several Carnegie International Exhibitions.
At the same time, Emil was introduced to acting, drama and the theater. He accepted a role in his church's annual Passion Play and he loved the experience. He was intrigued by the power of a strong performance and the effect it could have on an audience. This was the beginning of a career in acting that would take Emil from the solemn story of Jesus Christ to the wacky comedy of The Three Stooges!