Emil Josef Sitka was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on December 22, 1914, to a young immigrant couple from eastern Europe. Emil's father was an engineer before coming to the U.S., but once here he could find employment only in coal mines and steel mills. Searching for work, 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 in and grew until Emil found himself the eldest of five young children.
When Emil was thirteen years old, tragedy struck when his father died suddenly of black lung disease. Emil tried to help his mother take care of the family but 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 the church where he planned to study to someday become a Catholic priest himself. Emil also developed an interest in art and began expressing himself by drawing great men of the era.
During this same time, Emil was introduced to theater and drama when he was offered a role in his church's annual Passion Play. Emil loved the experience and was intrigued by the power of a good performance. 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.