Abbott & Costello in Buck Privates ( 1941 )
Bud Abbott ( 1895 – 1974 )
Lou Costello ( 1906 – 1959 )
Before running off to try his luck in Hollywood, Lou Costello was an amateur boxer in his home town of Paterson, New Jersey, fighting under a fake name so his mother would not find out. He won 32 consecutive victories before being knocked out one night.
When Bud Abbott and Lou became a team in 1936 and hit the vaudeville and burlesque circuits they carried with them over 200 comedic procedures, most of them verbal misunderstandings such as their classic ‘Who’s on First?’ routine. Straight man Abbott took 60% of the money and Costello only 40%, an arrangement that was actually Lou’s idea! To those who loved Costello’s antics it seems inconceivable that Abbott could be deemed more important to the act, but it was true. As Costello often explained, ‘Comedians were a dime a dozen then’. Straight men were a rarity so they earned more. It was simply a question of supply and demand.
Costello always knew he was funny, yet he started out as a stuntman when he first arrived in Hollywood after dropping out of school to pursue a career in the movies. He got a job as a carpenter at MGM and Warners, before doing some stunt work and then eventually working as a comic in vaudeville. He teamed up with Abbott in 1931 when Lou’s straight man fell ill. Abbott was the cashier at the theatre and agreed to fill in. It should be stated that he was not a novice at playing a straight man. Far from it. Abbott had worked with several good comics before. He and Costello hit it off right away and would stay together for decades.
A contract with Universal turned the duo into wealthy men in the 1940s as their movies struck pay-dirt in a huge way. By 1942 they were officially number one at the box-office. As a publicity stunt they insured themselves with Lloyd’s of London for $100,000 in case someone died from laughter during one of their films. As rich as they were, however, Costello always felt that Universal was cheating them out of profits from their pictures. And he was right. For several years the company had been lifting 8 mm clips from their pictures and selling them to the burgeoning home-movie market, without telling either man about it. They sued the studio and won a tidy out-of-court settlement.
Today, we watch their movies and are struck by the childish style, especially from Costello, yet from 1941 until 1952 these two guys were pretty much cemented into the Top 10 Box-Office attractions in America. They made 36 films together and the public adored them. The Japanese even showed the Buck Privates (1941) drilling sequence to their recruits to demonstrate the stupidity and hopelessness of the American soldier. Fair enough I suppose, given the hundreds of American movies that depicted German and Japanese soldiers as mindless morons.
As his surname implies, Lou was an Italian Catholic. So was his wife. When their only son, Lou Junior, drowned in their backyard pool just before his first birthday, Costello blamed his wife for not watching the boy closely enough. The marriage was virtually wrecked overnight, but because divorce in 1943 America for two Catholics was nigh on impossible they remained married until his death in 1959. Rheumatic fever contracted in the year his son died damaged Lou’s heart and would eventually lead to a coronary sixteen years later.
Lou with Lou junior
Lou actually learned of his little boy’s death moments before he and Abbott were due to go on the air with their radio show. Being from the ‘old school’ of performing, the one that believed in the unwritten law that, ‘the show must go on’, he proceeded with the broadcast which included their famous ‘Who’s on First?’ routine. Witnesses said later that Lou did the entire thing with tears streaming down his face. As soon as the show ended he collapsed in the corner of the room. He would never get over his boy’s death.
their famous ‘Who’s on first?’ routine
At the height of the ‘Reds scare’ in the fifties Lou became obsessed about the danger of Communists taking over the movie industry. He would take petitions around all the studios asking people to sign them, stating whether or not they were members of the Communist Party. It is not often written about, but both he and Bud had a penchant for pornographic movies and dealt with gangsters and prostitutes on a regular basis. In fact, the FBI placed them under surveillance for over a decade, which says a lot about J Edgar Hoover. The man who categorically denied the very existence of organized crime in the USA squandered taxpayers’ dollars detailing agents to shadow harmless little Louie Costello.
Lou and Bud were compulsive gamblers and that compulsion would eventually lead to ruin, for Bud in particular. In 1946 the Hitching Post Cinema in Beverly Hills showed only westerns, and the famed comedy duo became regular patrons. They would bring in their gambling pals to bet on all manner of things in each movie; even on how many white horses might appear within certain time limits. The oft used term, ‘betting on two flies crawling up the wall’ may very well have been coined for them.
Bud in his final years
Shortly after Lou’s death in 1959, Abbott was hit for $750,000 back-taxes by the Internal Revenue Service. He was forced to sell everything he owned including his remaining shares in the comedy duo’s old Universal movies. Then he publicly announced that he was broke and called for donations! The response was lukewarm at best. An epileptic all his life (he even suffered an occasional attack during a performance), it was prostate cancer that would claim him in 1974 at the age of 78. He died flat broke.