The leaner, meaner, faster-talking half of one of America's greatest comedic duos, Bud Abbott, along with his partner Lou Costello, was one of Hollywood's biggest stars throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Born into a show business family, Abbott already had years of experience as a show producer, promoter and performer by the time he teamed up with fellow vaudevillian Costello in the mid-1930s. Growing recognition on the stages of New York eventually led to a guest stint on a popular national radio program, followed by their first film as a team, "One Night in the Tropics" (1940). With the massive success of their sophomore effort, "Buck Privates" (1941), Abbott and his cohort became two of the biggest movie stars of the wartime era. More hit films like "Pardon My Sarong" (1942), "In Society" (1944) and "The Naughty Nineties" (1945), combined with popular radio appearances on their own program and others like "The Kate Smith Show" - which first broadcast their famous "Who's on First?" routine - kept them at the top of the entertainment heap, despite critics' dismissal of their oeuvre as being decidedly lowbrow. The comedy-monster mash-up "Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein" (1948) marked not only the beginning of their repetitive "Abbot and Costello Meet " phase, but of their inevitable over-exposure and consequent slump in popularity. As the team's career deteriorated, so too did Abbott's relationship with Costello. The comedy "Dance with Me, Henry" (1956) marked their final film appearance together before the team split up in 1957 and Costello died in 1959. Semi-retired and in increasingly poor health, Abbott passed away at the age of 78 in 1974. One of the best at what he did and in the underappreciated position of comic foil, Bud Abbott was openly admired by Costello, who frequently insisted, "Comics are a dime a dozen, but good straight men are hard to find."
Born William Alexander Abbott on Oct. 2, 1895 in Asbury Park, NJ, "Bud" was the son of Rae Abbott, a bareback rider, and Harry Abbott, a publicist and booking agent with Barnum and Bailey Circus, for which they both worked. Understandably drawn to the world of show business, Abbott dropped out of school in 1909 to work at New York's Coney Island, where his father was then employed. His young life took a bizarre, unexpected turn, when at the age of 15, Abbott was drugged and shanghaied on a Norwegian-bound shipping vessel. After miraculously making his way back home, a now street-wise Abbott began working in burlesque theater, where he met his future wife, Jenny, who was a dancer and comedienne. Following a stint with the National Theater in Detroit, MI, where he gained a reputation as a talented comedic "straight man," Abbott returned to the New York area where he and Betty produced a small variety "tab show" on the thriving burlesque circuit. Although details may have been embellished over the decades, the most widely-related version of events stated that in the early 1930s, a young comic named Lou Costello needed a last-minute replacement for his then-straight man, who had become suddenly ill. Abbott happened to be working at the theater box office that night, and having had a fair amount of experience in the position, graciously volunteered his services. The pair clicked and a legend was born. After several impromptu repeat performances and the urging of Bud's wife, the comedy team of Abbott and Costello officially formed in 1936.
With the rotund Costello in the role of the affably dim-witted funnyman, Abbott and his new partner refined their routine and gradually began making a name for themselves as they performed their act at various burlesque shows, vaudeville theaters and movie house venues. After being signed to the William Morris Agency, Abbott and his collaborator gained national exposure when they became featured performers on the popular radio variety program "The Kate Smith Show" in 1938. The following year - during which time they also appeared in the Broadway review of "The Streets of Paris" - the funnymen were signed by Universal Pictures for a two-movie deal. Abbott and Costello made their feature film debut in "One Night in the Topics" (1940). Although cast in supporting roles, the duo virtually stole the show in the lighthearted comedy, giving audiences an abbreviated version of their famous "Who's on First?" bit, a word-play routine already made popular on the Kate Smith radio program. The movie was a sizable hit, with Abbott and his portly partner garnering much of the accolades. After renegotiating a new long-term contract with Universal, Abbott and Costello next appeared onscreen as the stars of "Buck Privates" (1941), a boot-camp comedy released prior to America's entry into World War II. The first of three films in which the team would co-star alongside the Andrews Sisters, it not only outgrossed "Citizen Kane" (1941) at the box-office, but its famous "drill routine" was later notoriously used by the Japanese as wartime propaganda as an illustration of the "ineptitude" of the average U.S. soldier.
The huge success of "Buck Privates" made movie stars of Abbott and Costello, and the pair wasted no time getting back into the studio for a string of hits, beginning with "In the Navy" (1941), "Hold That Ghost" (1941) and "Pardon My Sarong" (1942). The following year the hugely popular duo was given a radio show of their own with "The Abbott and Costello Show," which aired for nearly a decade. In 1942, the comedy team of Abbott and Costello became the No. 1 box office draw for the year, and would remain in the Top Ten continuously until 1952. One of the most popular acts it the country, they embarked on two cross-country promotional tours, selling War Bonds, during which they raised tens of millions of dollars for the U.S. military effort. Amidst the height of their success, there was also tragedy. Following a lengthy bout with rheumatic fever, Lou Costello had returned to work on their radio show in 1943, only to be informed that his only son, Lou, Jr., had drowned in the pool earlier that day. In the epitome of the old showbiz axiom, "The show must go on," Costello performed with Abbott as scheduled, only informing the radio audience of his personal loss after the show. In spite of such heartbreaking events, the streak of hit films continued with fun-loving romps like "It Ain't Hay" (1943), "In Society" (1944) and "Here Come the Co-Eds" (1945). In the best of these films, the boys played good-natured bumbling schemers and con men who experience changes of heart and/or fortune after being caught up in circumstances beyond their meager control.
At the top of the box office heap throughout World War II, America could not get enough of Abbott and his cohort. They even revived their old "Who's on First?" routine with a lengthier, unabridged version for the film "The Naughty Nineties" (1945). On the flip side of that equation, when they attempted to divert from the established pattern of their previous efforts - as they did in "Little Giant" (1945) and "The Time of Their Lives" (1945), which gave both players more individual storylines and injected a touch of drama into the proceedings - moviegoers where less enthusiastic. In their more appreciated vehicles, the pair cavorted and double-talked their way through enjoyable frolics such as "Buck Privates Come Home" (1947) and Mexican Hayride" (1948). However, a slight change of trajectory in Abbott's career came with the inevitable effects of overexposure, and a reliance upon an initially winning, but eventually lazy formula struck upon by the ailing studio, Universal Pictures. At first, "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948) served as a wacky hybrid vehicle in which Universal could get additional mileage out of its stable of classic movie monsters. And although audiences initially howled at the hilarious antics of Bud and Lou avoiding the clutches of Frankenstein's Monster (Glenn Strange), Dracula (Bèla Lugosi) and the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.), the shtick soon grew stale with subsequent retreads, including "Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man" (1951) and "Abbott and Costello Go to Mars" (1953), among others.
That was not to say that Abbott and Costello were no longer popular. The pair found a highly receptive audience on television, where, in addition to their films being frequently seen in reruns, they were also given a half-hour comedy program of their own: "The Abbott and Costello Show" (syndicated, 1952-54). Nonetheless, there were other aspiring successors to the comedy team throne by that time - primarily, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis - and by the time they released the last of their big screen efforts, "Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy" (1955) and "Dance with Me, Henry" (1956), they were as tired of each other as it seemed America had become with their long-running act. Even though their relationship had been badly strained by a previous disagreement and Abbott's increased reliance on alcohol to cope with the epilepsy that plagued him throughout his life, the two were tearfully reunited on a 1956 segment of "This Is Your Life" (NBC, 1952-1961). Shortly thereafter, however, the team of Abbott and Costello officially called it quits in 1957. Both men, inveterate gamblers, had fallen under the scrutiny of the IRS, and Abbott was eventually forced into bankruptcy. Following the death of Costello from a heart attack in 1959, Abbott attempted to revive his burlesque career alongside a new partner, vocalist Candy Candido. The act did not catch on with audiences, however, and after stating that "No one could ever live up to Lou," Abbott quit the act in 1960. He later provided his own voice for the Hannah-Barbera cartoon "Abbott & Costello" (syndicated, 1967-68), with actor Stan Irwin filling in vocally for Costello. Following a series of strokes in the early-1960s, an increasingly infirmed Bud Abbott died on April 24, 1974. He was 78 years old.