Lou Costello in Africa Screams (1949)
|Born||Louis Francis Cristillo
March 6, 1906
Paterson, New Jersey, U.S.
|Died||March 3, 1959
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death
|Calvary Cemetery, East Los Angeles|
|Spouse(s)||Anne Battler (1934–1959) 4 children|
|Children||Paddy Costello-Humphreys (born 1936)
Carole Costello (1938–1987)
Lou Costello, Jr. (1942–1943)
Christine Costello (born 1947)
Louis Francis Cristillo (March 6, 1906 – March 3, 1959), known by the stage name Lou Costello, was an American actor and comedian best remembered for the comedy double act of Abbott and Costello, with Bud Abbott. Costello played a chubby, bumbling character. He was known for the catchphrases "Heeeeyyy, Abbott!" and "I'm a baaaaad boy!"
Costello was born Louis Francis Cristillo on March 6, 1906, in Paterson, New Jersey, the son of Helen (née Rege) and Sebastiano Cristillo. His father was Italian (from Calabria, Italy) and his mother was an American of Italian, French, and Irish ancestry. He attended School 15 in Paterson, NJ, and was considered a gifted athlete. He excelled in basketball and reportedly was once the New Jersey state free throw champion (his singular basketball prowess can be seen in Here Come The Co-Eds (1945), in which he performs all his own tricky hoop shots without special effects). He also fought as a boxer under the name "Lou King". He took his professional name from actress Helene Costello.
On January 30, 1934, Costello married Anne Battler, a burlesque dancer. Their first child, Patricia "Paddy" Costello, was born in 1936, followed by Carole on December 23, 1938, and Lou Jr. (nicknamed "Butch") on November 6, 1942. On August 15, 1947, their last child, Christine, was born.
As a young man, Costello was a great admirer of silent movie great Charlie Chaplin, and in 1927 Costello went to Hollywood to become an actor, but could only find work as a laborer or extra at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Warner Brothers, including MGM's The Fair Co-Ed (1927). His athletic skill brought him occasional work as a stunt man, notably in The Trail of '98 (1928). He can also be spotted sitting ringside in the Laurel and Hardy film The Battle of the Century (1927).
Burlesque and Bud Abbott
In 1930, discouraged by his lack of success, he hitchhiked back home but ran out of money in Saint Joseph, Missouri during the Great Depression. There he changed his stage name to "Costello", after actress Helene Costello, and convinced a local burlesque theater owner to let him perform, taking the stage as a Dutch-accented comic. Soon after, he went back to New York and began working in vaudeville and burlesque theaters there.
While Costello was working in vaudeville, he met a talented straight man named Bud Abbott. (A straight man is the "unfunny" half of a comedy duo who sets up the jokes for the comic to deliver the punch lines.)
Abbott pitched the idea of teaming up, and after working together sporadically, Abbott and Costello formally teamed up in 1936. Reportedly, their first disagreement as a performing team was over billing. Lou Costello wanted top billing, but Bud Abbott pointed out the vaudeville tradition of the straight man's name appearing first on the bill, and Costello went along. They performed together in burlesque shows, minstrel shows, vaudeville and movie houses.
In 1938 came the second major disagreement between the comedy partners. The duo received an offer to appear for 10 weeks at the Pantages Theater, considered at the time to be the pinnacle of vaudeville success, and would give them the chance to perform in front of major talent scouts from the radio and film industries. Costello wanted to accept the offer, but they were already booked at other theaters during that time, and Bud Abbott was concerned that they would anger theater owners across the country by cancelling their tour, and would be unemployable when their stint at Pantages was over. Costello wanted to break out of vaudeville into other areas, and was convinced this was their shot at the "big-time". As an inducement to the hesitant Abbott, Costello offered him 60% of their Pantages salary, which, after Abbott's wife encouraged her husband to take the risk, he accepted.
Radio and Hollywood
The Pantages gamble paid off, and Abbott and Costello were signed by the William Morris talent agency. Seeking to enlarge the duo's stature by putting them on the radio, they received national exposure for the first time in 1938, by becoming featured cast members on The Kate Smith Hour, a popular variety show.
Before appearing on the show, Bud Abbott's friend, comedy screenwriter John Grant, was hired to rework some standard vaudeville routines that every stage comic of the day performed, to better fit the duo's performance style. Some of the classic Abbott and Costello bits that resulted from Grant's work were "Loan Me $50", "Mudder/Fodder", and their signature routine, "Who's on First?"
The duo became associated with the latter routine, in which Abbott enumerated the names of a mythical baseball team, whose members have nicknames of "Who" who plays first base, "What" on second base and "I don't know" on third, etc. This confounds Costello when they are addressed simply as "Who", "What" and "I don't know".
They were hugely successful on the Smith program, which led their appearance in a Broadway play in 1939, The Streets of Paris.That same year they were signed to a movie contract with Universal Pictures.
They only had supporting roles in their first picture, One Night in the Tropics (1940), but stole the film with their classic routines, including a much-shortened version of "Who's On First?" (a more complete version was performed in The Naughty Nineties, released in 1945).
In another baseball-related word-play routine "Slaughter the Baseball Player" ("Who's On First" full radio broadcast), they are looking to buy a baseball bat and the one available was made for Enos Slaughter, and the more sadistic "Ninth Inning Steal" routine in which Bud and Lou rob an unsuspecting person by distracting him with a sensational baseball game recounting, unaware that someone else has already robbed the intended target using the same distraction. A modified version of the "Ninth Inning Steal" is shown in the movie Pardon My Sarong when bus drivers Bud and Lou try to steal gas from a gas station attendant.
The team's breakthrough picture, however, was Buck Privates, released early in 1941. They immediately became the top-ranking comedy stars in Hollywood and fans looked forward to each of their pictures as a major event.
Most moviegoers had never seen the duo's burlesque routines, and so their dated but hilarious material seemed fresh. Many of their films cast them as bumbling servicemen such as In The Navy and Keep 'Em Flying.
The duo made 36 films between 1940 and 1956, and were among the most popular and highest-paid entertainers in the world during World War II. Among their most popular films are Buck Privates, Hold That Ghost, Who Done It?, Pardon My Sarong, The Time of Their Lives, Buck Privates Come Home, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man.
In March 1943, after completing Hit the Ice, Costello had an attack of rheumatic fever and was unable to work for six months. On November 4 of that year he returned to the team's popular radio show, but a tragic event overshadowed his comeback. Upon arriving at the NBC studio, Lou received word that his infant son Lou Jr. had accidentally drowned in the family pool. During an afternoon nap, the baby worked loose one of the slats on his crib, and climbed out and fell into the pool, unnoticed by the nanny.  The baby ('Little Butch') was just two days short of his first birthday. Lou had asked his wife to keep Butch up that night so the boy could hear his father on the radio for the first time. Rather than cancel the broadcast, Lou said, "Wherever he is tonight, I want him to hear me," and went on with the show. No one in the audience knew of the death until after the show when Bud Abbott explained the events of the day, and how the phrase "The show must go on" had been epitomized by Lou that night. Costello's close friends, The Andrews Sisters said that his entire demeanor changed after the death of his son.
It was about this time that serious cracks began to appear in the relationship between Abbott and Costello. Lou Costello was a very competitive person who hated that his success came as part of a team, and made light of Abbott's contribution to the act, many times saying publicly that he could be just as funny without Bud Abbott, which the latter (usually very easy-going) bitterly resented.
Costello's on-stage childlike demeanor concealed an aggressive personality, and he constantly battled the studio, in addition to Abbott. Costello's resentment had a long memory and even though they were by this time two of the most wealthy people in Hollywood, Costello still bore a grudge at having to give Abbott 60% of their Pantages salary years earlier. He insisted that all future earnings for the pair from the studio be split 60–40, with Costello receiving the 60% share. He also renewed his billing objection, demanding that Universal give him top billing. Universal refused his demand to reverse the billing, stating that it had hired Abbott and Costello, not Costello and Abbott. They upped Costello's salary, not to the 60–40 arrangement Costello was seeking, but he was making more than Abbott, which caused additional friction between the partners.
In 1945, when Costello fired a domestic servant, and Abbott immediately hired the person, Costello announced that he no longer wished to work with Abbott. They were still under contract to Universal, however and were required to complete two movies in 1946, in which they rarely appeared on screen together. Abbott and Costello by now were not speaking to one another at all off-camera.
A year later, Bud Abbott reached out to heal their relationship, suggesting that the foundation Costello had founded be named the Lou Costello Jr. Youth Foundation, which touched Lou Costello deeply.
Their radio program moved to ABC (the former NBC Blue Network) from 1947 to 1949.
In 1951 the duo became one of the rotating hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour (Eddie Cantor and Bob Hope were among the others) and the following year they inaugurated their own situation comedy, The Abbott and Costello Show. Costello owned the half-hour series, with Abbott working on salary. The show, which was loosely adapted from their radio program, ran for two seasons, from 1952 to 1954, but found a new life as syndicated reruns.
They were forced to withdraw from Fireman Save My Child in 1954 due to Costello's poor health—he had been plagued by heart problems all his life due to a childhood bout of rheumatic fever—and were replaced by lookalikes Hugh O'Brian and Buddy Hackett. They were dropped by Universal the following year.
Lou and Abbott split up
By the mid-1950s Abbott and Costello films were no longer box-office gold, and after a failure to come to terms with the team, Universal dropped their movie contract in 1955. With radio, film, and television vehicles, they suffered from overexposure, and the team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were the new hot entertainment commodity that Abbott and Costello had been a decade earlier.
In 1956, after troubles with the Internal Revenue Service forced both men to sell off their large homes and the rights to some of their films, Abbott and Costello made their final film together, an independent film production called Dance With Me, Henry. The film sought to be something other than the pure slapstick vehicles that audiences were accustomed to, and the film was a box-office disappointment and received mixed critical reviews.
Abbott and Costello formally dissolved their partnership in July 1957 (this time amicably),and Costello then pursued a solo stand up career, including stints in Las Vegas, and sought out film projects for himself. He appeared several times on Steve Allen's fledgling television show, The Tonight Show but most often in variations of his old routines, with Louis Nye or Tom Poston taking on the straight man role. Costello sought to be known as something other than the funny fat man in the baggy clothes, and played a dramatic role on television's Wagon Train.
After making the film, The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock, Costello died of a heart attack at Doctors' Hospital in Beverly Hills on March 3, 1959, three days before his 53rd birthday. A funeral Mass was held at his parish, St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Sherman Oaks. He is interred at the Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles, California. His last words as reported in the March 4, 1959 Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Evening Mirror News were "I think I'll be more comfortable," according to a private nurse who was the only person in the room with him at the time. The widely reported claim that he died in the presence of friends and that his last words were actually "that was the best ice-cream soda I ever tasted" appears to be incorrect, although the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Evening Mirror News articles both note Costello eating a strawberry ice-cream soda earlier that day in the presence of his manager Eddie Sherman, making it possible that the quoted statement was uttered at that time. Anne, his wife, was at his side most of the day, but was sent home by her assuring husband only an hour before his death at 3:55pm.
That same year on December 5, Lou's widow Anne died from an apparent heart attack at age 47.
Family legacy in the entertainment industry
Costello's older brother, Pat Costello (Anthony Sebastian Cristillo 1902–1990) was a stuntman and an actor, mostly performing the stunts in place of Lou.
Costello's sister, Marie Katherine Cristillo (1912–1988) was married to actor Joe Kirk (Nat Curcuruto), who portrayed "Mr. Bacciagalupe" on the Abbott and Costello radio and television shows and appeared in supporting roles in several of the team's films.
Lou and Anne's second daughter, Carole, appeared in uncredited baby roles in several Abbott and Costello films. She went on to become a contestant coordinator for the game show Card Sharks as well as a nightclub singer. She died of a stroke on March 29, 1987 at age 49 while married to Craig Martin, eldest son of Dean Martin. Carole's daughter, Marki Costello, is an actress, director and producer in film and television.
On June 26, 1992, the city of Paterson, New Jersey—in conjunction with the Lou Costello Memorial Association—erected a statue of Costello in the newly named Lou Costello Memorial Park in the city's historic downtown section. It shows Costello holding a baseball bat, a reference to the team's most famous routine, 'Who's on first'. The statue has had brief appearances in two episodes of The Sopranos: "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Cold Stones".
In 2005 Madison Street, in the Sandy Hill section of Paterson, where Costello was born, was renamed Lou Costello's Place.
The centennial of Costello's birth was celebrated in Paterson on the first weekend in March 2006.
Between June 24, 2006, and June 26, 2006, the Fort Lee (NJ) Film Commission held a centennial film retrospective at the Fine Arts Theatre in Hollywood. Films screened included the premiere of a digital film made by the teenagers of the present day Lou Costello Jr. Recreation Center in East Los Angeles. Also premiered was a 35mm restored print of the Lou Costello-produced 1948 short film 10,000 Kids and a Cop, which was shot at the Lou Costello Jr. Youth Center in East Los Angeles.
In 2009 Costello was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
- The Colgate Comedy Hour: 1950–1951 season – rotating hosts
- The Abbott and Costello Show: December 1, 1952 – May 1, 1954
- March 21, 1958 General Electric Theater, episode Blaze of Glory.
- October 22, 1958 Wagon Train, episode The Tobias Jones Story.
- http://www.louandbud.com/Lou.htm, accessed January 30, 2007
- Thomas, B. (1977). Bud & Lou: The Abbott & Costello Story. Lippincott. ISBN 9780397011957. Retrieved 15 November 2014.
- "Public School #15". paterson.k12.nj.us. Retrieved 15 November 2014.
- Costello, Chris: "Lou's on First", p. 7. St. Martin's Press, 1981
- "Mrs. Lou Costello Fatally Stricken". Reading Eagle. 6 December 1959. Retrieved 21 November 2012.
- "Laurel & Hardy Films | Stills". laurelandhardyfilms.com. Retrieved 15 November 2014.
- "Abbott, Bud; and Costello, Lou". Encyclopedia Britannica. I: A-Ak – Bayes (15th ed.). Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. 2010. p. 13. ISBN 978-1-59339-837-8.
- Costello, 14-17
- SHERMAN, Eddie (Lou's manager) interviewed on the program This is Your Life, NBC TV, presented by Ralph Edwards, 1956 (16:08), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWpEOXvnOmA, accessed January 20, 2014
- "Lou Costello". Los Angeles Times.
- Lou Costello at Find a Grave
- "Death Takes Lou Costello". The Milwaukee Journal. 4 March 1959. Retrieved 16 June 2012.
- Cover of Los Angeles Times, March 4, 1959.
- Cover of Los Angeles Evening Mirror News, March 4, 1959.
- dying words of famous people – famous last words
- "Lou Costello's Widow Passes". Sunday Herald. 6 December 1959. Retrieved 21 November 2012.
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