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William Alexander Abbott
October 2, 1897
Asbury Park, New Jersey, U.S.
|Died||April 24, 1974 (aged 76)|
|Occupation||Actor, comedian, producer|
Groucho Marx declared Abbott "the greatest straight man ever."
Abbott was born in Asbury Park, New Jersey on October 2, 1897 into a show business family. His parents, Rae Fisher and Harry Abbott, had met while working for the Barnum and Bailey Circus. She was a bareback rider and he was a concessionaire and forage agent. Bud was the third of the couple's four childen. When Bud was a toddler the family relocated to Harlem, then to the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, and his father became a longtime advance man for the Columbia Burlesque Wheel. During the summer, when burlesque was on hiatus, his father worked at Dreamland Park in Coney Island. Bud dropped out of grammar school to work at the park. In his teens, Abbott signed on as a cabin boy on a Norwegian steamer but was soon forced to shovel coal. He worked his way back to the United States a year later.
In his late teens Abbott began working in the box office of the Casino Theatre in Brooklyn, a burlesque house on the Columbia wheel. He spent the next few years in burlesque box offices, rising to treasurer. In 1918, while working in Washington, D.C., he met and married Jenny Mae Pratt (1902–1981), a burlesque dancer and comedian who performed as Betty Smith. They remained together until his death 55 years later. Betty performed on the Columbia Wheel while Bud mostly remained behind the scenes. In 1923 he produced a cut-rate vaudeville tab show called Broadway Flashes, which toured on the small-time Gus Sun circuit. Abbott began performing as a straight man in the show when he could no longer afford to pay one. He continued producing and performing in burlesque shows on the Mutual Burlesque wheel, and as his reputation grew, he began working with veteran comedians like Harry Steppe and Harry Evanson. Abbott suffered from epilepsy starting from about 1926.
Lou Costello and Hollywood
Abbott crossed paths with Lou Costello in the early 1930s when Abbott was producing and performing in Minsky's Burlesque shows in New York and Costello was a rising comic. They worked together for the first time in 1935 at the Eltinge Theatre on 42nd Street after an illness sidelined Costello's regular partner. They formally teamed up in 1936, and performed together in burlesque, minstrel shows, what was left of vaudeville, and stage shows.
In 1938, they received national exposure as regulars on the Kate Smith Hour radio show, which led to roles in a Broadway musical, The Streets of Paris in 1939. In 1940, Universal signed the team for their first film, One Night in the Tropics. Despite having minor roles, Abbott and Costello stole the film with several classic routines, including an abbreviated version of "Who's On First?" Universal signed the team to a two-picture deal, and the first film, Buck Privates (1941), became a major hit and led to a long-term contract with the studio.
Arthur Lubin, who directed the team's first five starring films, later said: "I don't think there has ever been a finer straight man in the business than Bud Abbott. Lou would go off the script – because he was that clever with lines – and Bud would bring him right back."
During World War II, Abbott and Costello were among the most popular and highest-paid stars in the world. Between 1940 and 1956 they made 36 films and earned a percentage of the profits on each. They were among the Top 10 box office stars from 1941 through 1951, and placed No. 1 in 1942. They also had their own radio program (The Abbott and Costello Show) throughout the 1940s, first on NBC from 1942 to 1947, and from 1947 to 1949 on ABC. During a 35-day tour in the summer of 1942, the team sold $85 million worth of War Bonds.
Strain and split
Relations between Abbott and Costello were strained by egos and salary disputes. In burlesque they split their earnings 60%–40%, favoring Abbott, because the straight man was always viewed as the more valuable member of the team. This was eventually changed to 50%–50%, but after a year in Hollywood, Costello insisted on a 60%–40% split in his favor, and it remained so for the rest of their careers. Costello also demanded that the team be renamed "Costello and Abbott", but this was rejected by Universal Studios, resulting in a "permanent chill" between the two partners, according to Lou's daughter Chris Costello in her biography Lou's on First. Their relationship was further strained by Abbott's alcohol abuse, a habit motivated by his desire to stave off epileptic seizures.
The team's popularity waned in the 1950s, and the IRS demanded substantial back taxes, forcing the partners (both of whom had been free spenders and serious gamblers) to sell most of their assets, including the rights to many of their films. When the team's long-term contract with Universal was up in 1954, they demanded more money than the studio was willing to pay, and they were dropped after 14 years at the studio.
Abbott and Costello split in 1957. Costello made solo appearances on several TV shows, including the Steve Allen show, and did one film, The Thirty-Foot Bride of Candy Rock (released posthumously in 1959.) Costello died on March 3, 1959.
In 1960, Abbott began performing with a new partner, Candy Candido, to good reviews. But Abbott called it quits, remarking that "No one could ever live up to Lou." The following year, Abbott played a straight role in a dramatic television episode of General Electric Theater titled "The Joke's on Me". In 1964, he suffered the first in a series of strokes and recuperated at the Motion Picture Country Home. The following year, he appeared on the set of the Elvis Presley movie, Frankie and Johnny, with Barbara Stanwyck, Frank Sinatra and other celebrities when Presley donated $50,000 to the Motion Picture Relief Fund to help its $40 million building and endowment drive. In 1966, Abbott provided his own voice for the Hanna-Barbera animated series The Abbott and Costello Cartoon Show. Stan Irwin provided the voice of Lou Costello.
Bud and Betty Abbott were married for 55 years. The couple adopted two children: Bud Jr. (August 23, 1939 – January 19, 1997) in 1942 and Vickie in 1949.
Norman and Betty Abbott, the children of Bud's older sister, Olive, started their careers in Hollywood working behind the scenes on the Abbott and Costello films. Betty became Blake Edwards' longtime script supervisor, and Norman directed episodes of many television series, including Leave It to Beaver, The Jack Benny Program, Sanford and Son and Welcome Back, Kotter.
Bud has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: the radio star is located at 6333 Hollywood Boulevard, the motion pictures star is located at 1611 Vine Street, and the television star is located at 6740 Hollywood Boulevard.
Abbott died of cancer at age 76 on April 24, 1974, at his home in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles. He was cremated at Grandview Crematory in Glendale, California and his ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean three miles out from Santa Monica.
His widow, Betty, died on September 12, 1981.
Honors and awards
Abbott and Costello are among the few non-baseball personnel to be memorialized in the Baseball Hall of Fame, although they are not inductees of the Hall itself. A plaque and a gold record of the "Who's On First?" sketch have been on permanent display there since 1956, and the routine runs on an endless video loop in the exhibit area.
Abbott and Costello each have three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for their work in radio, television and motion pictures.
In 1942, they were voted the country's No. 1 Box Office Stars by exhibitors. They ranked among the Top Ten in 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1948, 1949, 1950 and 1951.
Abbott received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Acting (posthumously) from the Garden State Film Festival in 2006; it was accepted on his behalf by his daughter Vickie Abbott Wheeler.
|1951–1954||The Colgate Comedy Hour||Host||Multiple episodes|
|1952–1954||The Abbott and Costello Show||Bud Abbott||52 Episodes|
|1961||General Electric Theater||Ernie Kauffman||Episode: "The Joke's On Me" (04/16/61)|
|1967–1968||The Abbott and Costello Cartoon Show||Abbott||Voice, 39 Episodes, 156 segments|
|1941||Meet the People||Himself|
|1942||Picture People No. 10: Hollywood at Home||Himself|
|1949||Screen Snapshots: Motion Picture Mothers, Inc.||Himself|
|1952||News of the Day||Himself|
|1954||Screen Snapshots Series 33, No. 10: Hollywood Grows Up||Himself|
|1955||Toast of the Town||Himself|
|1956||This Is Your Life||Himself; Episode Lou Costello|
|1999||The Century: America's Time||Archival footage|
|1999||ABC 2000: The Millennium||Voice, Archival footage|
- The year of birth has been reported as 1895, 1896, 1897, and 1898 in different sources. The 1895 date was perpetuated by sources copying from an earlier incorrect sources. His birth certificate and World War I draft card both use "October 2, 1897".
- Furmanek, Bob and Ron Palumbo (1991). Abbott and Costello in Hollywood. New York: Perigee Books. ISBN 0-399-51605-0
- The year of birth has been reported as 1895, 1896, 1897, and 1898 in different sources. The 1895 date was perpetuated by sources copying from earlier sources. His birth certificate and World War I draft card both use "October 2, 1897".
- "Bud Abbott, Straight Man To Lou Costello, Is Dead". The New York Times. April 25, 1974.
- Thomas, Bob (1977). "Bud and Lou: the Abbott and Costello Story." Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott. ISBN 0-397-01195-4
- Flynn, Charles; McCarthy, Todd (1975). "Arthur Lubin". In Flynn, Charles; McCarthy, Todd (eds.). Kings of the Bs : working within the Hollywood system : an anthology of film history and criticism. E. P. Dutton. p. 367.
- "Abbott, Costello Split. Comedy Team Breaks Up to Let Abbott Raise Horses". The New York Times. United Press International. July 15, 1957.
- "Bud Abbott Preps New Act with Eddie Foy Jr". Variety. June 17, 1959. p. 2. Retrieved June 15, 2019 – via Archive.org.
- "Bud Abbott Jr". Variety. February 5, 1997. Retrieved November 25, 2019.
- "Hollywood Walk of Fame – Bud Abbott". walkoffame.com. Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Retrieved November 1, 2017.
- "The Glasgow Herald – Google News Archive Search". news.google.com. Retrieved November 25, 2019.
- Wilson, Scott (2016). Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons (Third ed.). McFarland. ISBN 978-0786479924.
- Dunning, John (May 7, 1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. Oxford University Press. pp. 2–3. ISBN 0-19-507678-8.
- "4th Annual Garden State Film Festival, March 31 – April 2, 2006" (4th Annual Winners – 2006). Garden State Film Festival.
- Spoto, MaryAnn (February 2, 2009). "Bon Jovi, Shaq, Abbott and Costello make N.J. Hall of Fame". The Star-Ledger. Archived from the original on March 8, 2009.
- "Abbott, Bud; and Costello, Lou". Encyclopædia Britannica. I: A-Ak – Bayes (15th ed.). Chicago, Illinois: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 2010. pp. 13. ISBN 978-1-59339-837-8.
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