He was inspired by the famous English comic legend Charlie Chaplin and wanted to make a mark as an actor. With such passion, Costello, a high school dropout, hitchhiked to Hollywood in 1927.
He, however, failed to get any acting assignments in Hollywood and ended up working as a labourer and an extra at Warner Bros and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He also worked as a stuntman in the silent drama film, ‘The Trail of '98’ (1928).
As his Hollywood plans didn’t work out well, in 1929, he went to St. Joseph, Missouri, where he had a stint in burlesque and then moved to New York later that year. As the Great Depression set in, he started working in burlesque on the Mutual Burlesque Wheel. Inspired by noted stage and film actress Helene Costello, he changed his professional name to ‘Costello’.
Following the collapse of Mutual Burlesque Wheel, he worked with Minsky's Burlesque. Here, he met Bud Abbott for the first time when the latter was producing and performing in Minsky's Burlesque shows. The two appeared together for their first show at the Eltinge Theatre in 1935 when Costello's regular partner failed to show up.
In 1936, Abbott and Costello teamed up formally, and thus began the journey of a new comedy duo performing in burlesque, stage shows, minstrelsy and vaudeville.
They signed with William Morris talent agency which helped them make their debut on radio as resident comics in the leading radio variety show ‘The Kate Smith Hour’ in February 1938. They garnered national exposure through the show, and continued performing until the summer of 1940.
Meanwhile in 1937, the duo, during a touring vaudeville revue called ‘Hollywood Bandwagon’, performed the comedy routine ‘Who's on First?, which became a huge hit.
‘Who's on First? was first performed in March 1938 by the duo for a national wide radio audience on ‘The Kate Smith Hour’. Writer John Grant, who was hired by them as their writer, might have refined the script of the sketch before its delivery as he contributed in many other sketches of the duo. With time the sketch became the signature comedy routine of the duo.
They featured in the 1939 Broadway musical ‘The Streets of Paris’.
Continue Reading Below
In 1940, they came up with their own comedy program ‘The Abbott and Costello Show’. It was first broadcast on NBC from July 3 to September 25 of that year and then again from October 8, 1942 to June 27, 1947, and thereafter on ABC from October 1, 1947 to June 9, 1949.
In 1940, they signed a movie contract with ‘Universal Studios’ that helped them make their film debut with the November 1940 comedy ‘One Night in the Tropics’. Although they played minor roles in it, they stole the audience’s hearts with five of their classic routines which included a brief version of ‘Who's On First?’. This success furthered their association with ‘Universal Studios’ through a two-picture deal.
However, the real breakthrough for the duo came with the musical military comedy ‘Buck Privates’, which raised their stardom. The 1941 film featured the duo in starring roles, and became a critical and commercial success garnering $4 million at the box-office. In no time, they emerged as the No. 3 Box Office Stars of that year.
The duo then went on to feature in starring roles in several other commercially successful and popular films. These include the 1942 comedy-mystery ‘Who Done It?’, the 1942 comedy film ‘Pardon My Sarong’, the 1947 film ‘Buck Privates Come Home’, and the 1948 horror comedy ‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’.
While continuing with his professional endeavours, Costello faced a personal loss when his son, Lou Jr. (nicknamed "Butch"), had an accidental death on November 4, 1943. However, he went on with his pre-scheduled radio show that night illustrating his professionalism and keeping up the saying, ‘The show must go on’. With regards to his son, he said "Wherever he is tonight, I want him to hear me".
He was drafted into the Second World War in 1943, but he sought postponement in court. Although he continued his professional pursuits with Abbott, their relationship started to strain during this time.
The duo featured in their own television sitcom ‘The Abbott and Costello Show’ that was owned by Costello while Abbott worked on a salary. The show originally had a syndicated run from September 1952 to May 1954 for two seasons encompassing 52 episodes. It later had several reruns on the network.
Career graph of the duo took a down turn by the mid-1950s. As their films failed to make much impression, their movie contract was dropped by ‘Universal Studios’ in 1955. Moreover, the comparatively new comedy duo of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, were giving tough competition to the rather overexposed Abbott and Costello.
Following issues with the Internal Revenue Service, the duo were forced to sell their individual homes and some film rights in 1956. They finally ended their partnership in 1957 following which Costello started doing stand-ups again.
He featured in the starring role of Artie Pinsetter in the film ‘The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock’ that released after his death on August 6, 1959.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married burlesque dancer Anne Battler on January 30, 1934, and they had four children - Patricia "Paddy" Costello, Carole, Lou Jr. and Christine.
The funny man with baggy clothes who cheered the audience with his famous catchphrases ‘Heeeeyyy, Abbott!’ and ‘I'm a baaaaad boy!’ succumbed to a heart attack on March 3, 1959, at Doctors Hospital in Beverly Hills.
Funeral Mass of this legend was held at his parish, St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, Sherman Oaks, and on March 8, his remains were interred at the Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles.
Lou Costello Memorial Park, Paterson, New Jersey, and Lou Costello Memorial Association are named after him. The former has a statue of Costello, erected on June 26, 1992. Costello’s birthplace Madison Street, Paterson, was named after him as Lou Costello Place in 2005. He was also inducted into New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2009.