William Alexander "Bud" Abbott was born in Asbury Park, New Jersey, into a show business family. His parents worked for the Barnum and Bailey Circus: his mother, Rae (née Fisher), was a bareback rider and his father, Harry, was an advance man. Rae was from Maryland of German Jewish heritage and Harry was born in Pennsylvania of British parentage. Bud Abbott dropped out of school as a child and began working in Coney Island. When Abbott was 16, his father, now an employee of the Columbia Burlesque Wheel, installed him in the box office of the Casino Theater in Brooklyn. Eventually, Abbott began arranging burlesque show tours.
In 1918, he married Betty Smith, a burlesque dancer and comedienne. Abbott and his new wife soon began producing a vaudeville "tab show" called Broadway Flashes, which toured on the Gus Sun Vaudeville Circuit. Around 1924, Abbott began performing as a straight man in an comedy act with Betty. As his reputation grew, Abbott began working with veteran comedians like Harry Steppe and Harry Evanson.
Lou Costello and Hollywood
Abbott crossed paths with Lou Costello in burlesque in the early 1930s. Abbott was producing and performing in Minsky's Burlesque shows, while Costello was a rising comic. They formally teamed up in 1936, due to an illness to Costello's regular partner, and performed together in burlesque, vaudeville, minstrel shows, and cinemas.
In 1938, they first received national exposure by performing on the Kate Smith Hour radio show, which led to their appearance in a Broadway musical, The Streets of Paris. In 1940,Universal signed Abbott and Costello for their first film, One Night in the Tropics. Despite having minor supporting roles, Abbott and Costello stole the film with their classic routines, including an abbreviated version of "Who's On First?"
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 popular on radio throughout the 1940s, primarily on their own program which ran from 1942 until 1947 on NBC and from 1947 to 1949 on ABC. In the 1950s, they introduced their comedy to live television on The Colgate Comedy Hour, and launched their own half-hour series, The Abbott and Costello Show.
Abbott proved to be very supportive of his relatives. Norman and Betty Abbott, the children of Bud Abbott's twin sister Olive, embarked on show business careers with help from their uncle. (Betty was responsible for continuity on Breakfast at Tiffany's, and Norm directed live television). After Olive's husband abandoned his family on the pretense of going out for a pack of cigarettes, Abbott stepped in as breadwinner. He reverted their surname to Abbott and raised them as his own children. He and his wife also adopted two more children.
Abbott's great-grandniece (and granddaughter of Norman Abbott), Kathleen Abbott (aka Lisa Bay), was born to Chrissy Abbott in 1966, while Chrissy was attending Beverly Hills High School, and is the adopted sister of director Michael Bay.
Strain and split
Relations between Abbott and Costello had been strained for years. In their early burlesque days, their contracted salaries were split 60%-40%, favoring Abbott, because the straight man was always viewed as the more valuable member of the team. That was changed to 50%-50% after they became burlesque stars.
However, other accounts indicate that the 60%-40% split was Costello's idea. The statement, "A good straight man is hard to find" is attributed to Costello. On the other hand, it was perceived that the sixty-forty split had long irked Costello. Once Buck Privates made them bona fide movie stars, Costello insisted that the 60%-40% split be reversed in his favor, and it remained so for the remainder of their careers. Costello's additional demand that the team be renamed "Costello and Abbott" 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 combat the effects of epilepsy.
The team's popularity waned in the 1950s, and they were further bedeviled by tax issues; the IRS demanded heavy back taxes, forcing the partners (both of whom had been serious gamblers) to sell most of their assets (including Costello's rights to their television show). They were forced to withdraw from Fireman Save My Child in 1954 due to Costello's health and were replaced by lookalikes Hugh O'Brian and Buddy Hackett, and were dropped by Universal the following year. Abbott and Costello formally dissolved their business relationship in July 1957. Lou 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 performed in a dramatic television episode of General Electric Theater titled "The Joke's On Me". A few years later, Abbott provided his own voice for the Hanna-Barbera animated series The Abbott and Costello Cartoon Show, with Stan Irwin providing the voice of Lou Costello.
Bud and Betty Abbott were married for 55 years. The couple adopted two children: Bud Jr. in 1942 and Vickie in 1949. Bud Jr. died on January 19, 1997 at the age of 57.
Abbott was an active Freemason and Shriner. Bud Abbott has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: the radio star is located on 6333 Hollywood Boulevard, the motion pictures star is located on 1611 Vine Street, and the TV star is located on 6740 Hollywood Boulevard.
Abbott suffered from epilepsy throughout his life. In the early 1960s, he suffered the first in a series of strokes. In 1972, he broke his hip. Abbott died of cancer at the age of 78 on April 24, 1974, at his home in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles. His wife Betty died on September 12, 1981 at the age of 79.
When Groucho Marx was asked about Abbott shortly after his death, his response was that Abbott was "the greatest straight man ever."