Louis Francis Cristillo "Lou Costello" (March 6, 1906 – March 3, 1959) was an American actor and comedian best remembered for the comedydouble act of Abbott and Costello, with Bud Abbott. Costello played a chubby, bumbling character. His catchphrase was "Heeeeyyy, Abbott!"
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 foul shot 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: "There was a girl named Helene Costello, and I took her name".
In 1927 Costello went to Hollywood to become an actor, but could only find work as a laborer or extra at MGM and Warner Brothers. 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. He took a job as a Dutch-accented comic at a local burlesque theater. Changing his name to "Costello", he went back to New York and began working in vaudeville and burlesque theaters there. Unlike many burlesque comics of the era, though, he did not use "off-color" material – an approach that continued for the rest of his career.
While working in vaudeville in the 1930s, Costello became acquainted with a talented straight man named Bud Abbott, due to an illness to his regular straight man. After working together sporadically, Abbott and Costello formally teamed up in 1936. They performed together in burlesque shows, minstrel shows, vaudeville and movie houses.
Radio and Hollywood
Abbott and Costello signed up with the William Morris Agency, which sought to enlarge the duo's stature by putting them on the radio. In 1938 they received national exposure for the first time by becoming featured performers on The Kate Smith Hour, a popular variety show. They were hugely successful, which ultimately led to their appearance in a Broadway play in 1939, The Streets of Paris, and signing with Universal Studios in 1940.
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). The duo became associated with the 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". 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 Sarongwhen bus drivers Bud and Lou try to steal gas from a gas station attendant.
The team's break through 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. Costello's childlike demeanor was strictly acting, and he aggressively battled with the more easy-going Abbott as well as the studio. Universal upped the duo's salary, but refused Costello's demand to reverse the billing, stating that it had hired Abbott and Costello, not Costello and Abbott. 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.
The team also appeared on radio throughout the 1940s. On October 8, 1942, the team launched their own weekly show on NBC sponsored by Camel cigarettes. They moved to ABC (the former NBC Blue Network) from 1947-49.
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.
Lou Costello being surprised on This Is Your Life
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.
Costello was surprised and honored by Ralph Edwards on NBC's This Is Your Life in 1956.
Abbott and Costello split up in July 1957, after troubles with the Internal Revenue Service forced both men to sell off their large homes and the rights to some of their films. 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 television show, but most often in variations of his old routines, with Louis Nye or Tom Poston taking on the straight man role.
Family and death of son
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.
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. The baby 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.
On August 15, 1947, their last child, Christine, was born.
The crypts of Lou Costello and his wife Anne.
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 theCalvary 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 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 Sharksas well as a nightclub singer. She died of a stroke on March 29, 1987 at age 49 . Carole's daughter, Marki Costello, is an actress, director and producer in film and television.
Lou and Anne's youngest daughter, Chris, wrote Costello's biography, Lou's On First, in 1981.