“He-y-y A-bbottt!” Perhaps that world famous comedic cry will be what most comedy fans will always remember Lou Costello for. He was the funnier half of the famed 1930s-40s duo Abbott and Costello, who often was made the “fall guy” or who took the brunt of cruel jokes, often set up by his partner Bud Abbott, who almost always seemingly got away scot-free. But America loved it and they kept us laughing for years-even up until today, when they are just as popular with modern-day audiences as they were in their heyday.
Lou Costello was born Louis Francis Cristillo on March 6,1906, in Paterson, New Jersey, to an Irish/French mother and an Italian father. As a youngster he was very gifted as an athlete, excelling especially in basketball; in fact he was so good as a foul shooter that he was once the New Jersey Foul Shot Champion (you can see an example of his excellent foul-shooting in the 1945 Abbott and Costello comedy “Here Comes the Co-Eds”).
For a time he also was an amateur boxer, boxing under the name of Lou King. In 1927, when Lou was 21 years old he went to Hollywood to embark on a film career. He didn’t become an instant star; he was cast as an extra in silent films. For example, he could be seen as part of a boxing audience in the 1927 Laurel and Hardy film “Battle of the Century”. Because of his athletic prowess (which would become useful in his later films when he was a star, yes Lou Costello was his own Stuntman), he was used as a Stuntman in the Delores Del Rio film “Trail of 98” (1928). But he became discouraged because of his lack of immediate success. In 1930 He had to hitchhike back home, but ran out of money in St.Louis, Missouri, because of the Great Depression.
For a time in the early 1930’s just to make ends meet, he took a job in a burlesque house where he took a job as a Dutch-accented comedian (Dialectician comedians were very popular back then). It was also around this time that Lou Cristillo became Known as Lou Costello. Around 1936 (some sources say earlier) Lou meet an established entertainer named William “Bud” Abbott. Bud was in show business virtually before Lou was born; in fact he was some eleven years older than Lou. But the kind of partners that Bud had did not seem to have the right chemistry. In fact he had numerous partners before he even met Lou. But it was something about the ‘funny ‘little fat man’ that seemed to ‘hit it off’ just right with Bud, and so in 1936 they became a comedy team. They performed in burlesque houses, minstrel shows, vaudeville and movie houses.
In 1938 Abbott and Costello began to come to public prominence when they were featured on the popular radio show “The Kate Smith Hour”. They were an absolute hit. Then they started appearing on Broadway in 1939. In 1940 they signed up with Universal Pictures and were cast in the film ” A Night in the Tropics”, in which they weren’t even the stars then; they were just billed in supporting roles. But they were so hilarious that the following year, in 1941, they appeared in their first full-featured film “Buck Privates”, which was in instant success. They became national stars overnight. Now Abbott and Costello became the top-box office draw. They became two of the highest-paid entertainers in America. In fact they made 36 films between 1940 and 1956. For a time there was a slump in the team’s success. In 1942, Lou suffered with a bout of rheumatism, which put him out of action for a year. Also he and his wife (whom he married in 1934), experienced the tragedy of their only infant son, Lou Jr., in 1943, two days from what would have been his first birthday (he had two older daughters as well) when he drowned in the family pool. It was a tragedy that would emotionally plague Lou and his wife for the rest of their lives.
But all in all, Lou and Bud continued to maintain their successful comedy careers well into the 1950’s. In the early 50’s they had their own television show for a time, starting on the “Colgate Comedy Hour” in 1951 and then “The Abbott and Costello Show” in 1953. In late 1956, following their last film together “Dance with me, Henry” (The Movie title was a play on the popular rock ‘n’ roll song “Roll with Me, Henry”, by then-teenage African American star Etta James), they broke up as a team. But Lou still continued as a solo actor/comedian; he made brief appearances in TV shows such as “Wagon Train”, for example and a few others.
In 1958, Lou Costello appeared in his last film “The 30-Foot Bride of Candy Rock.” On March 3,1959, three days from what would have been his 53rd birthday, Lou Costello died of a massive heart attack in the hospital where he was staying. His last words were “That was the best ice cream soda I ever tasted”, after having a strawberry ice cream soda a friend of his had bought. (There are some who have disputed that these were actually Costello’s last words, but the previous-mentioned one is the one that has been commonly believed) On June 26,1992, a statue of Lou Costello was dedicated in Paterson, New Jersey, where he had been born. Lou Costello was indeed one of the legends of comedy.