It was on this day, April 24, 1979, comedy’s “greatest straight man ever”, Bud Abbott, one-half of the comedic team of Abbott and Costello, dies at his home in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles. He was 78.
Born in Asbury Park, New Jersey, Bud Abbott was born 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 a publicity advance man. Abbott dropped out of school as a child and began working at 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 putting together touring burlesque shows.
In 1918, he married Betty Smith, a burlesque dancer and comedienne. Shortly after his marriage, Abbott and his new wife began producing a vaudeville “tab show” called Broadway Flashes. This show toured on the Gus Sun Vaudeville Circuit.
Around 1924, Abbott started performing as a straight man in an act with Betty. As his stature grew, Abbott began working with veteran comedians like Harry Steppe and Harry Evanson while managing the National Theater in Detroit.
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 and performed together in burlesque, vaudeville, minstrel shows, and cinemas.
In 1938 they got national exposure through the Kate Smith radio show “The Kate Smith Hour”, and signed with Universal Pictures the next year. They made their film debut in One Night in the Tropics (1940), and, while the team wasn’t the film’s stars, it made money for Universal and they got good enough notices to convince Universal to give them their own picture.
During World War II, Abbott and Costello were among the most popular and highest-paid stars in the world. Their first starring film, Buck Privates (1941), with The Andrews Sisters, grossed what was then a company-record $10 million (on a $180,000 budget) and they were on their way to stardom and a long run as the most popular comedy team in America. In 1942 they topped a poll of Hollywood stars. They had their own radio show (ABC, 1941-6, NBC, 1946-9) and TV show (“The Abbott and Costello Show” (1952)).
While this team enjoyed success, the relationship was not without strain. First there was a matter of the way salaries were split, and then when Costello proposed that the team be renamed “Costello and Abbott,” a proposal that was soundly rejected by Universal Studios, the result was a “permanent chill” between the two partners. Abbott and Costello parted ways formally in July 1957. Lou Costello died on March 3, 1959.
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.
When Groucho Marx was asked about Abbott shortly after his death, his response was that Abbott was “the greatest straight man ever.”
Abbott and his professional partner Lou Costello were nominated for the 2007 inaugural New Jersey Hall of Fame for their services to entertainment. He has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Radio (6333 Hollywood Boulevard); Motion Pictures (1611 Vine Street) and Television (6740 Hollywood Boulevard); in Hollywood, California.
1934 – Shirley MacLaine (Shirley MacLean Beaty) (Academy Award-winning actress: Terms of Endearment ; Emmy awards: Shirley MacLaine: If They Could See Me Now , Gypsy in My Soul , Shirley MacLaine… Every Little Movement ; Irma La Douce, The Turning Point; sister of actor Warren Beatty)
1936 – Jill Ireland (actress: Assassination, Death Wish 2, Hard Times; author: Life Wish; activist: support of breast cancer victims; wife of actor Charles Bronson; died May 18, 1990)
1942 – Barbra (Joan) Streisand (Grammy Award-winning Best Female Pop Vocalist [1963-1965, 1977, 1986], Best Songwriter ; People, The Way We Were, You Don’t Bring Me Flowers; Academy Award-winning Best Song [1976: shared w/Paul Williams]: Evergreen [Love Theme from A Star Is Born]; Academy Award-winning Best Actress: Funny Girl ; I Can Get It for You Wholesale, The Owl and the Pussycat, Hello Dolly, Funny Lady, The Way We Were, Yentl; actress/director: Yentl, The Prince of Tides, The Mirror Has Two Faces)
1953 – Eric Bogosian (actor: Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, Witch Hunt, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, Special Effects; actor, playwright: Talk Radio, Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll: Eric Bogosian)
1955 – Michael O’Keefe (actor: Three Wishes, Ironweed, The Great Santini, Caddyshack, Gray Lady Down, Mass Appeal, Roseanne, Middle Ages, Against the Law)
1977 – Eric Balfour (actor: Arresting Behavior, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, What Women Want)