No one could make a crowd laugh like Abbott and Costello—but no one was hiding as many secrets from their audience, either.
1. They Teamed Up Late In Life
They got famous for their controlled-chaos way of performing on stage, but how Bud Abbott and Lou Costello met was just as madcap. Growing up in New Jersey, both Abbott and Costello had dreams of making it in comedy—and both found out just how hard it was to go it alone. The two of them toiled in anonymity on the burlesque circuit for years, all while crossing paths occasionally.
Finally, in 1936, they finally decided to officially team up. Success wasn’t just instantaneous, it was jaw-dropping.
2. They Were Overnight Sensations
In 1937, just a year after becoming a formal team, Abbott and Costello made absolute history. That fall, they debuted their now legendary comedy routine "Who’s on First," with Bud Abbott playing his usual straight-man role and identifying bizarrely named baseball players to the increasingly frustrated and confused Costello.
Yes, Abbott and Costello did that within months of teaming up. But even at the beginning, there were cracks in their foundation.
3. They Had Beef With Each Other
Abbott and Costello would soon be as famous for their vicious feuds as for their comedy act, and the tensions started mounting right away. For one, when they first started performing the straight man Bud Abbott got 60% of their earnings, while Costello got the shaft. That’s because at the time, people considered the straight man the more difficult job—and to be fair, people like Groucho Marx did call Abbott the "greatest straight man ever".
This unfair agreement might have worked while they were still perfecting their routines, but a few months later, everything changed again.
4. They Became Mega Stars
Everyone could see that Abbott and Costello were the next big thing, and Hollywood quickly came calling. Building off their popularity in shows and radio broadcasts, Universal plunked them into films. It was another shocking break. Their second picture, Buck Privates, became a massive hit and turned them into bona fide Hollywood stars.
Yet once more, there was little to laugh at behind the scenes.
5. They Were Divas
Abbott and Costello weren’t always the easiest men to film. By most accounts, they already had enormous-yet-fragile egos, but that wasn’t the only issue. The comedy duo generally refused to go by any shooting script, and instead would just go right into one of their old routines on set.
As Buck Privates’ director Arthur Lubin recalled, "It was very strange to shoot…There was nothing I could do because these were tried and true old burlesque things that they and their forefathers and their forefathers, probably since the Greek period, had done".
Reading between the lines there: It was a headache, and Abbott and Costello were stubborn as heck. But this was even worse when it came to their relationship with each other.
6. Costello Made A Big Demand
For a time while they were filming in Hollywood, Abbott and Costello managed to work out a 50/50 salary deal for their movie work. It was a much-needed show of equality and peace between the two—but, like so many of their calm periods, it didn’t last. Soon, Costello was the one who thought he should get 60% of their money, and all but forced Abbott into agreeing.
Then again, Costello may have had a specific reason for this demand.
7. They Resented Each Other
As we’ll see, the two men were always ready to get up in arms about perceived slights—but Lou Costello especially couldn’t get over one thing. Namely, they called themselves "Abbott and Costello," instead of "Costello and Abbott". Abbott’s top billing infuriated Costello, so much so that he once demanded that Universal Studios change it.
When the studio said no (they had, after all, been marketing the duo as "Abbott and Costello" for years) his resentment only grew. Really, though, the comic team should have been dealing with their other issues.
8. They Had A "Perfect" Family Life
By the time Abbott and Costello were famous, both men were heading toward middle age, and they had the family life to match. Abbott was married to comedienne and dancer Betty Smith, while Costello had tied the knot with chorus girl Anne Battler. Together, they had a brood of babies—Abbott adopted two, while Costello had four children.
From the outside then, it all looked picture perfect. But once more, these two weren't anything like what they appeared.
9. They Shared A Ruinous Habit
For all their cheery banter on stage, Abbott and Costello were stuffing skeletons into their closets. Most worryingly, they were both hopeless gamblers whose enormous Hollywood salaries barely matched their ridiculous bets. And that was just at the blackjack table; they also loved spending money any way they could. Unfortunately, that wasn’t all.
10. Abbott Suffered In Silence
Both men would suffer serious health problems over the course of their lives, but Bud Abbott probably had it worst of all. When he was at the tail end of his 20s, Abbott began suffering from seizures, and eventually discovered that he had epilepsy. This was burden enough, but the way the comic dealt with the diagnosis was bone-chilling.
11. They Had Personal Demons
By the time he hit the big time, Bud Abbott had developed a scary habit. In addition to his gambling, he had taken up massive bouts of drinking in order to curb his continued seizures or else dim their aftereffects. This put strain on his relationship with Costello—which was pretty much always strained, anyway. Which might help explain their next bewildering move.
12. They Split Up Early On
In 1945, Abbott and Costello shocked fans with a sudden announcement. Costello told the world that from now on, he would never work with Bud Abbott again. Everybody knew the duo didn’t always get along, but it had seemed to somehow work before this point. Now, this "split" wouldn’t last, but when people heard what Costello was so mad about, their jaws dropped.
13. They Had A Petty Fight
Abbott and Costello’s 1945 split was the rift heard round the world…and it was all over the pettiest disagreement imaginable. See, Abbott had recently hired a maid who Costello, in his turn, had recently fired. That’s it. That’s the story. In fact, we don’t even know why Costello fired the maid, because it was that much of a non-issue.
Nonetheless, Costello was so enraged, he called Abbott up and told him to drop the woman. When Abbott refused, Costello announced their breakup. This is when it got truly awkward.
14. They Stopped Talking To Each Other
Despite the fact Costello didn’t want to work with Abbott, he kind of had to. After all, they had film contracts to fulfill together. To get around this, Costello decided he simply wouldn’t talk to Abbott unless he was contractually obliged to on a film set—and even then, they now performed individual roles on movies that didn’t require much interaction.
You’d think that would be enough for the two to pretend to get along on set. It wasn’t, and their next film truly proved it.
15. They Were Nightmares On Set
In 1946, Abbott and Costello starred "together" in The Time of Their Lives, though in reality they only speak together in one scene at the beginning of the film. With this chilly atmosphere, the story on set was a nightmare. Costello, still ticked off at Abbott, reportedly tried to switch parts with him when they were already weeks into filming, probably just to ruffle his feathers.
Luckily, the director knew just how to handle his diva.
16. Costello Gave A Failed Ultimatum
The Time of Their Lives director Charles Barton had been around the block before, and he had no time for Costello’s antics. He refused the comedian’s wish—though it didn’t go that well at first. Costello stopped showing up for work in retaliation, and Barton had to hunker down and wait him out.
Luckily, the star eventually returned to set and took on his planned role without saying another word about it. But in many ways, the damage was already done.
17. Their Emotions Ran High
Unsurprisingly, audiences wanted to see Abbott and Costello together, not apart, and their "separate" films flopped at the box office. More than that, they took an emotional toll on the duo. Abbott in particular hated these films, and his nephew later related that Abbott "felt that Lou wanted to go on and be a different kind of comedian, that he didn't want to be a team anymore".
It could have been the real end of the road for Abbott and Costello, but they were about to discover a surprising truth.
18. They Always Came Back Together
For all their feuding, Abbott and Costello couldn’t stay away from each other, not even when they tried. By 1947, they had drifted back together and even acted—as a team this time—in the sequel to their hit film Buck Privates, Buck Privates Come Home. Excited, they even renewed a contract with Universal Studios for more films.
Well, they were about to get more than they bargained for.
19. They Became Horror Icons
In 1948, Abbott and Costello starred in one their oddest films, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The movie, using Universal’s famous monster fare to great effect, co-starred horror legend Bela Lugosi, reprising his iconic role as Dracula. In it, the vampire pursues Costello for his "simple, pliable" brain in a quest to reanimate Frankenstein’s monster.
Yes, it was total shlock. It was also an enormous hit, and it became one of Universal’s biggest films of the year. But the stories behind the scenes were the real horror show.
20. They Were Snobs
Abbott and Costello might have mended their fences, but they hadn’t changed their prickly, diva ways—and the people who worked on Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein found this out the hard way. Costello in particular hated the project from the beginning. When he first read the script he sneered, "You don't think I'll do that [filth] do you? My five-year-old daughter can write something better than that".
When the duo showed up to work, they ramped up this negative energy.
21. They Terrorized Their Director
It was clear pretty much from the get-go that Abbott and Costello thought their venture into Universal horror was beneath them. The director was once more Charles Barton, who had helmed them for The Time of Their Lives, but even he had a difficult time wrangling the pair.
As Barton put it, they would "fight me like [heck]," leading him to constantly put his foot down about what he wanted them to do. That’s when the tantrums started.
22. They Disrespected Their Crew
Poor Charles Barton had already dealt with Lou Costello stalking off set on The Time of Their Lives, but now he had both men to deal with. The two of them would frequently take full-on vacations away from home while production was going on. Then, when they did deign to clock in, they would spend all of their time playing cards with each other. Still, karma came for them.
23. They Got What They Deserved
If Abbott and Costello’s worst nightmare was being in a Universal horror picture, well, there was a whole lot more where that came from. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was such a hit, Universal put them in a score of sequels with other monsters and screen legends, including one with Boris Karloff, as well as Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man.
Eventually, the pair seemed to settle into their new roles—but another disruption was lurking under the surface.
24. The Government Apprehended Them
By the 1950s, Abbott and Costello were riding high once more, thanks in part to their monster movies. And then it all came crashing down. Their spending habits, never quite in check, had gotten completely out of control—to the point where the boys were evading their taxes. Soon, the IRS came knocking at their door and demanded the money.
It forced Abbott and Costello into a heartbreaking decision.
25. They Made A Deal With The Devil
With creditors breathing down their necks and very little in the way of an emergency savings fund, Abbott and Costello needed cash quick. Sadly, the only way they managed to scrape it together was by selling off most of their assets and—most tragic of all—the rights to some of their film work.
Abbott and Costello were down and out. They were also about to have a literal downfall.
26. Their Studio Dropped Them
In 1954, feeling the heat from their cash flow situation, Abbott and Costello went to Universal and demanded more money for their work, which had clearly benefitted the studio over the years. The answer was cruel. Universal, unwilling to fork over the money, instead kicked Abbott and Costello to the curb after 14 years together.
But that wasn’t even the most heartbreaking part.
27. Another Duo Replaced Them
It wasn’t just that Abbott and Costello owed money; it wasn’t just that they sold their assets; and it wasn’t just that Universal dropped them. Of all the blows, the most painful one came next. In the 1950s, Abbott and Costello’s popularity dropped, and a new comedy duo—Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis—took over the public’s consciousness.
With little to their names, Abbott and Costello were washed up. Their response was gut-wrenching.
28. They Got A Retrospective
In 1956, Abbott and Costello appeared on the popular program This Is Your Life, with the episode specifically honoring Lou Costello and his achievements in comedy throughout his life. It could have been a heroic send-off for the most popular comedians of the 1940s, but the usually wacky Costello spent most of his interview oddly subdued.
Then just a month later, Abbott and Costello had their most disastrous performance yet.
29. They Bombed In Vegas
Right after filming This is Your Life, Abbott and Costello went to perform in Las Vegas. The city already had a reputation as the place where past-their-prime stars go to die, but Abbott and Costello really cemented their downfall here. Their act was disastrous, with witnesses reporting that Abbott’s timing was oddly slow, throwing off Costello and frustrating him.
And there was another disturbing detail from that night.
30. Abbott’s Addiction Got Out Of Control
By the time Abbott and Costello finished their show in Vegas, Abbott may have revealed his dark secret. According to some reports, one of the reasons he was off his marks was because he was visibly inebriated, enough that Costello had to lead him off the stage. Clearly, the years hadn’t stopped Abbott’s drinking—and it would have a huge ripple effect.
31. They Broke Up For Good
The duo had always been shaky at best when it came to their commitment to each other, and in the face of all this adversity, they crumbled. In 1957, they announced that they would no longer work together. This time, it stuck. As we’ll see, more information on their breakup came out later—but for now, they had no problem flying the coop. It was just that time was running out for one of them.
32. Costello Went Solo
In the wake of their split, Lou Costello was the first to branch out—after all, he had always been the one who, as Abbott had put it, "wanted to be a different kind of comedian". He appeared frequently over the next two years on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen, and in 1959 even began work on a solo film, The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock. But this is when disaster struck.
33. Costello’s Career Came To A Sudden End
Costello played the starring role in 30 Foot Bride, and wrapped filming without much difficulty—no, the difficulties came after. Just days after finishing up the film, Costello had a serious heart attack and landed himself in the hospital. At first, it looked like the 53-year-old comedian was going to pull through…and then all that changed.
34. His Passing Was Shocking
For much of his hospital visit, Lou Costello was laughing and joking with his family and well-wishers and seemed in good spirits. He even told visitors that the strawberry ice cream soda he’d eaten was "the best I ever tasted". But the end came swift and brutal. Reportedly just after asking a nurse to adjust his bed, he suffered another heart attack; this one was fatal.
Abbott was now the only one left, and he had to witness yet another tragedy.
35. Abbott Lost Those He Held Dear
Costello was nearly a decade younger than the alcoholic Abbott, and it hadn’t seemed likely he would go first. Little did the public know, though, they were in for a double whammy. Just nine months after his passing, Costello’s 47-year-old wife also died, again from a heart attack.
Shell-shocked, Abbott simply tried to fade into the background. Until, that is, his own mistakes pulled him back out.
36. Abbott Was Forced Out Of Retirement
Abbott finally went back to performing a handful of months after Costello’s passing, but his reasons were the opposite of sentimental. His money troubles were still very much present, and the burden of his debt forced him to come out of semi-retirement to try to make what salary he could, even without Lou Costello. It did not go well.
37. He Tried Another Comeback
In a corner, Abbott decided to take on the well-known comic Candy Candido as new his comedy partner, with Abbott acting as the straight man as usual. On paper, it seemed near perfect: Candido was famous enough to have his own catchphrase ("I’m feeling mighty low") and audiences reacted positively to their banter. Except Abbott had to face a harsh truth.
38. Nothing Could Replace Lou
Soon after teaming up with Candido, Abbott realized he simply couldn’t cut it without Lou Costello, and he quit the partnership right out. He and Costello had workshopped, fought, made up, and then fought some more, but at their foundation they were nothing without the other. Indeed, Abbott made a heartbreaking confession. As he said at the time, "No one could ever live up to Lou".
39. He Outlived His Partner
For a long time, Abbott tried to make some kind of comeback on his own, but time was working against him now, too. In 1964, at the age of 67, he suffered multiple strokes that left him bedridden for days on end. His health never fully recovered, and he passed from cancer a decade later in his Los Angeles home.
Even so, the tragedy of Abbott and Costello was not in their ends. Their biggest blow happened at the height of their careers.
40. They Exhausted Themselves
This next part is not for the faint of heart or the already heartbroken. By 1942, Abbott and Costello were some of the highest-paid comedians in the country. With the advent of WWII, they used their star power to sell war bonds across America. It was a punishing 35-day tour, and they didn’t stop there. Just months later, they toured army bases and performed for servicemen and women. All this work had terrifying consequences.
41. Costello Was Scarily Sick
Up until this point, Bud Abbott had been the sickly one in the duo, with everyone trying to make sure he wasn’t having a seizure or else downing too much of the good stuff. Now, all that changed: After returning home in March 1943 from his tour, an exhausted Costello came down with a violent bout of rheumatic fever. And this was no small thing.
42. He Made A Comeback
The fever lay Lou Costello so low, the comedian was out of commission for six long months. For two men who needed to make money to support their lavish lifestyles, this could have been ruinous—not to mention the idea of Costello perishing from his illness. By November, though, Costello was at least well enough to come back and perform on their popular radio broadcast.
It should have been a happy day. No one had any idea of the catastrophe looming over them.
43. He Wanted His Son To Hear Him
On November 4, 1943, Lou Costello went into the NBC studio to rehearse for his upcoming broadcast. Before he left his house, he asked his wife to keep his infant son, Lou Costello Jr, up so that the boy could finally hear his daddy on the radio for the first time. It was a heartwarming request, but it ended in the darkest of twists.
44. He Lost The Joy Of His Life
Somehow, that day Lou Jr finagled his way out of his playpen. What happened next was pure Greek tragedy. He fell into the pool and drowned, just a couple of days shy of his first birthday. Costello’s family informed him of his son’s death while he was still at the studio, and his response has gone down in the history books.
45. He Refused To Grieve
To everyone’s shock, the grieving Costello insisted on continuing with the broadcast later in the day. In a moment that couldn’t have left a dry eye in the house, he told his crew that when it came to his lost boy, "Wherever he is tonight, I want him to hear me". Incredibly, Costello did indeed perform the whole broadcast seamlessly, and all without anyone in the audience knowing what had just happened until after they finished.
It was a disturbing epitome of "the show must go on," yet Costello had to pay the piper one way or another.
46. A Change Overtook Him
As much as Costello tried to outrun his grief, it inevitably caught up to him. One of his friends, Maxene Andrews of the singing group the Andrews Sisters, noted that after Lou Jr’s passing, Costello’s entire demeanor changed. As she put it, "He didn't seem as fun-loving and as warm...He seemed to anger easily...there was a difference in his attitude".
But there was one tear-jerking way he soothed his pain.
47. They Found Meaning In Giving Back
In the throes of Abbott and Costello’s first split—the one that happened over that infamous maid—Abbott helped smooth over their cracks when he suggested that Costello name his new charity for underprivileged children after his late son. The Lou Costello Jr Youth Foundation is still active to this day. But as for their more permanent split, there’s one more secret to come.
48. Errol Flynn Claimed He Split Them Up
In 1959, two years after Abbott and Costello broke up for good, a book came out that revealed the scandalous reason behind their split. When Hollywood bad boy Errol Flynn’s posthumous memoir, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, came out, it spilled gallons of tea about many of Tinseltown’s biggest stars—Abbott and Costello included.
In fact, Flynn claimed in his memoir that he was responsible for duo’s breakup. Why, exactly? Uh, brace yourself.
49. They Were The Victims Of A Nasty Prank
In My Wicked, Wicked Ways, Flynn related that one day he invited Abbott and Costello, along with their wives and children, over for dinner. When dinner finished, the actor—always a practical joker—decided to put on a home movie for entertainment. Only, the movie was very adult. Now, Flynn wasn’t the most reliable man in Hollywood, but if we believe him, the situation got out of hand incredibly quickly.
50. They Were Hotheads
Abbott and Costello had historically both been quick to anger, and Flynn’s little prank set them on fire. Mortified and for some reason blaming each other for the film mix-up, they got into an enormous spat. While Flynn sat there, pretending to be baffled at the debacle, he also watched the comedy duo come to a permanent end.
As always with Abbott and Costello, they were their own worst enemies.