Celebrity Deaths ›

Bud Abbott: Straight to First

Getty Images / CBS Photo Archive / CBS

Bud Abbott: Straight to First

Bud Abbott died 40 years ago today, following decades in Hollywood in which he rose from the vaudeville circuit to the heights of film and television – performing as one-half of the iconic comedy duo Abbott and Costello. Abbott was a rare performer in the world of comedy: a capable straight man. Born to a show business family – his parents worked for the Barnum & Bailey Circus – Abbott devoted himself to performing at an early age.

In the early 1930s he met Lou Costello, a fellow burlesque performer, and the two teamed up in 1936 with magical results. By 1938 they were performing nationally on Kate Smith's radio show and in 1940 they made their first film, One Night in the Tropics. You may be forgiven for not having seen the film, but even the most casual comedy fan knows the classic routine that helped Abbott and Costello steal the movie: "Who's on First?"

Abbott and Costello were not the first, nor the last, to perform the classic routine. They were just the best. The simple routine uses repetition, miscommunication and slowly escalating frustration to amazing effect, playing perfectly to each performer's strengths – Costello, emotive and bombastic in his confusion, and Abbott, completely unflappable and oblivious. It became one of their signature pieces, and by 1944 they had it copyrighted to protect against imitators.

Here they are performing it on the Colgate Comedy Hour:

Eventually, relations between the two performers became strained over questions of royalties and top billing, and in 1957 the duo formally dissolved their partnership after more than 20 years. By 1960 Abbott had given up comedy rather than work without his longtime partner. His personal life was less contentious. Abbott enjoyed a 55-year marriage to his wife, Betty, with whom he raised two children. He died of cancer at 78 in 1974.

Written by Seth Joseph