Grief-Stricken’ Lou Costello Was Never the Same After His 1-Year-Old Son’s Tragic Death

Before there was Key and Peele, there was Abbott and Costello — a comic duo that kept audiences laughing and inspired the next generation of joke-tellers. Known best for letting us know exactly who is “on first,” the pair brought about lots of joy throughout their comedy career.

Unfortunately, they also stand as proof that even the funniest people can have great sadness in their personal lives. Bud Abbott’s financial woes followed him until the end, but they pale in comparison to the heartbreaking loss faced by Lou Costello. 

Lou Costello and Bud Abbott filming scene for a movie
Bud Abbott laughing and Lou Costello with hand on chin sit together in a scene from Bud Abbott And Lou Costello In Hollywood | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

The iconic partnership was started by accident

Abbott and Costello worked on the burlesque scene, which contributed to the fast-paced, slapstick style of their routines. According to Britannica, the circuit had many well-known routines that allowed members to easily switch up partners and roles.

This meant the two occasionally appeared on-stage together, but an official partnership wasn’t formed until Costello’s original co-star fell ill. 

The two men put on an extremely dynamic show, and their success demonstrated audiences’ love for them. Although MeTV notes that one man had to change the pitch of his voice, because listeners couldn’t tell the two personalities apart over the radio, Abbott and Costello seemed otherwise to be a perfect pair. 

When the comics joined The Kate Smith Hour radio show in 1938, they gained access to a national audience. This opportunity to perform their hits — including, most notably, “Who’s On First?” — took the pair to new heights. Tragically, in just five years, Costello would be forever changed. 

The death of Lou Costello’s young son was devastating

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On November 4, 1943, Costello was in the midst of rehearsing a comedy radio show when he got extremely sobering news.

According to the LA Times, Costello’s wife had left their son, named for his father, in a backyard playpen. She took her eyes off of the boy for just a moment, and looked back to see him gone. He had found his way to the family pool and tragically drowned. Lou “Butch” Costello, Jr. was not yet one year old. 

Abbott was said to have received news of the young Costello’s passing while watching an old recording of “Who’s on First?” In a testament to the strength of the pair’s relationship, Costello still chose to appear with Abbott that night, with Abbott making the heartbreaking announcement of Lou’s death at the conclusion of their performance. 

Although the comedy pair stuck together for 14 more years, Costello was deeply impacted by the loss and was stricken with grief. It is a challenging task to make others laugh when you are hopelessly in despair. 

Many factors contributed to the duo’s end

Of course, the loss of Lou Costello’s son was far from the only challenge faced by the duo. Disagreements over pay, staffing, and stardom led to many intense off-stage moments. The pair also began to find it difficult to maintain the same quantity and quality of content output after over two decades of working together. 

Many of their spats were high-profile and came with even higher dollar amounts. The LA Times recalled a lawsuit for over $200,000 regarding a TV contract, and the men were frequently at odds regarding their partnership’s lack of a 50/50 split.

Perhaps the financial debates were foreshadowing for the scandal that would rock Abbott later in life. Following a taxation dispute with the IRS, he died from cancer nearly penniless. 

Costello didn’t get a happily ever after, either. He was just 52 when he died following an unexpected collapse in his apartment. He was buried next to his son and left behind a legacy of iconic skits and punchlines.