ABBOTT and COSTELLO The callous con man/straight man could manipulate his short, chubby patsy into anything even the belief that he was not actually present: “Are you in St. Louis?” “No.” “Are you in Chicago?” “Of course not!” “Well, if you’re not in St. Louis and you’re not in Chicago, you must be somewhere else.” “Ye-es.” “Well then, if you’re somewhere else, you’re not here!”
Bud Abbott and Lou Costello did not change their on-stage characters or even their jokes, but audiences through the decades, from vaudeville to radio to television to movies, did not tire of them. As comedians, they were inferior to Laurel and Hardy and The Marx Brothers, but for pure nonartistic hilarity they were second to none, and that is the explanation of their success. Not masters of filmic form, they put across some of the zaniest moments ever captured on celluloid.
Louis Francis Cristillo (Lou Costello) was born in 1906, probably in Paterson, New Jersey, the locale for most of his comedy routines. As an athletic and considerably slimmer young man he ventured to Hollywood, where he worked his way up from lugging around fake buildings as a prop man, to jumping off them as a stunt man. He abandoned this role as one of Hollywood’s early daredevils to explore the life of the vaudeville comedian. This delivered him to the man of his destiny.
William (Bud) Abbott was born in Asbury Park, New Jersey, in 1895. His mother was a wild horseback rider for the Ringhng Brothers Circus, and as a youth he divided his time between lion taming and race-car driving. When a chain of theaters he built up failed, Abbott teamed up with Costello in 1930 for an engagement in a Brooklyn grindhouse.
Years of touring burlesque theaters landed the duo a regular spot on Kate Smith’s radio program in 1938. The national hookup propelled them from burlesque to Broadway: they were in Streets of Paris in 1939. Abbott and Costello’s first important film came in 1941: it was Buck Privates, in which they are involuntarily volunteered for the army—with sidesplitting consequences. But whatever the setting, whatever the medium, their unequal comic relationship remained constant.
In all, they made 38 films together, some poor, some good. They include Hold That Ghost (1941), Who Done It? (1942), the very funny Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), and follow-ups like Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953).
Greatest of all their routines is their classic cornucopia of confusion, the “Who’s on First?” bit. It opens with Abbott delineating the lineup for their baseball team. Who’s on first base, What’s on second, and I Don’t Know’s on third. But, as usual, Costello is bewildered by his partner’s swift patter:
Abbott: I say Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third . . .
Costello: Yeah, do you know the fellow’s name?
Costello: Well, who’s on first?
Costello: I mean the guy playing first.
Costello: The fellow playing first.
Costello: The first baseman.
Costello: The guy playing first.
Abbott: Who is on first!
Costello: Well, what are you asking me for?
In the end, the exasperated Costello gives up, shouting, “I don’t give a damn!” Abbott counters, “He’s our shortstop.”
They had a reputedly amicable break- up in 1956, but two years later Abbott sued Costello, claiming his former partner had rooked him out of his share ($222,655) of the proceeds from their television series. Was it life’s perfect irony—the sucker apparently conning the con man? But specific guilt or treachery is a matter of speculation. Suffice it to say that a memorable partnership ended on a sour note. Lou Costello died the next year (1959), Bud Abbott succumbed in 1974 after enjoying a nationwide television revival of their work.
Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess
What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.
Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.
Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.
Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.
Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?
Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.
Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife
Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.
Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.
Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.
Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.
What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.
Famous guest stars?
The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.
Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.
Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.
Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.
The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.
Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.
Classic TV Revisited: The Royal
The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.
The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.
Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.
Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.
Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”
A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.
First broadcast: 2003
Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden
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