One of Lou Costello’s last roles was a dramatic part in Wagon Train
It was the only serious character the legendary comedian ever played onscreen.
Lou Costello was born March 6, 1906 in Paterson, NJ – a town he liked to mention every chance he could on The Abbot and Costello Show and in many of the iconic duo’s films.
After standing out both as a basketball player and a boxer in his youth, Costello decided to try to make it in showbusiness. He won a few background parts in silent films but when talkies began to take over, he transitioned to the vaudeville stage where he met Bud Abbott. Together they toured the country throughout the 1930s and stole the show in the first movie they appeared in, 1940’s One Night in the Tropics.
For the next 15 years, the pair were radio staples and made at least two movies a year. Their classic “Who’s on first?” routine is one of the most famous comedy bits of all time and their films facing off against the Universal Studios’ monsters lovingly lampooned the horror genre.
Those horror parodies, and uncredited appearances in silent films, were the closest Lou Costello came to doing anything serious onscreen – until the very end of his career.
Costello plays the tragic title character in the Wagon Train episode “The Tobias Jones Story.” Though he is an uncontrollable drunk, Tobias has the heart to take care of a young orphan named Midge. The two outcasts stow away on the wagon train heading to California. After they are discovered, Major Adams has no choice but to let them stay. However, when another passenger is brutally murdered, all signs point to Tobias.
Costello gives a dramatic, heart-wrenching performance as Tobias Jones and his ability to gain sympathy from the audience, great for comedy, is even more valuable in this case.
Other guest stars in this episode include Peter Breck, years before he became Nick Barkley in The Big Valley, Morris Ankrum, who was a judge in over 20 Perry Mason episodes, and Beverly Washburn as Midge. Washburn would later play Enterprise crewmember Arlene Galway who aged rapidly in the Star Trek episode “The Deadly Years.”
“The Tobias Jones Story” first aired in October of 1958, six months before Lou Costello passed away at the age of 52. He will always be remembered as a hilarious comedian but his one chance at something more dramatic proved he could do much more than ask “Who’s on first?”