Norman Abbott, Bud’s nephew, dies at 94

Norman Abbott, nephew of Bud Abbott and director of such classic TV sitcoms as Leave It to Beaver, Welcome Back, Kotter, The Munsters, and Sanford & Son, died July 9 in Valencia, Calif., two days shy of his 94th birthday.

Abbott helmed 38 episodes and produced 22 of The Jack Benny Program for which he won an Emmy Award in 1965. He directed 43 installments of Leave It to Beaver and 23 of Welcome Back, Kotter. He also guided such series as The George Gobel Show, I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, Get Smart, The Ghostbusters, McHale’s Navy, The Don Knotts Show, Love, American Style and Alice.

Abbott also directed and provided the story for the quirky spoof The Last of the Secret Agents? (1966), starring the comedy team of Marty Allen and Steve Rossi.

Born in New York, he was the son of Olive Abbott (1895-1997) and theatrical agent Lee Kraus. After Kraus deserted the family, Norman and his sister, Betty, were raised by their mother and her siblings, Bud, Harry, and Florence. When Abbott and Costello migrated to Hollywood, their families followed. Norman became Bud’s stand-in and also had bit parts in Rio Rita and Who Done It? (both 1942).

During World War II he served as a frog man (the original Navy SEALs unit). After his discharge, Norman returned to Hollywood to work as a dialogue coach on several A&C films, including Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and Africa Screams (1949, shown here). Longtime A&C director Charles Barton was his mentor. Norman also appeared with the boys on The Colgate Comedy Hour when they met the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

When Bud died in 1974, he left a treasure trove of burlesque material (including a prop Lemon Table) to Norman. At the same time, the old Follies burlesque theater in downtown Los Angeles was about to be demolished. Norman went to the rummage sale and came away with even more memorabilia—and an inspiration. “I thought it would be wonderful to do an old-fashioned burlesque show on Broadway,” he recalled. “We kicked around names, and the most obvious choice [to star] would be Mickey Rooney.”

Rooney needed convincing, but the idea evolved into the smash “Sugar Babies.” Norman was set to direct the show, but after two weeks of rehearsals, Mickey had fired three straight men and soured on Norman. He told Abbott, “I love you, baby, but this isn’t going to work out.” Rooney demanded that producer Harry Rigby fire Norman on the spot. Although he didn’t have a written contract, Norman later sued and received a six-figure settlement. “Sugar Babies” ran for more than 1,200 performances from 1979 to 1982. Rooney and co-star Ann Miller were each nominated for a Tony Award, as was the show for Best Musical.

Norman received a full military burial. His survivors include his wife Dominique; children Christine, William, Jennifer and Norman Jr.; sister Betty Abbott Griffin, a script supervisor; three stepsons; and four grandchildren.•

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