By Robert S. Birchard
Maurice Costello was the first great matinee idol of the nickelodeon age, and not surprisingly he was also one of the first movie actors to show a temperamental streak when he told his bosses at Vitagraph, "I am an actor and I will act, but I will not build sets or paint scenery!"
The son of Irish immigrants, Costello was born February 22, 1877 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He gave up school to apprentice as a printer's devil. The printer had a fondness for gambling, but apparently not for fair play. Costello later said, " I was fired from that job because I refused to return the boss's salary which I had won from him in a poker game."
After various jobs as messenger, office boy, and the like, Costello made his stage debut in local Pittsburgh vaudeville in 1894 singing Irish songs like "Here Lies the Mick That Threw the Brick (He'll Never Throw Another)." Finding some success in the theater, he toured on stage in Scotland Yard, The Kentucky Feud, and The Cowboy and the Lady. While appearing in the latter play he married Mae Altshuk on June 2, 1902. It would prove to be a stormy union. Their two daughters, Helene (b. June 21, 1903) and Dolores (b. September 17, 1905), both gained screen fame in the 1920s.
While working with the Spooner Stock Company in Brooklyn, Costello met J. Searle Dawley, who presented olios between acts of the plays. When Dawley became a scenario writer for the Edison Company, he persuaded Costello to try his hand in pictures. With a family to support, Costello found the daytime movie work a welcome supplement to his evenings before the footlights. He first appeared in films for Edison in 1905, and moved to Vitagraph in 1907. Despite his unwillingness to do double-duty as a stagehand, Costello proved to be a popular player. He was among the first actors to receive on-screen credit beginning in 1911, and he made a strong impression in Vitagraph's three-reel adaptation of Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (1911).
In December, 1912, Costello and his family were sent on a world tour that combined personal appearances with filmmaking in exotic locales. With no false modesty, Costello told Variety in 1929, "I had wealth and a volume of fan mail arriving dailylove notes, mash notes, telegrams asking appointments, telephone calls, gifts, flowers, offers of marriage, everything. I could not help it. I was the first great screen lover, the first star, I belonged to the public. It was the way I earned a living.
"I loved my wife and babies, but my domestic life went from bad to worse. My wife slapped me in the mouth in public and in 1914, as many persons may recall, she had me arrested on a wife-beating chargean accusation that was untrue."
Costello's domestic troubles wreaked havoc with his public approval, and he left Vitagraph in late 1915. Ironically, one of his last Vitagraph vehicles was titled The Man Who Couldnt Beat God.
Costello and his wife reconciled for a time, but he was off the screen for several months. He starred in the Erbograph-Consolidated serial The Crimson Stain Mystery (first released August 21, 1916), but the bad publicity had already done its damage. When he returned to Vitagraph in The Captain's Captain (released January, 1919), he was playing supporting roles, and although he had a long string of screen credits throughout the 1920's they were mostly in low-budget films.
In 1925 he attempted a comeback in vaudeville with a dramatic sketch called The Battle. The act opened in Staten Island, but it stirred little interest. In 1928 he tried another dramatic sketch, The Pay Off. This opened in Tacoma, Washington, and again did nothing to revive his career.
Costello and his wife finally divorced in 1927, but by now his film career had hit the skids. He had five weeks' work in front of the cameras in 1928, and almost no work at all the following year. Putting the best possible spin on the situation, Costello declared his retirement. However, he was not so retired that he would turn down a job when it was offered. He appeared on stage in Hollywood at the Vine Street Theatre in Weak Sisters in 1929, though he incorrectly claimed that the play represented his first stage work in twenty-three years.
Costello suffered a cerebral hemorrhage on February 15, 1932, while eating in a Beverly Hills drug store, but the stroke was minor and he recovered fully. He came out of retirement to take a small role in Hollywood Boulevard (Paramount, 1936). He also did some radio work, but he had trouble making ends meet, and in 1938 Costello sued his daughter Dolores for non-support.
As with other movie veterans like King Baggot and Florence Lawrence, Costello became an extra, receiving preferential calls for work at the major studios. He received $12.50 a day as an extra on Tin Pan Alley (20th Century-Fox, 1940)not much more than his starting salary at Edison and Vitagraph.
On August 8, 1939, Costello married thirty-year-old Ruth Reeves, an operator at the Central Casting Agency. In 1941 the second Mrs. Costello sought a Tijuana divorce claiming that Costello was "unreasonably and insanely jealous" and that he threatened her with a .22 rifle.
From 1946 to the end of his life Costello lived in retirement as a resident of the Motion Picture Country House. He died there on October 28, 1950. When his estate was settled in February, 1951, the Los Angeles Times reported that it was valued at $91.55$41.55 in a bank account and a 1936 car valued at $50.00.