Sid Caesar: Comedian who ruled 1950s American television but whose career was sabotaged by his drinking and bad behaviour

 

Throughout the 1950s, the most exciting comedy star of American television was a handsome, heavily built, half-Polish Jew named Sid Caesar.

His two long-running comedy series, Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour, became compulsory viewing for all Americans with a TV set. They were as brilliant and radical in their day as The Goons and Monty Python were in theirs. Caesar groupies included President Eisenhower's daughter and Albert Einstein, who once invited him for tea. Theatre owners and film studios complained bitterly that their takings dropped dramatically on Saturday nights, when Your Show of Shows went out. Caesar was offered money to stay off the air.

Television was still in its infancy when Your Show of Shows started out in 1950. It ran for four years, broadcasting live in front of an audience every week for an hour and a half. Caesar himself was the mainspring of most sketches, forever daring his team of writers to come up with material that would finally defeat him. When that team included at various times Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, Mel Tolkin, Joe Stein and Woody Allen, there was never any shortage of ideas.

"We were spoiled brats competing for the king's favour," recalled Brooks, at 21 the youngest of Caesar's bratpack. "We all wanted to come up with the funniest joke."

The writers often exploited Caesar's linguistic flair. He could adopt any foreign accent, improvising wildly on the vocabulary. In a sketch set in a French bakery, Caesar coined what is certainly the earliest form of Franglais. He was equally at home as a Japanese Samurai, a slot machine, a rattlesnake, two computer scientists, a lion and a fly.

His best loved character was probably The Professor, an all-purpose pundit with a German accent as phony as his professed expertise. While an interviewer, usually played by Carl Reiner, tried to extract from him the mysteries of the universe, the professor would be side-tracked into the workings of a dishwasher.

Caesar acquired an ear for linguistic eccentricities growing up with east European immigrant parents in the factory town of Yonkers, New York, where his father ran a snack bar frequented by other immigrant workers. Waiting on tables, the boy would amuse the customers by mimicking their cosmopolitan chatter.

His career began as a saxophone player with swing bands, but the urge to amuse proved irrepressible, and by the age of 22 he was appearing in a comedy revue, Tars and Spars, directed by Max Liebman and produced while he was doing national service with the Coast Guards. In 1948 he starred in a Broadway revue, Make Mine Manhattan, which ran for a year and led to his first TV contract with NBC.

At a time when most television comedy was directly descended from radio or vaudeville, Caesar's material centred on human foibles and emotions, relying on the viewer's identification with his quickfire characterisations. It avoided topicality so nothing would date.

Caesar later acknowledged a huge debt to the writers, but at the time his youthful arrogance and insecurity bred an atmosphere of paranoia among the team. His temper was often uncontrollable and sometimes positively dangerous. During a heavy bout of drinking, while he was still riding high in the ratings, Caesar came close to cutting short a promising career. He and Mel Brooks were closeted together in a hotel room when Brooks started berating Caesar for his drinking. Caesar picked him up like a rag doll and held him out of the window – 18 floors up.

Nobody kept him in check, everyone gave him the last word. At 27, when he first hit the big time, he was allowed to get away with murder. "I was the sole boss," Caesar wrote in his 1982 autobiography, Where Have I Been? "They were too much in awe of me. I was the spoiled child who had all the toys. What I needed was someone to question me and make me face up to how I was slowly destroying myself."

A few after-show drinks to alleviate the pressure had escalated into regular drunkenness, then serious alcoholism. To the outside world Caesar was young, rich and brilliant but intimates became increasingly concerned about his violent temper, binge eating and ballooning weight. By his own admission, he had the constitution of an ox.

When Caesar's Hour – the follow-up to Your Show of Shows – was taken off the air in 1958, Caesar reacted by punishing himself. "I never really understood why I had my talent, and I believed I didn't deserve my unbroken success. I was just lucky. Since I couldn't face any kind of retribution, my only answer was to seek oblivion in booze and pills."

Caesar's reputation for being drunk and disorderly soon cost him work and status. When Mel Brooks pressed for him to play the mad Nazi playwright in The Producers in 1967, the studio vetoed it, regarding him as too great a liability. By 1975 he was well enough to make a guest appearance in Silent Movie, another Brooks comedy, and he played Coach Calhoun in Grease in 1977. In 2004 he published a second autobiography, Caesar's Hours.

Being innately suspicious of psychiatrists, he survived the long years of professional exile (interrupted only by a handful of cameo roles in indifferent films) by a punishing regime of self-analysis, a tape recorder constantly by his side. He never matched his early success, but his crazed comic genius was celebrated in Richard Benjamin's 1982 film My Favourite Year, and by Neil Simon in his play Laughter On The 23rd Floor in the mid-1990s.

In his play, which in London starred Gene Wilder in the Caesar role of Max Prince, Simon recreated the Your Show of Shows writers' room, where, as Mel Brooks remembered, "an idea for a sketch would be thrown into the room and we'd all rush out and rip it apart like starving lions." Simon recalled, "We'd pair up, go away, and work on a sketch. Then everybody would congregate in the room and tear the work apart. Sid would sit at this table facing us and we'd be around him in a semicircle – the Sun King and his courtiers."

NICK SMURTHWAITE

Isaac Sidney Caesar, comedian: born Yonkers, New York 8 September 1922; married 1943 Florence Levy (died 2010; one son, two daughters); died Beverly Hills 12 February 2014.

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