Sid Caesar: Comedian dies at home in LA

The pioneer of TV comedy passed away after a brief illness, on Wednesday

Sid Caesar, the prodigiously talented pioneer of TV comedy, who inspired a generation of famous writers, died Wednesday. He was 91.

Family spokesman Eddy Friedfeld said Caesar, who also played Coach Calhoun in the 1978 movie Grease died at his home in the Los Angeles area after a brief illness.

“He had not been well for a while. He was getting weak,” said Friedfeld, who lives in New York and last spoke to Caesar about 10 days ago.

Comedian Carl Reiner, who worked as a writer-performer with Caesar on his breakthrough Your Show of Shows sketch show, said he had an ability to “connect with an audience and make them roar with laughter.”

In his two most important shows, Your Show of Shows, running between1950 and 1954, and Caesar's Hour, 1954-57, Caesar displayed remarkable skill in pantomime, satire, mimicry, dialect and sketch comedy. And he gathered a stable of young writers who went on to worldwide fame in their own right — including Neil Simon and Woody Allen.

“He was one of the truly great comedians of my time and one of the finest privileges I've had in my entire career was that I was able to work for him,” Allen said in a statement.

While best known for his TV shows, which have been revived on DVD in recent years, he also had success on Broadway and occasional film appearances, notably in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

Caesar was tall and powerful, with a clown's loose limbs and rubbery face, and a trademark mole on his left cheek.

But Caesar never went in for clowning or jokes, but instead drawing from the everyday.

“As wild an idea as you get, it won't go over unless it has a believable basis to start off with,” he said 1955. “The viewers have to see you basically as a person first, and after that you can go on into left field.”

Sid Caesar, left, and Imogene Coca practicing their soft shoe routine during a dress rehearsal in Boston. Sid Caesar, left, and Imogene Coca practicing their soft shoe routine during a dress rehearsal in Boston.
In one celebrated routine, Caesar impersonated a gumball machine; in another, a baby; in another, a ludicrously overemotional guest on a parody of This Is Your Life.

The son of Jewish immigrants, Caesar was a wizard at spouting melting-pot gibberish that parodied German, Russian, French and other languages.

Some compared him to Charlie Chaplin for his success at combining humor with touches of pathos.

Caesar performed with such talents as Howard Morris and Nanette Fabray, but his most celebrated collaborator was the brilliant Imogene Coca, his Your Show of Shows co-star.

Coca and Caesar performed skits that satirized the everyday — marital spats, and inane advertising. They staged a water-logged spoof of the love scene in From Here to Eternity.

“The chemistry was perfect, that's all,” Coca, who died in 2001, said. “We never went out together; we never see each other socially. But for years we worked together from 10 in the morning to 6 or 7 at night every day of the week. What made it work is that we found the same things funny.”

Caesar worked closely with his writing staff as they found inspiration in silent movies, foreign films and the absurdities of '50s postwar prosperity.

Among those who wrote for Caesar: Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Simon and his brother Danny Simon, and Allen, who was providing gags to Caesar and other entertainers while still in his teens.

Carl Reiner, who wrote in addition to performing on the show, based his Dick Van Dyke Show — with its fictional TV writers and their temperamental star — on his experiences there.

After Caesar's Hour was taken off air in 1962, Caesar starred on Broadway in the musical Little Me, written by Simon, and was nominated for a Tony.

His and Coca's classic TV work captured a new audience with the 1973 theatrical compilation film Ten From Your Show of Shows.

He was one of the galaxy of stars who raced to find buried treasure in the 1963 comic epic It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and in 1976 he put his pantomime skills to work in Brooks' Silent Movie.

But he later looked back on those years as painful ones. He said he beat a severe, decades-long barbiturate and alcohol habit in 1978, when he was so low he considered suicide.

American comedian and actor Sid Caesar plays the saxophone indoors as his daughter, Karen, holds her ears. American comedian and actor Sid Caesar plays the saxophone indoors as his daughter, Karen, holds her ears.
Caesar was born in 1922 in Yonkers, New York, the third son of an Austrian-born restaurant owner and his Russian-born wife. His first dream was to become a musician, and he played saxophone in bands in his teens.

His talent for comedy was discovered when he was serving in the Coast Guard during World War II and got a part in a Coast Guard musical, Tars and Spars. He also appeared in the movie version.

That led to a few other film roles, nightclub engagements, and then his breakthrough hit, a 1948 Broadway revue called Make Mine Manhattan.

Your Show of Shows, which debuted in February 1950, and Caesar's Hour three reached as many as 60 million viewers weekly and earned its star $1 million annually at a time when $5, he later noted, bought a steak dinner for two.

When Caesar's Hour left the air in 1957, Caesar was only 34. But the unforgiving cycle of weekly television had taken a toll: His reliance on booze and pills for sleep every night so he could wake up and create more comedy.

It took decades for him to hit bottom. In 1977, he was onstage in Regina, Canada, doing Simon's The Last of the Red Hot Lovers when, suddenly, his mind went blank. He walked off stage, checked into a hospital and went cold turkey. Recovery had begun, with the help of wife Florence Caesar, who would be by his side for more than 60 years and helped him weather his demons.

Those demons included remorse about the flared-out superstardom of his youth — and how the pressures nearly killed him. But over time he learned to view his life philosophically.

“You think just because something good happens, THEN something bad has got to happen? Not necessarily,” he said with a smile in 2003, pleased to share his hard-won wisdom: “Two good things have happened in a row.”

PA

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