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Sid Caesar, 91, pioneer of TV comedy

FILE - This Oct. 25, 1999 file photo shows Milton Berle, left, and Sid Caesar before being honored in as the first inductees into NBC´s "Walk of Fame" in the network´s Rockefeller Center store in New York. Caesar, whose sketches lit up 1950s television with zany humor, died Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. He was 91.  (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
FILE - This Oct. 25, 1999 file photo shows Milton Berle, left, and Sid Caesar before being honored in as the first inductees into NBC's "Walk of Fame" in the network's Rockefeller Center store in New York. Caesar, whose sketches lit up 1950s television with zany humor, died Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. He was 91. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
FILE - This Oct. 25, 1999 file photo shows Milton Berle, left, and Sid Caesar before being honored in as the first inductees into NBC´s "Walk of Fame" in the network´s Rockefeller Center store in New York. Caesar, whose sketches lit up 1950s television with zany humor, died Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. He was 91.  (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File) Gallery: Sid Caesar, 91, pioneer of TV comedy

LOS ANGELES - Sid Caesar, 91, the prodigiously talented pioneer of TV comedy who paired with Imogene Coca in sketches that became classics and who inspired a generation of famous writers, died Wednesday.

Mr. Caesar died at his home in the Los Angeles area after a brief illness, family spokesman Eddy Friedfeld said.

In his two most important shows, Your Show of Shows (1950-54) and Caesar's Hour (1954-57), Mr. Caesar displayed remarkable skill in pantomime, satire, mimicry, dialect, and sketch comedy.

Your Show of Shows, which Mr. Caesar ruled like an emperor over his court, launched the careers of a stable of comedy writers whose collective achievements surpass those of any who ever worked together in TV. Among them are the filmmakers Woody Allen and Mel Brooks; the playwright Neil Simon; and the television trailblazers Carl Reiner, creator of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Larry Gelbart, who brought M*A*S*H to the small screen.

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

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

    But he never went in for clowning or jokes. He insisted that the laughs come from the everyday.

    "Real life is the true comedy," he said in a 2001 interview with the Associated Press. "Then everybody knows what you're talking about." Mr. Caesar brought observational comedy to TV before the term, or latter-day practitioners such as Jerry Seinfeld, were even born.

    In one celebrated routine, Mr. Caesar impersonated a gumball machine; in another, a baby; in yet another, a ludicrously overemotional guest on a parody of This Is Your Life.

    Some compared him to Charles Chaplin for his success at combining humor with pathos.

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

    Mr. Caesar performed with such talents as Howard Morris and Nanette Fabray, but his most celebrated collaborator was Coca, his Your Show of Shows costar. Coca and Mr. Caesar performed skits that satirized the everyday - marital spats, inane advertising, strangers meeting and speaking in clichés, a parody of the Western Shane in which the hero was named "Strange." They staged a waterlogged spoof of the love scene in From Here to Eternity. "The Hickenloopers" husband-and-wife skits became a staple.

    "The chemistry was perfect, that's all," Coca, who died in 2001, once 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."

    After the final episode of Your Show of Shows aired on June 5, 1954, Mr. Caesar and Coca parted to pursue separate careers. Neither was quite so successful again.

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

    Reiner, who wrote as well as performed on the show, based Dick Van Dyke - with its fictional TV writers and their temperamental star - on his experiences working for Mr. Caesar. Simon's 1993 Laughter on the 23rd Floor and the 1982 movie My Favorite Year also were based on the Caesar shows.

     Mr. Caesar was born on Sept. 8, 1922, in Yonkers, N.Y., to immigrant parents. His father, Max, came from Austria; his mother, Ida, was born in Russia.

    Max Caesar operated an eatery, the St. Clair Lunch, and for most of Mr. Caesar's boyhood the family was prosperous. It was at the restaurant, whose patrons included factory and construction workers of many nationalities, that Mr. Caesar began to develop the mastery of dialects and accents that led to his many double-talk routines on Your Show of Shows.

    After graduating from Yonkers High School in 1939, Mr. Caesar went to work as an usher at the Capitol Theatre in New York City. After he was promoted to doorman, with a dime as his usual tip, he decided to shoot for the top: "On one occasion, a star handed me a dollar. From that moment, I decided I would be a Broadway star with my name in lights - and able to hand out a dollar when somebody did something extra for me."

    At 19, playing saxophone in the summer in the Catskills, Mr. Caesar fell in love with Florence Levy, daughter of the proprietor of the pavilion where he was playing. They married in 1943.

    During World War II, Mr. Caesar joined the Coast Guard and was cast in Tars and Spars, a revue patterned after the popular This Is the Army show. After the war, he played sax in bands led by Charlie Spivak, Claude Thornhill, and Shep Fields; made his film debut in a 1946 version of Tars and Spars; and, in 1948, made his stage debut when Tars and Spars played on Broadway.

    Costarring with Coca, Mr. Caesar made his TV debut in 1949 on the Admiral Broadway Revue, a short-lived variety show that took its name from a maker of televisions. The show may be the only series in history that was canceled because it was too successful. After four months, it lost its sponsor because Mr. Caesar was selling TV sets faster than Admiral could make them.

    Mr. Caesar and Coca were teamed again when Your Show of Shows premiered on Feb. 25, 1950. It enjoyed the rare distinction of airing on two networks at once: NBC and DuMont.

    When Caesar's Hour premiered on Sept. 27, 1954, Fabray was his comic partner. Although Hour won five Emmy Awards in the last of its three seasons, it was canceled in 1957 because it could not beat The Lawrence Welk Show in the Nielsen ratings.

    Mr. Caesar and Coca reunited in Sid Caesar Invites You in 1958. But they could not recapture their magic, and the series lasted only four months. The last of Mr. Caesar's five series was The Sid Caesar Show in 1963-64.

    Mr. Caesar returned to Broadway in 1962 as the star of Little Me. He enjoyed some later success in films, notably as Coach Calhoun in Grease (1978) and Grease 2 (1982).

    But for two decades, the big news in his life was private and painful: a harrowing 20-year immersion in alcohol and pills. In his autobiography, Where Have I Been, (1982) cowritten with Bill Davidson, Mr. Caesar was frank about his twin addictions.

    "I'd pass out in airplanes," he said, "and there were flights when I took so many pills that the stewardesses panicked when they couldn't wake me at the destination."

    He said he was able to pull out only because of the support of his wife, Florence.

     


    This obituary includes information written by the late Inquirer staff writer Lee Winfrey.

    Lynn Elber Associated Press
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