Sid Caesar, Comedian and One of TV’s First Stars, Dies at 91

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Sid Caesar, Comedian and One of TV’s First Stars, Dies at 91

Posted on: February 13th, 2014 by tommyj

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Sid Caesar, a comedic force of nature who became one of television’s first stars in the early 1950s and influenced generations of comedians and comedy writers, died on Wednesday. He was 91.

The Associated Press reported that his death was announced by Eddy Friedfeld, a family spokesman.

Mr. Caesar largely faded from the public eye in his middle years as he struggled with crippling self-doubt and addiction to alcohol and pills. But from 1950 to 1954, he and his co-stars on the live 90-minute comedy-variety extravaganza “Your Show of Shows” dominated the Saturday night viewing habits of millions of Americans. In New York, a group of Broadway theater owners tried to persuade NBC to switch the show to the middle of the week because, they said, it was ruining their Saturday business.

Albert Einstein was a Caesar fan. Alfred Hitchcock called Mr. Caesar the funniest performer since Charlie Chaplin.

Television comedy in its early days was dominated by boisterous veterans of vaudeville and radio who specialized in broad slapstick and snappy one-liners. Mr. Caesar introduced a different kind of humor to the small screen, at once more intimate and more absurd, based less on jokes or pratfalls than on characters and situations. It left an indelible mark on American comedy.

Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca on “Your Show of Shows” in 1953. NBC-TV, via Associated Press

“If you want to find the ur-texts of ‘The Producers’ and ‘Blazing Saddles,’ of ‘Sleeper’ and ‘Annie Hall,’ of ‘All in the Family’ and ‘M*A*S*H’ and ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times when he was its chief theater critic, “check out the old kinescopes of Sid Caesar.”

A list of Mr. Caesar’s writers over the years reads like a comedy all-star team. Woody Allen and Mel Brooks did some of their earliest writing for him. So did the most successful playwright in the history of the American stage, Neil Simon. Carl Reiner created one landmark sitcom, “The Dick Van Dyke Show”; Larry Gelbart was the principal creative force behind another, “M*A*S*H.” Mel Tolkin wrote numerous scripts for “All in the Family.” The authors of the two longest-running Broadway musicals of the 1960s, Joseph Stein (“Fiddler on the Roof”) and Michael Stewart (“Hello, Dolly!”), were Caesar alumni as well.

Sketches on “Your Show of Shows” and its successor, “Caesar’s Hour” (1954-57), were as likely to skewer the minutiae of domestic life as to lampoon classic Hollywood movies, arty foreign films and even operas.

Mr. Caesar was funny whether working from a script or improvising: In a classic moment during a parody of the opera “Pagliacci,” as he was drawing tears on his face in front of a dressing-room mirror, the makeup pencil broke. Suddenly unable to draw anything but straight lines, he made the split-second decision to play tick-tack-toe on his cheek.

With a rubbery face and the body of a linebacker, Mr. Caesar could get laughs without saying a word, as he did in a pantomime routine in which he and his co-stars, Imogene Coca, Howard Morris and Mr. Reiner, played mechanical figures on a town clock that goes dangerously out of whack.

He was also deft at handling whatever wordplay his writers gave him. In one guise, as the extremely far-out jazz saxophonist Progress Hornsby, he explained that his new record was in a special kind of hi-fi: “This is the highest they’ve ever fied. If they fi any higher than this, they’re gonna foo!”

He could seem eloquent even when his words were total gibberish: Among his gifts was the ability to mimic the sounds and cadences of foreign languages he didn’t actually speak.

He was equally convincing as a suburban husband slowly figuring out that his wife, played by Ms. Coca, had wrecked the car (a comic conceit that had not yet become a cliché); as an absurdly enthusiastic member of a bouffant-coiffed rock-’n’-roll trio called the Haircuts; or as a pompous German professor in a battered top hat and moth-eaten frock coat who claimed, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, to be an expert on pretty much everything. One week the professor was an archaeologist who claimed to have discovered “the secret of Titten-Totten’s tomb.” Asked what the secret was, he became indignant: “You think I’m gonna tell you? You got another guess coming. You take that trip.”

Two decades after “Your Show of Shows” ruled the Saturday-night airwaves, another live 90-minute show, similarly built around a stock company’s wild and often irreverent sketch comedy, helped change the face of television. But there might not have been a “Saturday Night Live” if Sid Caesar and company hadn’t paved the way.

“It was fun, but hard,” Mr. Caesar said in 1984, looking back on his glory years. “I worked six days a week, putting the script together, working with the writers. The show had to be written by Wednesday night because Thursday we had to put it on its feet. Friday we showed it to the technicians, and Saturday was the show. Sunday was our only day off, and I used to stand under the shower and shake.”

He did more than shake. By the age of 30 Mr. Caesar was not just the king of television, earning $1 million a year; he was also an alcoholic and a pill addict. Under his manic exterior, he recalled in “Where Have I Been?,” his 1982 autobiography, he was distraught and filled with self-hatred, tormented by guilt because he did not think he deserved the acclaim he was receiving.

He was also given to explosive rages. Mr. Caesar once dangled a terrified Mr. Brooks from an 18th-story window until colleagues restrained him. With one punch he knocked out a horse that had thrown his wife off its back, a scene that Mr. Brooks replayed in his movie “Blazing Saddles.”

Sid Caesar Richard Drew/Associated Press

By the late 1950s he was off the air, a victim of changing tastes as well as personal problems. He made a triumphant comeback on Broadway in 1962, playing seven characters in “Little Me,” a musical created by Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh and Mr. Simon. (A concert revival of “Little Me” was part of the Encores! series at City Center this month.) A year later Mr. Caesar held his own among comedy heavyweights like Milton Berle, Mickey Rooney and Jonathan Winters in the hit movie “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” But his problems soon got the better of him, and his comeback was short-lived.

Most of the 1960s and ’70s were a struggle. They were also a blur: In writing “Where Have I Been?” Mr. Caesar relied on reporting by his collaborator, Bill Davidson, and the recollections of his family, because there was so much he could not remember. (Twenty-one years later Mr. Caesar and Mr. Friedfeld wrote a second autobiography, “Caesar’s Hours.” This one was more upbeat, mostly because the focus was Mr. Caesar’s comedy career rather than on his personal struggles.)

Mr. Caesar was not entirely out of the public eye even in his dark days. He showed up on television now and then; he appeared in a handful of movies, some memorable (Mel Brooks’s “Silent Movie”) and some less so (the silly horror comedy “The Spirit Is Willing”); he returned to Broadway in 1971, albeit briefly, in “Four on a Garden,” an ill-fated evening of one-act comedies that also starred Carol Channing. And the release in 1973 of “Ten From Your Show of Shows,” a feature-film compilation of sketches, helped keep his reputation alive. But he continued to flounder.

The low point came in 1978. He was in two movies released that year, “Grease” and “The Cheap Detective,” but by the time they hit theaters, he had hit bottom.

Incapacitated by his addictions and neuroses, barely able to get out of bed, he underwent intensive psychotherapy and medical treatment. He found salvation and sanity, he later said, in a form of Jungian self-therapy: recording improvised dialogues each day between himself as Sid, a wise father, and Sidney, his wayward son, whom the father teaches to become a restrained, confident adult.

In the 1980s Mr. Caesar acquired a new addiction: healthful living. He developed a lean, youthful physique by avoiding fat, salt and sugar and by strenuously working out at least one hour each morning.

“Now, instead of knocking life down, tearing it apart, I graciously accept life,” he remarked.

Sidney Caesar was born on Sept. 8, 1922, in Yonkers, the youngest of three sons of Jewish immigrants, Max and Ida Caesar. Max Caesar, who emigrated from Poland, owned and operated a luncheonette with his wife, who had come from Russia; young Sid Caesar developed his foreign-sounding double talk by listening closely to the luncheonette’s multinational clientele. The family lived over the restaurant and rented rooms to transients.

As a child, Sid was moody, shy, quiet and — although he would later grow to 6-foot-2 — short. He once said he felt “like a midget in the world of giants.” He kept to himself much of the time. He was 3 before he began to talk, and even then, his brothers recalled, he did not say a great deal.

His teachers, interviewed at the time of his early television success, remembered a completely unexceptional child. “Sid Caesar was one of the dumbest pupils I ever had,” one teacher said.

He took up weight lifting. “I developed tremendous muscles, which everyone had to respect,” he said. “The biceps I built were disguises for my fear.”

He also learned how to play the saxophone, which he later said saved his life: “It helped me blow off some steam and get rid of some of the anger.”

Sid Caesar, right, with friend and comedian Billy Crystal in 2006. Fred Prouser/Reuters

Equally important, the saxophone gave him an entree into show business. At 14 he was hired to play at a Catskills hotel on summer vacation. While there, he also began performing in comedy sketches; he still thought of himself primarily as a saxophonist and would go on to work with the bands of Shep Fields, Claude Thornhill and others, but comedy soon became his primary focus.

After graduating from Yonkers High School, he worked as an usher and then a doorman at the Capitol Theater in Manhattan, auditing courses at the Juilliard School because he could not afford to attend. He met Florence Levy in the Catskills and married her in 1943.

In World War II he enlisted in the Coast Guard and did duty on Brooklyn piers. In his free time he wrote comic material that helped win him a role in “Tars and Spars,” a Coast Guard revue that toured the country and was made into a movie, in which he also appeared, in 1946. A monologue in which he played multiple characters and provided all the sound effects of a World War I aerial dogfight made a strong impression on audiences — and on the show’s director, Max Liebman.

In 1948 Mr. Liebman directed Mr. Caesar in the hit Broadway revue “Make Mine Manhattan.” The next year, when Mr. Liebman brought him to television on the weekly “The Admiral Broadway Revue,” Mr. Caesar was hailed as the small-screen discovery of the year. His star rose even higher with the debut of “Your Show of Shows,” also produced by Mr. Liebman, in February 1950.

Although the chemistry between Mr. Caesar and Ms. Coca was a large part of the show’s success, NBC decided to split them up and give Ms. Coca her own show after four years. With Mr. Reiner and Mr. Morris still by his side, Mr. Caesar carried on with “Caesar’s Hour,” but after a strong start the ratings declined, and the show was canceled in 1957. He returned the next year with “Sid Caesar Invites You,” a half-hour ABC show, which reunited him with Ms. Coca. But the old magic was gone, and the show lasted only a few months.

“I had no experience in failure,” Mr. Caesar later recalled of the years that followed. “And then, when failure comes, oh, boy, it comes in lumps.”

After 20 up-and-down years, Mr. Caesar found himself in 1978 spending four months almost entirely in bed, secretly ordering in beer whenever his wife turned her back. Offered a job in Canada in Mr. Simon’s comedy “Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” he was in such a fog of alcohol and pills that he couldn’t remember his lines. Finally, he sought treatment.

“I had to come to terms with myself,” he recalled. “Do you want to live or die? Make up your mind. And I did. I said, ‘I want to live.’ And that was it: the first step on a long journey.”

His return to health and sobriety led to a career revival, aided by two events in 1982: the publication of “Where Have I Been?” and the release of the movie “My Favorite Year,” a fictionalized account of life behind the scenes at “Your Show of Shows” produced by Mr. Brooks, with Joseph Bologna as the show’s Caesar-like star. Through the 1980s and ’90s, until health problems slowed him down, Mr. Caesar worked regularly — on television (he hosted “Saturday Night Live” in 1983), in films (he worked for Mr. Brooks again in “History of the World: Part I”), in nightclubs (with Ms. Coca), on Broadway (although his show “Sid Caesar and Company: Does Anybody Know What I’m Talking About?” closed quickly in 1989) and at the Metropolitan Opera, where he appeared as Frosch, the drunken jailer, in a 1987 production of “Die Fledermaus.”

When Mr. Caesar was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1985, Mr. Brooks hailed him as “the funniest man America has produced to date.”

Mr. Caesar’s wife, Florence, died in 2010. His survivors include a son, Richard, and two daughters, Michele and Karen.

In a 1987 interview with The New York Times, Mr. Caesar looked back on his early success and subsequent failures, both of which he admitted he had been unprepared to handle, and reflected on the perspective he said he had finally achieved.

“Everybody wants to have a goal: I gotta get to that goal, I gotta get to that goal, I gotta get to that goal,” he said. “Then you get to that goal, and then you gotta get to another goal. But in between goals is a thing called life that has to be lived and enjoyed — and if you don’t, you’re a fool.”

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