Sid Caesar, comic genius of 1950s television, dies

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Sid Caesar, comic genius of 1950s television, dies
FILE - In this undated file photo originally provided by NBC, Sid Caesar, left, and Imogene Coca are shown in a scene from "Your Show of Shows." Caesar, whose sketches lit up 1950s television with zany humor, died Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. He was 91. (AP Photo/NBC, File)
A nervy, or perhaps nervous, commuter tries to get through a road block formed by three friends busy chatting in the aisle of a commuter train. Nanette Fabray takes the part of the not quite helpless female. The men are (left to right) Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris. The four, who lampoon typical pests on commuter trains on Caesar's TV program, staged a picture serious on a railroad train shown April 1955. (AP Photo)
Nanette Fabray, seated at right, gags as railroad commuters Sid Caesar, left, Carl Reiner, top, center, and Howard Morris poke their smokes in her direction while looking over her shoulder to read her newspaper, on "Caesar's Hour," April 27, 1955. (AP Photo)
He should have stood in bed, Nanette Fabray decides as she tries to get over the obstacle of Sid Caesar?s legs, a commuter train in April 1955. Caesar and some of his TV troupe staged their lampooning of typical commuter pests on a train provided for them. (AP Photo)
Comedian Sid Caesar is shown in New York, March 9, 1956. (AP Photo/Joe Caneva)
Comedian Sid Caesar visits his partner, Nanette Fabray, at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, Dec. 4, 1955, where she is recovering from a slight concussion after a 75-pound scenery weight struck her during the Sid Caesar show. Miss Fabray plays his wife on the show. (AP Photo/Harry Harris)
The 1956 Emmy winners, from left, Edward R. Murrow, Nanette Fabray, Sid Caesar and Phil Silvers, pose with their statuettes at the 9th annual Primetime Emmy Awards at the Colonial Theatre in New York City, March 16, 1957, the first year the awards show is broadcast in color. Murrow won Best News Commentary; Fabray won Best Continuing Performance by a Comedienne in a Series, "Caesar's Hour"; Caesar won Best Continuing Performance by a Comedian in a Series, "Caesar's Hour"; and Silvers won Best Series, Half Hour or Less, "Phil Silver Show." (AP Photo)
Comedian Sid Caesar and his partner on television, Imogene Coca, touching noses in New York in September of 1957, will return to television in January of 1958. They're scheduled for a regular night-time show on ABC-TV after start of the New Year. Caesar, who says his loss of weight on doctor's recommendation has made his feel better and think sharper, adds, "I'm glad to be coming back with Imogene. She's a small person in size, but she's 10 times big as her size in being a great performer." (AP Photo)
Imogene Coca and Sid Caeser, get together on Sept. 20 1957 at the restaurant " 21 Club" in New York City. They are planning to team up once again for a television show this year. (AP Photo/John Lindsay)
Sid Caesar and Jane Connell appear in a scene from the new comedy program "As Caesar Sees It," Aug. 30, 1962. (AP Photo)
Comedian Sid Caesar gestures as he is photographed in the backyard of his Beverly Hills, Ca., home on May 11, 1982. (AP Photo/Wally Fong)
Comedian Sid Caesar is shown on the set of the film "Grease II," in Hollywood, Calif., Dec. 17, 1981. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Comedian Sid Caesar is shown in Los Angeles, Aug. 10, 1984. (AP Photo/Colin Crawford)
Comedian Sid Caesar is shown during an interview with AP's Jerry Buck, 1985. (AP Photo/Lacy Atkins)
Comic actor Sid Caesar, left, and actress Mare Winningham are shown in a scene from the TV movie "Love Is Never Silent," 1985. (AP Photo)
FILE - This April 15, 1986 file photo shows comedians Milton Berle, left, and Sid Caesar prior to Caesar's roast in Beverly Hills, Calif. Caesar, whose sketches lit up 1950s television with zany humor, died Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. He was 91. (AP Photo/Michael Tweed, File)
Sid Caesar is shown in dress rehearsal as Frosch the jailer in Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus with the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York City on Dec. 2, 1987. The actor-comedian is making his debut in this non-singing role. (AP Photo/Adam Stoltman)
Comedian Sid Caesar is made up as Quasimodo in front of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, May 9, 1989, during the filming of a sketch for an American TV special on the French Revolution Bicentennial. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)
Sid Caesar poses in New York City on Oct 23, 1989. Caesar was born on Sept. 8, 1922 in Yonkers, New York. One of the earlier stars in television, he is noted for his dialects, pantomimes, improvisations and satirical performances as cohost of the weekly live revue "Your Show of Shows," 1950-1954, and later, "Caesar's Hour." He was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1985. (AP Photo/Suzanne Vlamis)
Actor Sid Caesar, left, shown with actress Imogene Coco on the 40th anniversary of "Your Show of Shows" at Michael's pub for a special finale of "Together Again" April 17, 1990 in New York. (AP Photo/Ed Bailey)
Sid Caesar, left, and Imogene Coco, a legendary comedy team of the 1950's best known for their work on the television program "Your Show of Shows", pose in a Boston hotel Monday, May 11, 1992 near an old photograph of the two of them together. They were announcing the May 13 Boston opening of their comedy show "Together Again". (AP Photo/Sandy Hill)
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)
Television pioneer Sid Caesar stands in front of a cardboard cutout from one of his early programs as he waits for ceremonies honoring him as one of the first inductees into NBC's "Walk of Fame" in the network's Rockefeller Center store in New York, Monday morning Oct. 25, 1999. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Comedian Bob Hope's wife, Dolores, left, greets Hollywood legend and veteran USO performer Sid Caesar before a news conference at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, Monday, Oct. 15, 2001. During the news conference plans were announced for expansion of the Bob Hope Hollywood USO at Los Angeles International Airport. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Hollywood legend and veteran USO performer Sid Caesar, left, chats with U.S. Army Special Security Representative Charyl D. Slevin, center, and Maj. Gen. Peter Gravett before a news conference at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, Monday, Oct. 15, 2001. The news conference was held to announce the revival of the Bob Hope Hollywood USO at Los Angeles International Airport to provide a "home away from home" for thousands of American servicemen and women being enlisted for the war on terrorism.(AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Sid Caesar, of "Your Show of Shows," arrives at NBC's 75th anniversary celebration, Sunday, May 5, 2002, at New York's Rockefeller Center. The festivities, which celebrate America's first broadcasting network, will be telecast live from NBC's Studio 8H. (AP Photo/Ron Frehm)

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Sid Caesar, 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. 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.

Friedfeld, a friend of Caesar's who wrote the 2003 biography "Caesar's Hour" learned of his death in an early morning call from Caesar's daughter, Karen.

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

"Sid Caesar set the template for everybody," Reiner told KNX-AM in Los Angeles. "He was without a doubt, inarguably, the greatest sketch comedian-monologist that television ever produced. He could adlib. He could do anything that was necessary to make an audience laugh."

In his two most important shows, "Your Show of Shows," 1950-54, 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.

"The one great star that television created and who created television was Sid Caesar," said now-deceased critic Joel Siegel on the TV documentary "Hail Sid Caesar! The Golden Age Of Comedy," which first aired in 2001.

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."

If the typical funnyman was tubby or short and scrawny, 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. He wasn't interested. 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." Caesar brought observational comedy to TV before the term, or such latter-day practitioners as Jerry Seinfeld, were even born.

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."

He played an unsuspecting moviegoer getting caught between feuding lovers in a theater. He dined at a health food restaurant, where the first course was the bouquet in the vase on the table. He was interviewed as an avant-garde jazz musician who seemed happily high on something.

The son of Jewish immigrants, Caesar was a wizard at spouting melting-pot gibberish that parodied German, Russian, French and other languages. His Professor was the epitome of goofy Germanic scholarship.

Some compared him to Charlie Chaplin for his success at combining humor with touches of 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 Associated Press in 1955. "The viewers have to see you basically as a person first, and after that you can go on into left field."

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

Coca and 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 "Strange." They staged a water-logged 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."

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. Simon's 1993 "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" and the 1982 movie "My Favorite Year" also were based on the Caesar show.

A 1996 roundtable discussion among Caesar and his writers was turned into a public television special. Said Simon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright: "None of us who've gone on to do other things could have done them without going through this show."

"This was playing for the Yankees; this was playing in Duke Ellington's band," said Gelbart, the creator of TV's "M-A-S-H" and screenwriter of "Tootsie," who died in 2009.

Increasing ratings competition from Lawrence Welk's variety show put "Caesar's Hour" off the air in 1957.

In 1962, Caesar starred on Broadway in the musical "Little Me," written by Simon, and was nominated for a Tony. He played seven different roles, from a comically perfect young man to a tyrannical movie director to a prince of an impoverished European kingdom.

"The fact that, night after night, they are also excruciatingly funny is a tribute to the astonishing talents of their portrayer," Newsweek magazine wrote. "In comedy, Caesar is still the best there is."

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. "I had to come to terms with myself. `Yes or no? Do you want to live or die?'" Deciding that he wanted to live, he recalled, was "the first step on a long journey."

Caesar was born in 1922 in Yonkers, N.Y., 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.

But as a youngster waiting tables at his father's luncheonette, he liked to observe as well as serve the diverse clientele, and recognize the humor happening before his eyes.

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. Wrote famed columnist Hedda Hopper: "I hear the picture's good, with Sid Caesar a four-way threat. He writes, sings, dances and makes with the comedy."

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

His first TV comedy-variety show, "The Admiral Broadway Revue," premiered in February 1949. But it was off the air by June. Its fatal shortcoming: unimagined popularity. It was selling more Admiral television sets than the company could make, and Admiral, its exclusive sponsor, pulled out.

But everyone was ready for Caesar's subsequent efforts. "Your Show of Shows," which debuted in February 1950, and "Caesar's Hour" three years later 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."

Sid Caesar Dead: Comedic Legend Dies At 91
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