TV comedy pioneer Sid Caesar dies at 91
LOS ANGELES — Carl Reiner remembers Sid Caesar as a great flame who drew comedy writer “moths” including Mel Brooks and Neil Simon to his side.
The genius of 1950s TV comedy is illuminating television even today. Shows from “Saturday Night Live” to sitcoms owe a debt to Caesar’s brilliant interpretation of material by Brooks, Simon, Woody Allen and Reiner himself, among others.
He was “inarguably the greatest pantomimist, monologist and single sketch comedian who ever worked in television,” Reiner said of the actor-comedian, who died Wednesday at his Los Angeles area home after a brief illness. He was 91.
“Your Show of Shows” (1950-54), with co-star Imogene Coca, and “Caesar’s Hour” (1954-57) were his major achievements.
“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 Caesar’s sketch comedy lives on in shows like “SNL,” his emphasis on humor born out of human nature is part of comedies such as “Modern Family,” said longtime friend Eddy Friedfeld. He and Caesar wrote the 2003 biography “Caesar’s Hours: My Life in Comedy, With Love and Laughter.”
Among Caesar’s TV staff writers, Friedfeld noted, several went on to create memorable sitcoms, including Reiner’s “Dick Van Dyke Show,” based on his “Your Show of Shows” experiences, and Larry Gelbart’s “M*A*S*H.”
While Caesar was 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 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.
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,” aired in 1949.
“Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour” 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.
Increasing ratings competition from Lawrence Welk’s variety show put “Caesar’s Hour” off the air in 1957.
When “Caesar’s Hour” ended, its star was only 34. But the unforgiving cycle of weekly television had taken a toll: He had started relying on booze and pills for sleep every night so he could wake up and create more comedy.
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.”
Florence, his wife of more than six decades, died four years ago, Friedfeld said. Caesar is survived by two daughters and a son.
Funeral plans were pending.