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Sid Caesar, comic genius of 1950s television, dies at 91

First Published Feb 13 2014 12:08PM      Last Updated Feb 12 2014 05:03 pm

Los Angeles • Sid Caesar, the TV comedy pioneer whose rubber-faced expressions and mimicry built on the work of his dazzling team of writers that included Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, 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.



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 Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart ("M-A-S-H’), and 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.

Reiner, who was a writer-performer on the 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."

The Friars Club called Caesar the "patron saint" of sketch comedy.

"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.

Friedfeld said Caesar always shared the acclaim.

"Sid was an innovator, he and his team. He was very careful about never taking credit alone. He believed in his co-stars and his writers," he said. "They created the amazing vehicles for him to be creative."

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.

 

 

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