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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

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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 Imogene 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.

Others who wrote for Caesar: 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.

 

 

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AT A GLANCE

Stars react to death of comedy legend Sid Caesar

Celebrities react to the passing of TV comedy pioneer Sid Caesar Wednesday at 91 at his home in Los Angeles:

“Sid Caesar set the template for everybody. He was without a doubt, inarguably, the greatest sketch comedian-monologist that television ever produced. He could ad-lib, he could do anything that was necessary to make an audience laugh.” — Caesar’s longtime collaborator and friend Carl Reiner on CBS Radio.

“Saddened by the death of Sid Caeser. He was one of the greats. When you watch him today, he still makes you laugh like he did 60 years ago.” — Joan Rivers on Twitter, adding, “A childhood highlight was going to the taping of “Your Show of Shows.” I’m just sorry I never had the opportunity to work with Sid Caesar.”

“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.” — Woody Allen in a statement.

“Life...doing her thing, another great has passed Sid Caesar. Funny man We honored him at the very first Comic Relief. RIP turn turn turn” — Whoopi Goldberg on Twitter.

“We’ve lost one of the greats. Sid Caesar was a fantastic comedian and entertainer. His quadlingual schtick was always a hit. We’ll miss him.” — Arnold ?Schwarzenegger on Twitter.

“He was a genius at everything.” — Larry King on CBS radio.

“Just read Sid Caesar passed away. Real genius of sketch comedy. Without him, no SNL & no me. HAIL TO THE KING! (hash) SID CAESAR, KING of COMEDY” — Comedian and former “Saturday Night Live” star Jon Lovitz on Twitter.