Sid Caesar, comic genius of 1950s television, dies at 91
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."
Associated Press writers Frazier Moore in New York and Christopher Weber and Jessica Herndon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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.