Sid Caesar Dead: Comedy Titan Was 91

AP Photo/Wally Fong
Sid Caesar

He starred in the 1950s sketch classics "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour" and influenced the likes of Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon and Woody Allen.

Sid Caesar, the intelligent and yet nonsensical comic who forever changed the course of television with his groundbreaking 1950s live Saturday night variety shows Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour, has died. He was 91. His friend, Carl Reiner, confirmed the news to The Hollywood Reporter.

"Inarguably he was the greatest single monologist and skit comedian we ever had," Reiner said in a statement to THR. "Television owes him a debt of gratitude for his pioneering work and the great shows he gave us all. Render onto Caesar what is his due. He deserves real applause from the American people."

Caesar, who died Wednesday at his longtime home in the Trousdale Estates section of Beverly Hills after a brief illness, was known for his physicality, improvisation, mimicry and his whimsical signature, the double-talk.

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Whether played out in a sketch, pantomime or a full-blown revue, Caesar's observational humor exposed the truths of everyday life. His two whirlwind variety shows produced writers and performers who set the comic agenda for decades to come -- people like Reiner, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Imogene Coca, Nanette Fabray, Howard Morris, Lucille Kallen, Mel Tolkin and Fiddler on the Roof playwright Joseph Stein.

The proof: Reiner developed the classic 1960s sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show using his Show of Shows experience for comic fodder (the Alan Brady character, played by Reiner, was modeled after Caesar). The 1982 film My Favorite Year, a thinly disguised memoir of life with Caesar during the tumultuous era of live TV, was backed by Brooks and had Joseph Bologna playing the Caesar-like King Kaiser. And Simon re-created the writers room tension of Caesar shows for his 1993 Broadway hit Laughter on the 23rd Floor, starring Nathan Lane as another Caesar stand-in, Max Prince.

In fact, it could be said that Saturday Night Live is a direct descendant of Caesar's sketch-laden variety shows. He hosted the late-night show in 1983 and was named an honorary castmember.

“Sid Caesar was a giant -- maybe the best comedian who every practiced the trade," Brooks said in a statement. "And I was privileged to be one of his writers and one of his friends."

Caesar's live, 90-minute Show of Shows debuted in 1950 when he was 27 and ran through 1954 in an era before cue cards and teleprompters. Its frenetic high-wire uncertainty made for great hilarity and produced back-to-back Emmy wins in 1952 and '53.

After Your Show of Shows, which ran for 160 episodes, Caesar started Caesar's Hour. Also live, it collected three Emmys and featured his Show of Show mates Reiner and Morris (Coca left for her own show and was replaced by Fabray). At the time, half of all Americans who owned TV sets tuned in each week to watch the antics of Caesar and his cohorts.

Among the 25 million viewers each week was Albert Einstein, who particularly enjoyed one of Caesar's stock characters, The Professor, a bluffing German who sounded smart but was not really an expert on anything. The physicist so enjoyed the show that he contacted Caesar's office to set up a lunch date, but Einstein died in April 1955 before that meeting of the minds could take place.

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Caesar's other characters included space expert Ludwig von Spacebrain, marriage expert Ludwig von Henpecked, nonsensical storyteller Somerset Winterset and one-half of the bickering couple The Hickenloopers.

"All my comedy was character- and plot-driven," he said in 2003. "I always believed that in art and life, it's not what you do, it's the way you do it; it's not what you say, it's the way you say it. In the doing, you'll find your strengths and weaknesses, and you will find your art."

Caesar also was known for his furious temper and strength. He was known to punch through walls and tear sinks from their moorings. He once punched a horse -- a gag Brooks paid homage to in Blazing Saddles. And after one writing session, he dangled Brooks from an 18th-floor hotel room window.

Caesar was nominated for 10 Emmy Awards, winning in 1952 and 1954. He was given the Lifetime Achievement Award in Comedy in 1978 by the Television Hall of Fame.

He was born Isaac Sidney Caesar on Sept. 8, 1922, in Yonkers, N.Y., the youngest of three sons of Jewish immigrant parents who ran a 24-hour luncheonette. He played the clarinet and saxophone and went on to study the sax at the Juilliard School; ultimately, he was good enough to play with the likes of Benny Goodman and Charlie Spivak. While performing at shows, Caesar observed the comics and realized that stand-up was his true bent. One night he was asked to help out with a skit, thus beginning a comic career that lasted more than a half-century.

Caesar joined the Coast Guard and was based in Brooklyn during World War II. While in the military, he formed a band with composer Vernon Duke ("April in Paris") and made his stage debut in a show, Tars and Spars, about a coast guardsman on shore duty for years. Caesar reprised his role in that revue for a 1946 musical-comedy adaptation at Columbia Pictures.

After his stint in Hollywood, Caesar returned to New York and landed a gig as the opening act for Joe E. Lewis at the legendary Copacabana nightclub. He performed in the Broadway revue Make Mine Manhattan, which featured "The Five Dollar Date," one of his signature pieces in which he sang, did sound effects and double-talked -- using nonsensical utterances that sound like French, German, Japanese, Italian and other languages (in real life, he spoke English and Yiddish).

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Caesar's first foray into TV came in 1949 with The Admiral Broadway Revue, an hourlong show that brought he and Coca together. Conceived to sell Admiral television sets, the show aired simultaneously on NBC and the Dumont networks and was a smash hit, drawing nearly as many viewers as the one starring "Mr. Television" Milton Berle. But with the popularity of the show, Admiral couldn't make TVs fast enough to meet demand, so the company dropped its sponsorship and the show was canceled.

NBC chairman Pat Weaver, who later created the Today show and The Tonight Show, approached the producers about having Caesar and Coca star in a similar series. That project came to be Your Show of Shows, which debuted in February 1950 as a 90-minute variety program that aired at 9 p.m. Eastern time (6 p.m. Pacific) for a mind-boggling 39 live shows a season for four seasons. Looking to avoid another Admiral debacle, it was the first program not to rely on a single sponsor.

The show's crazy pace led to consequences. "Nearly everyone on our staff at Your Show of Shows was in analysis," he recalled in his 1983 autobiography, Where Have I Been? "We spent a lot of time comparing our experiences with our doctors, which led to many funny psychiatrist skits in the show."

At age 30, Caesar was earning a million dollars a year, but he was drinking two bottles of Scotch a day and dependent on barbiturates.

It took decades for him to hit bottom. In 1977, he was in Regina, Canada, doing Simon's The Last of the Red Hot Lovers onstage when he said his mind went blank. He walked offstage, checked into a hospital and went cold turkey.

His battle with drugs and alcohol was well-documented in his autobiography. "I remember how I slipped further into darkness," he wrote. "I kept working in films, on the stage and in TV -- but I wasn't really there. It was like a 21-year blackout."

The era of live television was ending, and so too was Caesar's Hour, with Lawrence Welk providing stiff competition in 1957. "I was exhausted," Caesar said.

He followed with Sid Caesar Invites You in 1958, briefly reuniting Caesar and Coca, and The Sid Caesar Show, a half-hour sketch comedy show that aired every second Thursday on ABC, alternating with Edie Adams' show Here's Edie, in 1963-64. But Caesar would never be the force on television that he was.

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In 1962-63, he had seven or eight roles in the Broadway musical comedy Little Me, written by Simon. He continued to appear in occasional films and TV movies through the 1970s and '80s, most memorably as dentist Melville Crump (with Adams as his wife) in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and as a Hollywood studio head in Brooks' Silent Movie (1976). He played Coach Calhoun in the two Grease movies and was a caveman in Brooks' History of the World: Part I (1981).

Caesar also showed up as Elliott Gould's uncle in Over the Brooklyn Bridge (1984), was the Gryphon in Irwin Allen's 1985 telefilm Alice in Wonderland and starred in a 1985 episode of the Steven Spielberg anthology series Amazing Stories. He noticed at the time that comedy was changing.

"Things now have to be gross to laugh at," he lamented in 1984 while announcing a scholarship in his name at the UCLA College of Fine Arts.

In 1997, he appeared in the film Vegas Vacation and made a guest appearance as Uncle Harold on TV's Mad About You, and a year later he appeared with old friend Morris in The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, based on a Ray Bradbury novel.

Caesar was feted in 2001 in the Showtime documentary Hail Sid Caesar! The Golden Age of Comedy. At the 2006 TV Land Awards, he was presented with the Pioneer Award and performed his famous double-talk for more than five minutes.

Summing up his philosophy, The King of Saturday Night once said: "People are funny, not things. People will always eat, brush their teeth, try to go out with a girl, and that's where they're funny. They're not funny chasing cars and firing guns. The perversion is getting out of hand. We're developing a world view that's totally false."

His wife of 67 years, Florence, died in 2010. Survivors include his daughters Michele and Karen and son Rick.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4