Skip to comments.Sid Caesar, Master of TV Comedy, Dies at 91
Posted on 02/12/2014 12:35:56 PM PST by Borges
Sid Caesar, one of the first stars created by television via his weekly live comedy program Your Show of Shows, has died at 91. TV host Larry King announced the news on Twitter.
Caesar, partnered with Imogene Coca, is credited with breaking ripe comedic ground with the 90-minute live program: It didnt rely on vaudeville or standup-inspired material but rather on long skits and sketches written by an impressive roster of comedy writers including Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Lucille Kallen and Mel Tolkin.
Your Show of Shows was different from other programs of its time because its humor was aimed at truth, Simon once observed. Other television shows would present situations with farcical characters; we would put real-life people into identifiable situations.
Following Caesars Camelot-days in the 50s, however, he made a precipitous decline into alcoholism and barbiturates, a self-described 20 year blackout from which Caesar finally recovered and subsequently related in his 1982 autobiography Where Have I Been. At my worst, I had been downing eight Tuinals and a quart of Scotch a day, Caesar recalled of his darkest days. When I was awake Id think of nothing but I must do it faster, kill myself faster. Id get up to take pills just to go back to sleep. I had no friends. My life was over.
Sidney Caesar was born of immigrant parents in Yonkers, N.Y. As a youth he aspired to a musical career and practiced the saxophone, which he later studied formally for a brief time (along with the clarinet) at Juilliard. He worked for several orchestras including those of Charlie Spivak, Claude Thornhill and Shep Fields.
After enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard prior to WWII, he wrote sketches for Six On, Twelve Off, a Coast Guard musical revue. Then Coast Guard officer Vernon Duke heard Caesar perform one of his foreign-language double-talk monologues (a later Caesar trademark) for the amusement of his fellow mates and hired him for a comic role in another Coast Guard musical, Tars and Spars.
It was while performing this show that he befriended producer Max Liebman, who cast him in the Columbia Pictures film version of the musical. After Caesars discharge from the armed forces, Col hired him at $500 a week but used him only in one film, The Guilt of Janet Ames.
After a year of working in Hollywood, he returned to New York and made his first nightclub appearance at the Copacabana. Joseph Hyman hired him for the Broadway revue Make Mine Manhattan, for which he received raves (he was the most original item on the program, wrote the New York Times reviewer). And he received a percentage of the shows profits almost unknown for a young performer. He won the 1948 Donaldson Award for the musical.
The following year Caesar made his television debut in Liebmans Admiral Broadway Revue, where he met comedienne Coca. He was hailed as the find of the year and earned a princely $900 a week. But the show lasted only 19 weeks, shuttered because of high production costs.
But on Feb. 24, 1950, NBC launched Your Show of Shows, a revue of comedy sketches, ballet, modern dance, popular music and operatic selections. Directed and produced by Liebman, the program was broadcast live in front of an audience. Coca co-starred with Caesar, who was then receiving $4,000 a week for his services.
The show was an immediate success and was to become one of the most influential programs in TVs golden era, launching the careers of Carl Reiner and Howard Morris, as well as the enviable team of writers including Simon, Brooks and Gelbart.
In 1954, when the ratings began to slip, the program was trimmed and renamed Caesars Hour. Coca was replaced by Nanette Fabray. The change enabled Caesar to last another three years on television. He was nominated for Emmys every year from 1951 to 1958 and won two.
The pressures of a live weekly TV show took its toll on Caesar, however. Success came so fast, he recalled, that I lived in dread that some night onstage I would be found out.
I know of no other comedian, including Chaplin, who could have done nearly 10 years of live television, said Brooks. Nobodys talent was ever more used up than Sids. Over the years, Television ground him into sausages until finally there was little of the muse left.
For the next few years, Caesar continued to make club appearances, starred in the Broadway musical Little Me and toured with Neil Simons Last of the Red Hot Lovers. His movies included Its a Mad, Mad, Mad World and Brooks Silent Movie.
But his addiction took its toll, and until he came out of it in the late 70s, Caesar gradually disappeared from the scene. In the early 80s, he hosted Saturday Night Live and toured with Coca in a stage show recalling some of the better Show of Shows material.
He also did a considerable amount of work in supporting and guest turns on film and TV. He was in Grease and The Cheap Detective in 1978, in Brooks History of the World: Part I in 1981 and he made two appearances on Love Boat, to name just a few of his credits from the period.
In 1995 he drew an Emmy nomination for his appearance on Diane English sitcom Love and War. He had quite a year in 1997, at age 75: He appeared on Life With Louie and Mad About You on TV, drawing an Emmy nom for the latter, and in the film Vegas Vacation, and he joined fellow TV icons Bob Hope and Milton Berle at the 50th anniversary Primetime Emmy Awards, where the three drew a long standing ovation.
On a 2001 episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, he reprised his famous foreign dub skit, receiving an extended standing ovation by the crowd as well as a surprise birthday cake from the cast and crew.
In 1985 he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. In 2011 he received a lifetime achievement award from the Television Critics Assn.
Caesars second autobiography, Caesars Hours, was published in 2004.
His reign as the star of Your Show of Shows has been fictionally chronicled in the film My Favorite Year as well as in Simons Broadway comedy Laughter on the 23rd Floor and explored in the 2001 documentary Hail Sid Caesar! The Golden Age of Comedy.
As Coca once observed, Im tired of talking about Your Show of Shows. But deep inside, I know Ive done nothing as good since.
In 1943, Caesar married the former Florence Levy, by whom he had two daughters and a son.
Pretty sure Shirley Temple-Black wasn't.
One of my all time favorites.
With Howard Morris.
Can’t be many left from “Mad, Mad, etc. World. We lost Jonathon Winters last year. Mickey Rooney, Jerry Lewis, are there any others?
And he lived to be 91?..............I should be so lucky!.............Thanks for the memories and the laffs, Sid. Truly rest in peace...............
He was one of a kind. I’m sorry to hear that he had such an unhappy life. He brought laughter to everybody else.
I guess that completes the “Death comes in 3’s list” Philip Seymour Hoffman(Even though he offed himself with drugs guess that’s considered “Death”) Shirley Temple, and now Sid Caesar
R.I.P. Mr Caesar!
Absolutely love that movie.
There were some remarkable comedians in the 50’s and certainly Sid Caesar was one. Today you don’t have as many and those you do have are not family friendly. Sid Caesar, Bob Hope, Victor Borge, Danny Kay, and Jackie Gleason all were capable of appealing to a broad audience and without vulgarity (at least in their TV programs).
"What happened to you?"
"I fell into yellow."
Thanks for posting this, Borges.
Viewing will have him with a pie in his face.
No, he wasn't. Apparently he's frequently in the pool but not this time.
The roster of writers on his show was impressive. R.I.P.
Phillip Hoffman should not be grouped with Sid C. or Shirley T. because Phil was no where near as famous and influential as the other two were. I’m still waiting for number three. Zsa Zsa should soon be ready for the Great Beyond, as much as she has suffered.
Mickey Rooney was in the audience at Leno’s farewell show last week.
He was in my Dead Pool
PSH was probably better known to people under 40 than Sid was.
Pretty sure Jerry Lewis is still with us.
Doris Day is still with us, and a (under-appreciated) talent.
May he rest in peace.
He was one of the funniest—and cleanest—comedians in the world.
I saw him in person many times whenI was in the studio audience at “Show of Shows”.
My friend’s mom worked in an exclusive Madison Av. shop where all the stars came in. They gave her comps.
For the price of a subway ride (10 cents each way), I saw the greatest of the great!
Love you, Sid!
I object! Hoffman wasn’t in the same class as Temple and Caesar.
Agree about Hoffman.
I adored Sid and Shirley. So...if it’s someone else I adore who goes next, it will probably be Olivia De Haviland.
Sure he was. If he wasn’t as famous in his time as they were in theirs that’s only because the audience has fragmented.
Cursory check on Abe Vigoda.
You have David Rockefeller? He has to be due.
That makes three this week.
I guess I could’ve phrased that better. Both Rooney and Lewis are still living. I’m not sure if there are any others.
Let me be more blunt: Hoffman played parts which Caesar and Temple would have refused based on the depravity of the role. Thus he is not in the same class as those greats.
He gave Woody Allen his start.
Yes only flawless people should be depicted. I take it then that Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro aren’t in Shirley and Sid’s class either.
I’ve seen Victor Borge perform live and there is no vulgarity to his act.
Mary Tyler Moore, perhaps? She’s not doing well at all.
Lol...he’s looked like he’s on his last leg....for decades, now.
RIP Mr. Caesar. We used to watch “Your Show of Shows” when I was a kid.
I agree, Hoffman was a drug addict who threw himself a heroin party and offed himself..Shirley Temple and Sid Caesar were icons.
I agree your right, I was just mentioning famous people who have died..but your right, Hoffman isn’t even in the same league
“I fell into yellow.”
One of the best lines in the movie.
Pretty sure that documentary they list is the one I saw on PBS where they had those guys together talking about how they wrote the episodes. It was hilarious and fascinating.
Rest In Peace under the big “W”, Sid.
You will be missed.
“Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.” - Caesar.
I have not seen Mary T. Moore smile, I mean really smile in humor, since about 1983, and she may have been pretending then too.
NO I do have Rose Marie from Dick Van Dyke show
I had the pleasure of meeting his son who is an emergency room surgeon in Portland, OR.
From what Mel Brooks has said, he had one heck of a temper as well. Brooks stated that the punching out of the horse scene in Blazing Saddles came from a Sid Caesar experience, as well as a few other examples he has given over the years.