Sid Caesar, ‘fantastic comedian’ and star of ’50s TV, dies at 91
By LYNN ELBER February 12, 2014 4:56PM
Updated: February 13, 2014 4:30AM
LOS ANGELES — Sid Caesar, the prodigiously talented pioneer of TV comedy who paired with Imogene Coca in sketches that became classics and who inspired a generation of famous writers, died early Wednesday. He was 91.
Caesar died at his home in the Los Angeles area after a brief illness, family spokesman Eddy Friedfeld said.
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 Neil Simon and Woody 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.
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.”
“We’ve lost one of the greats,” actor and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tweeted. “Sid Caesar was a fantastic comedian and entertainer. His quadlingual schtick was always a hit. We’ll miss him.”
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 2001 interview. “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.”
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 said 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 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. They staged a water-logged spoof of the love scene in “From Here to Eternity.” “The Hickenloopers” husband-and-wife skits became a staple.
Caesar worked closely with his writing staff as they found inspiration in silent movies, foreign films and the absurdities of ‘50s postwar prosperity.
Among those who wrote for Caesar: Mel Brooks, 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.