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A pioneer of television comedy, Sid Caesar was the prodigiously talented star of such legendary variety series as "Your Show of Shows" (NBC, 1950-54) and "Caesar's Hour" (NBC, 1954-57). Gifted beyond compare in so many aspects of comic performance - from physical humor, improvisation and pantomime to mimicry and his specialty, double-talk - Caesar wowed post-war audiences with his energy and keen eye for the absurd aspects of everyday life and popular culture. His shows, which were a training ground for some of the greatest comedy writers of the 1960s and beyond, were immediate classics, influencing generations of performers and fans. Off-camera, however, Caesar suffered from personal demons, including substance abuse issues, which became unmanageable after the demise of his series; he spent much of the next few decades rebuilding his life and career. By the new millennium, he was overseeing the preservation of his early work, which reminded audiences of his immeasurable impact on TV comedy and performance. His death at the age of 91 on February 12, 2014 was mourned by several generations of comedy fans.Born Isaac Sidney Caesar in Yonkers, NY on Sept. 8, 1922, he was the son of Max and Ida Caesar,...
A pioneer of television comedy, Sid Caesar was the prodigiously talented star of such legendary variety series as "Your Show of Shows" (NBC, 1950-54) and "Caesar's Hour" (NBC, 1954-57). Gifted beyond compare in so many aspects of comic performance - from physical humor, improvisation and pantomime to mimicry and his specialty, double-talk - Caesar wowed post-war audiences with his energy and keen eye for the absurd aspects of everyday life and popular culture. His shows, which were a training ground for some of the greatest comedy writers of the 1960s and beyond, were immediate classics, influencing generations of performers and fans. Off-camera, however, Caesar suffered from personal demons, including substance abuse issues, which became unmanageable after the demise of his series; he spent much of the next few decades rebuilding his life and career. By the new millennium, he was overseeing the preservation of his early work, which reminded audiences of his immeasurable impact on TV comedy and performance. His death at the age of 91 on February 12, 2014 was mourned by several generations of comedy fans.
Born Isaac Sidney Caesar in Yonkers, NY on Sept. 8, 1922, he was the son of Max and Ida Caesar, Jewish immigrants who owned a 24-hour luncheonette. The restaurant was largely patronized by other European immigrants, and Caesar learned his astonishing gift for accent mimicry by listening to the customers speak while working there as a waiter. Caesar also developed his improvisational skills and knack for parody by performing skits in the family home based on then-current films like the silent-era's "Wings" (1927) with his brother, Dave. Caesar also spent hours studying his movie idols, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and W.C. Fields, who seamlessly blending physical comedy and pathos in their films.
Despite his obvious comic talents, Caesar's first love was music, and at 14, he was performing as a saxophonist with bands in the Catskills. After graduating from high school, he moved away from home, intent on making money for the family through his musical abilities. He audited classes at the Julliard School of Music while performing with various outfits and lending a little comedy between numbers. During World War II, he joined the Coast Guard, where he was assigned to perform in military revues while assigned in Brooklyn. Among his collaborators was composer Vernon Duke, who recruited Caesar for a service revue called "Tars and Spars." The show's civilian producer, Max Liebman, observed Caesar improvising comedy bits with the other musicians, and tapped him to provide several sketches between musical numbers. One of these bits, a parody of "Wings" called "Wings over Boomerschnizel," dated back to his adolescent years entertaining his family, but was a hit with audiences, who gaped at his ability to distill the entire film into an unbroken, rapid-fire monologue that clocked in at only three minutes, and came complete with sound effects and a multitude of accents. Caesar would go on to repeat the bit in the film version of "Tars and Spars" (1946), which marked his onscreen debut.
After the war, Caesar journeyed to Hollywood, where he appeared in the film "The Guilt of Janet Ames" (1947), a wartime weepie with Rosalind Russell as a widow who searches for the five men saved by her husband's sacrifice during the conflict. Though he received numerous offers to play comic sidekicks on film, Caesar preferred the immediacy of live performance, so headed back to New York City where he opened for comic Joe E. Lewis. He reunited with Liebman, who became his de facto manager, and landed a spot in the Broadway revue "Make Mine Manhattan," where he again wowed crowds with his original material. The show earned Caesar a spot on Milton Berle's top-rated "Texaco Star Theater" (NBC, 1948-1956), which led to Caesar's own series, "The Admiral Broadway Revue" (NBC/DuMont Network, 1949). Though short-lived - its sponsor, an electrical appliance company called Admiral, simply could not afford to pay for the show - it was a smash hit, dominating its Friday night slot. The key to the show's success was Caesar, who unleashed his full arsenal of comic talents, including parodies of popular and high culture to a dizzying array of accents and characters. His partner on the series was Imogene Coca, a diminutive comedienne who was the perfect foil for the towering Caesar; her comic inhibition was the perfect compliment to his full-bore stage energy.
In 1950, Caesar and Coca became the key players on a new variety series called "Your Show of Shows." Ninety minutes in length and broadcast live every Saturday night, the show was Caesar's crowning achievement; a flawless showcase for his unique talents penned by some of the greatest comedy writers in history. Caesar's greatest comic creations made their debut on the show, including the battling couple the Hickenloopers; the Professor, a German-accented "expert" on every imaginable subject; jazz musician Progress Hornsby and storyteller Somerset Winterset; and the mechanical figures of a Bavarian clock that struggled to keep the correct time. His film and television parodies were both riotous and erudite; few other television comics were poking fun at Italian neo-realism or grand opera on one night, then targeting rock-n-roll and "This Is Your Life" (NBC, 1952-1961; 1971-72; 1983). Frequently, Caesar alone on stage was enough entertainment, displaying an innate and masterful grasp of pantomime, dialects, double-talk and physical comedy. Abetting him in this non-stop comedy assault was Coca, comic Howard Morris and Carl Reiner, who also contributed to the show's scripts; among the talents populating the writer's room, which frequently exploded into verbal brawls over material, were Neil and Danny Simon, Mel Tolkin and a manic young man named Mel Brooks. Caesar won his first Emmy award for his work on the show in 1952, and was nominated every year that the show was on the network, which ran until 1954.
After "Show of Shows" shut down, Caesar returned for a 60-minute variety series, "Caesar's Hour." Though shorter in length, the format largely remained the same, with Caesar at center stage, Morris and Reiner in able-bodied support, and Nanette Fabray in place of Coca, who had earned her own short-lived series. The ace writing team was also intact, with one notable addition - Larry Gelbart, who would go on to develop "M*A*S*H" (CBS, 1972-1983) and write "Tootsie" (1982), among many other hits. "Caesar's Hour" proved to be the equal to "Show of Shows" in many ways, offering even more classic moments, including a convulsively funny parody of "From Here to Eternity" (1954) in which Caesar and Fabray, as Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, are literally drenched with buckets of water during the famous beach love scene. Caesar won his second Emmy for the show, which ended in 1957.
Though a forceful presence on screen and a physically overpowering man in real life - in his 1983 autobiography, Where Have I Been? he recalled ripping a bathroom sink from a wall with his bare hands due to sheer frustration - Caesar was in real life a very shy man who suffered from crippling self-doubt. To ease his fears, Caesar turned to drugs and alcohol, which soon became a debilitating habit. Making matters worse was the failure of his follow-up TV projects. "Sid Caesar Invites You" (ABC, 1958) reunited him with Coca and Reiner, but lasted only five months, while "The Sid Caesar Hour" (ABC, 1963) survived a single season. Hollywood seemed like a likely alternative for the comic, but Caesar was never a comfortable fit with the moviemaking process. Endless takes stifled his improvisational skills, and the scripts that came his way attempted to fit his volcanic energy into staid, low-wattage scenarios. The most successful of his film projects was the all-star comedy epic, "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" (1962), which partnered him with fellow TV comedy vet Edie Adams as a married couple who join a nationwide search for buried treasure. Their comic highlight was a slapstick sequence in which they attempted to escape from a locked basement with dynamite.
Unfortunately, subsequent features were dismal failures, and by the late 1960s, Caesar was a staple of episodic TV. Stage seemed to be a viable venue for him, but aside from a triumphant run in "Little Me," the Neil Simon-penned farce for which Caesar - playing eight parts during the run of the show - won a Tony, he was largely relegated to regional theater tours. Several surviving "Your Show of Shows" sketches was packaged into a theatrical release called "Ten from Your Show of Shows" (1973), which led to a brief revival of Caesar's movie career. But again, the attention was brief; he gave an impressive reminder of his pantomime skills by imitating a computer in Mel Brooks' "Silent Movie" (1976), and amused many parents by playing Coach Calhoun in the John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John musical opus, "Grease" (1978), but his substance problems soon overtook his ability to meet producers' demands. He blacked out on stage during a 1977 production of "The Last of the Red Hot Lovers," and had no recollection of making the Australian film "Barnaby and Me" (1977), much less visiting the country. Caesar took the cold turkey approach to his addictions, relying on his physical strength to break his decades-long habits.
The 1980s saw a reinvigorated Caesar return to acting in a wide variety of projects. Few were memorable, though his cameo as a caveman in Brooks' "History of the World Part 1" (1981) was a pleasant reminder of his skill at mime, and he gave commendable dramatic turns in Joseph Sargent's Emmy-winning "Love is Never Silent" (NBC, 1985) and "Christmas Snow" (NBC, 1986). That same year, Caesar made his opera debut as Frosh the Jailer in the New York Metropolitan Opera's production of "Die Fledermaus." Though well into his seventh decade by the 1990s, he continued to act and appear in retrospectives of his early television work, much of which had been preserved by Caesar himself after the network destroyed many of the original copies. In 1998, Caesar joined fellow TV icons Bob Hope and Milton Berle on stage at the 50th anniversary of the Primetime Emmy Awards, where they were received with a well-deserved and lengthy standing ovation. The year 2004 saw the release of Caesar's second autobiography, Caesar's Hours. Sid Caesar died on February 12, 2014.
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