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Sid Caesar dead; TV great from 'Your Show of Shows' was 91

Comedian Sid Caesar during an interview on Jan.

Comedian Sid Caesar during an interview on Jan. 1, 1985. Credit: AP / Lacy Atkins

Sid Caesar, one of the giants of early television comedy whose influence ran wide and deep for decades, including up to the present day with "Saturday Night Live," has died at the age of 91. A family spokesman, Eddy Friedfeld, said Caesar died at his home in the Los Angeles area after a brief illness.

Rangy and loose-limbed, with a voice that could easily fill theaters -- and did in a number of Broadway productions after his years of TV fame -- Caesar essentially defined live TV comedy over an entire decade, beginning with "Your Show of Shows" (1950-54) and then "Caesar's Hour" (1954-57), both for NBC. For a brand new medium looking for content and anxious to get a nation emerging from the second world war into the habit of buying TV sets, Caesar -- along with his only real rival, Milton Berle -- was only too happy to oblige.

? "Your Show of Shows" offered more than a glimpse at the promise of what TV could be -- it often delivered on that promise, as a ribald comedy of manners which starred the brilliant comedienne Imogene Coca, and Caesar's other supremely reliable players, like Howard Morris and Carl Reiner.

In a statement Wednesday, Reiner -- one of the stars of "The Dick Van Dyke Show," which itself was directly inspired by "Your Show" -- said, "Inarguably he was the greatest single monologist and skit comedian we ever had. 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." "Indeed, "Your Show of Shows" may have only run a few seasons, but its influence extended decades -- the inspiration for "The Dick Van Dyke Show," PeterO'Toole's "My Favorite Year," and -- as a 90-minute live comedy/variety revue -- "Saturday Night Live," in its 39th season

The show's line-up of writers was a veritable murderer's row of comedy talent, each of whom carved major, even incandescent careers afterwards: Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Danny Simon, Mel Tolkin, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen, and Reiner. Brooks has often credited Caesar as a primary influence on his own style and work, and in numerous interviews as not only America's funniest comic, "but strongest one." In a famous anecdote, he recalled that he and the writers had been working late in a a hotel room in Chicago, when Brooks, gasping from the cigar smoke, said "Air, Sid, I need air. He went over to the window and opened it, and said 'air, you want air?' and then grabbed me by the legs and held me out over Michigan Avenue."

Caesar's comedy was loud and raucous, but depended a degree of relatability as well, or as he put it in an interview with the Associated Press some years ago, "Real life is the true comedy. Then everybody knows what you're talking about." In another interview with the AP at the height of his fame in the mid-50s, he said: "As wild an idea as you get, it won't go over unless it has a believable basis to start off with," he told The Associated Press in 1955. "The viewers have to see you basically as a person first, and after that you can go on into left field."

Born Isaac Sidney Caesar on Sept. 8, 1922, in Yonkers, N.Y., he was the third son of an Austrian-born restaurant owner and his Russian-born wife. His first dream was to become a musician, and he played saxophone in bands in his teens.

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. 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."

He played an unsuspecting moviegoer getting caught between feuding lovers in a theater. He dined at a health food restaurant, where the first course was the bouquet in the vase on the table. He was interviewed as an avant-garde jazz musician who seemed happily high on something. 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. 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.

 With The Associated Press

Watch clips from some of Caesar's notable performances:

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