Sid Caesar, a giant of early television, whose comedic influence ran wide and deep for decades, has died at the age of 91. Family spokesman Eddy Friedfeld said Caesar died Wednesday at his home in the Los Angeles area after a brief illness.
Rangy and loose-limbed, with a powerful voice, Caesar 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 new medium looking for content and anxious to get a nation emerging from World War II 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," a 90-minute comedy-variety show, starred the brilliant comedian Imogene Coca, and Caesar's other supremely reliable players, Howard Morris and Carl Reiner. In a statement Wednesday, Reiner said, "Inarguably, he was the greatest single monologuist 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 unto Caesar what is his due. He deserves real applause from the American people."
"Your Show of Shows' " influence extended for decades: It was the inspiration for the Reiner-created "Dick Van Dyke Show," Peter O'Toole's 1982 movie, "My Favorite Year," and "Saturday Night Live" (which Caesar guest-hosted in 1983). The show's lineup of writers was a murderers' row of comedy talent, with each of them subsequently carving major careers: Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Danny Simon, Mel Tolkin, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen and Reiner.
Caesar's comedy was loud and raucous, but it depended on 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."
Born Isaac Sidney Caesar on Sept. 8, 1922, in Yonkers, 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 recognized the humor happening before his eyes. His show-biz breakthrough was a 1948 Broadway revue called "Make Mine Manhattan." His first TV comedy-variety show, "The Admiral Broadway Revue," premiered in February 1949, and lasted only until June. Its fatal shortcoming: unimagined popularity. It sold more Admiral sets than the sponsoring company could make.
But everyone was ready for Caesar's subsequent efforts. "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour" reached as many as 60 million viewers weekly and earned its star $1 million annually.
When "Caesar's Hour" left the air in 1957, Caesar was only 34. But the unforgiving cycle of weekly television had fostered a reliance on booze and pills to help him 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 his mind went blank. He walked offstage, checked into a hospital and went cold turkey. After recovering, he wrote about his struggles in his bestselling autobiography, "Where Have I Been?"
Caesar also had success on Broadway (1962's "Little Me") and in movies, notably the star-crammed satire "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" (1963) and "Grease" (1978), in which he played the high school coach.
He is survived by a son, Richard, and two daughters, Michele and Karen. His wife, Florence, died in 2010.