TV

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Caesar ruled as gifted king of TV comedy

His writers went on to superstardom

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LOS ANGELES -- Sid Caesar, the TV comedy pioneer whose rubber-faced expressions and mimicry built on the work of his dazzling team of writers that included Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, died Wednesday. He was 91.

Family spokesman Eddy Friedfeld said Caesar, who also played Coach Calhoun in the 1978 movie Grease, died at his home in the Los Angeles area after a brief illness.

"He had not been well for a while. He was getting weak," said Friedfeld, who lives in New York and last spoke to Caesar about 10 days ago.

Friedfeld, a friend of Caesar's who wrote the 2003 biography Caesar's Hour, learned of his death in an early-morning call from Caesar's daughter, Karen.

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. He gathered a stable of young writers who went on to worldwide fame in their own right, including Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H), and 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.

Reiner, a writer-performer on the breakthrough Your Show of Shows sketch program, said Caesar had an ability to "connect with an audience and make them roar with laughter."

'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'

-- Woody Allen

"Sid Caesar set the template for everybody," Reiner told KNX-AM in Los Angeles. "He was, without a doubt, inarguably the greatest sketch comedian-monologist that television ever produced. He could ad lib. He could do anything that was necessary to make an audience laugh."

The Friars Club called Caesar the "patron saint" of sketch comedy.

"The one great star that television created and who created television was Sid Caesar," said now-deceased critic Joel Siegel on the TV documentary Hail Sid Caesar! The Golden Age Of Comedy, which first aired in 2001.

Friedfeld said Caesar always shared the acclaim.

"Sid was an innovator, he and his team. He was very careful about never taking credit alone. He believed in his co-stars and his writers," he said. "They created the amazing vehicles for him to be creative."

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.

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 he never went in for clowning or jokes. He wasn't interested. He insisted that the laughs come from the everyday situations.

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 humour 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 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."

Caesar performed with such talents as Howard Morris and Nanette Fabray, but his most celebrated collaborator was the brilliant Imogene 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, a parody of the western movie Shane in which the hero was "Strange." They staged a waterlogged spoof of the love scene in From Here to Eternity. The Hickenloopers husband-and-wife skits became a staple.

"The chemistry was perfect, that's all," Coca, who died in 2001, once said. "We never went out together, we never see each other socially. But for years we worked together from 10 in the morning to six or seven at night every day of the week. What made it work is that we found the same things funny."

In 1962, he starred on Broadway in the musical Little Me, written by Simon, and was nominated for a Tony. He played seven different roles, from a comically perfect young man to a tyrannical movie director to a prince of an impoverished European kingdom.

He was one of the galaxy of stars who raced to find buried treasure in the 1963 comic epic It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and in 1976 he put his pantomime skills to work in Brooks' Silent Movie.

He later looked back on those years as painful ones. He said he beat a severe, decades-long barbiturate and alcohol habit in 1978, when he was so low he considered suicide. "I had to come to terms with myself. 'Yes or no? Do you want to live or die?' " Deciding he wanted to live, he recalled, was "the first step on a long journey."

Caesar was born in 1922 in Yonkers, N.Y., 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 humour happening before his eyes.

His talent for comedy was discovered when he was serving in the U.S. Coast Guard during the Second World War and got a part in a coast guard musical, Tars and Spars. He also appeared in the movie version.

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, premièred 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.

 

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 13, 2014 B8

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