Sid Caesar, Master of Early Television Comedy, Dies at 91

Obituaries   Sid Caesar, Master of Early Television Comedy, Dies at 91
Sid Caesar, who, as the star of the 1950s live comedy show "Your Show of Shows," became one of the first television celebrities and set a bar for sketch comedy that would remain for years, died on Feb. 12. He was 91.

Sid Caesar
Sid Caesar Photo by Martha Swope

"Your Show of Shows," fueled by a murderer's row of comedy writers that included the young Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart, debuted Feb. 23, 1950, on NBC. The 90-minute show was a mix of musical sequences, satire, large production numbers, and scripted and improvised comedy, but became largely known for the latter, thanks to the anarchic talents of the blustery Mr. Caesar and his co-stars, the rubber-faced Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris.

His style of comedy was broad, outsized and sometimes unhinged—his eyes bulged and his arms flailed—but his timing and delivery were razor sharp. It was a rare sketch where he wasn't able to elicit sustained belly laughs from the studio audience. A trademark bit had him double talking in what seemed to be a foreign language, but in effect plain gibberish.

Mr. Caesar was nominated for an Emmy Award every year the show was on the air, and won in 1952. The program ended June 5, 1954.

Part of the legacy of "Your Show of Shows" rests largely in its impressive hive of writers, nearly all of whom went on to estimable careers themselves. Along with Simon, Brooks and Gelbart—who alone form much of the backbone of post-WWII American comedy—they included future musical librettist Michael Stewart (Hello, Dolly!; Bye Bye Birdie), television writer Mel Tolkin ("All in the Family"), Lucille Kallen, Danny Simon and Sheldon Keller.

The show's reputation as a comic goldmine outlasted the actual program by decades. "My Favorite Year," about a washed-up film star (Peter O'Toole) slumming it in a television comedy, was based on "Your Show of Shows." And, Neil Simon's 1993 play Laughter on the 23rd Floor was drawn from his experiences writing for the unpredictable and tyrannical Caesar. The Caesar character, named Max Prince, was played by Nathan Lane. Following the end of "Your Show or Shows," Mr. Caesar returned with another variety show, "Caesar's Hour." He won another Emmy Award for that program. Late Emmy nominations came for 1990s guest appearances on "Love & War" and "Mad About You."

Sid Caesar's major foray into theatre was the 1962 musical comedy Little Me by Neil Simon, Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh. The show, based on a Patrick Dennis novel, was ostensibly about the picaresque adventures of Belle Poitrine, played by Virginia Martin. But the production was really a showcase for the chameleon-like comic talents of Mr. Caesar, who played seven different roles, including an uppercrust twist and a milquetoast doughboy. Mr. Caesar was nominated for a Tony Award for his work.

Mr. Caesar proved difficult to cast in films, only landing the occasional zany supporting role in movies like "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," "The Busy Body" and "Grease."

Following his television successes, Mr. Caesar's career went into decline, largely owing to his battles with alcoholism and addiction to pills—habits he adopted during the run of "Your Show of Shows" to contend with the pressure of his success. He gave up drinking completely in 1977 after blacking out during a performance of Simon's "Last of the Red Hot Lovers." He described these challenges in his 1983 memoir "Where Have I Been?"

Sidney Caesar was born Sept. 8, 1922, in Yonkers, NY. He set out to make a career in show business early on, studying the saxophone. He worked in several orchestras, before enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard prior to WWII. Work writing sketches for a Coast Guard musical revue led to a role in a second Coast Guard musical, Tars and Spars. Following his service, he was cast in a film version of that show.

Returning to New York, he began appearing in nightclubs. This led him to be cast in a 1948 Broadway revue called Make Mine Manhattan. His comic work was singled out by critics, and won a Donaldson Award. His television debut came with "Admiral Broadway Revue." Again, the critics hailed his talent, but the show lasted only 19 weeks. "Our Show of Shows" came next. Max Liebman, who directed "Tars and Spars," would produce the show.

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