Sid Caesar, Master of TV Comedy, Dies at 91

Sid Caesar, one of the first stars created by television via his weekly live comedy program “Your Show of Shows,” died Wednesday at his home in Beverly Hills after a brief illness. He was 91.

A two-time Emmy winner, Caesar (above in a photo with Red Buttons and Mickey Rooney) and his partner Imogene Coca broke comedic ground with the 90-minute live program: It didn’t rely on vaudeville or standup material but rather on long skits and sketches written by an impressive roster of comedy writers including Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Lucille Kallen and Mel Tolkin.

PHOTOS: Comedy Pioneer Sid Caesar Remembered

Reiner said Caesar had an ability to “connect with an audience and make them roar with laughter.”

“Sid Caesar set the template for everybody,” Reiner told KNX-AM in Los Angeles. “He was without a doubt 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.”

“Your Show of Shows” was “different from other programs of its time because its humor was aimed at truth,” Simon once observed. “Other television shows would present situations with farcical characters; we would put real-life people into identifiable situations.”

Following Caesar’s glory days in the ’50s, however, he made a precipitous decline into alcoholism and barbiturates, a self-described “20-year blackout” from which Caesar finally recovered and subsequently related in his 1982 autobiography “Where Have I Been.” “At my worst, I had been downing eight Tuinals and a quart of Scotch a day,” Caesar recalled of his darkest days. “When I was awake I’d think of nothing but ‘I must do it faster, kill myself faster.’ I’d get up to take pills just to go back to sleep. I had no friends. My life was over.”

Sidney Caesar was born of immigrant parents in Yonkers, N.Y. As a youth he aspired to a musical career and practiced the saxophone, which he later studied formally for a brief time (along with the clarinet) at Juilliard. He worked for several orchestras including those of Charlie Spivak, Claude Thornhill and Shep Fields.

After enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard prior to WWII, he wrote sketches for “Six on, Twelve Off,” a Coast Guard musical revue. Then Coast Guard officer Vernon Duke heard Caesar perform one of his foreign-language double-talk monologues (a later Caesar trademark) for the amusement of his fellow mates and hired him for a comic role in another Coast Guard musical, “Tars and Spars.”

It was while performing this show that he befriended producer Max Liebman, who cast him in the Columbia Pictures film version of the musical. After Caesar’s discharge from the armed forces, Col hired him at $500 a week but used him only in one film, “The Guilt of Janet Ames.”

After a year of working in Hollywood, he returned to New York and made his first nightclub appearance at the Copacabana. Joseph Hyman hired him for the Broadway revue “Make Mine Manhattan,” for which he received raves (he was “the most original item on the program,” wrote the New York Times reviewer). And he received a percentage of the show’s profits — almost unknown for a young performer. He won the 1948 Donaldson Award for the musical.

The following year Caesar made his television debut in Liebman’s “Admiral Broadway Revue,” where he met comedienne Coca. He was hailed as the find of the year and earned a princely $900 a week. But the show lasted only 19 weeks, shuttered because of high production costs.

But on Feb. 24, 1950, NBC launched “Your Show of Shows,” a revue of comedy sketches, ballet, modern dance, popular music and operatic selections. Directed and produced by Liebman, the program was broadcast live in front of an audience. Coca co-starred with Caesar, who was then receiving $4,000 a week for his services.

The show was an immediate success and was to become one of the most influential programs in TV’s golden era, launching the careers of Carl Reiner and Howard Morris, as well as the enviable team of writers including Simon, Brooks and Gelbart.

In 1954, when the ratings began to slip, the program was trimmed and renamed “Caesar’s Hour.” Coca was replaced by Nanette Fabray. The change enabled Caesar to last  three more years on television. He was nominated for Emmys every year from 1951 to 1958 and won two.

The pressures of a live weekly TV show took its toll on Caesar, however. Success came so fast, he recalled, that “I lived in dread that some night onstage … I would be found out.”

“I know of no other comedian, including Chaplin, who could have done nearly 10 years of live television,” said Brooks. “Nobody’s talent was ever more used up than Sid’s.” Over the years, “Television ground him into sausages … until finally there was little of the muse left.”

For the next few years, Caesar continued to make club appearances, starred in the Broadway musical “Little Me” and toured with Neil Simon’s “Last of the Red Hot Lovers.” His movies included “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World” and Brooks’ “Silent Movie.”

But his addiction took its toll, and until he came out of it in the late ’70s, Caesar gradually disappeared from the scene. In the early ’80s, he hosted “Saturday Night Live” and toured with Coca in a stage show recalling some of the better “Show of Shows” material.

He also did a considerable amount of work in supporting and guest turns on film and TV. He was in “Grease” and “The Cheap Detective” in 1978, in Brooks’ “History of the World: Part I” in 1981 and he made two appearances on “Love Boat,” to name just a few of his credits from the period.

In 1995 he drew an Emmy nomination for his appearance on Diane English sitcom “Love and War.” He had quite a year in 1997, at age 75: He appeared on “Life With Louie” and “Mad About You” on TV, drawing an Emmy nom for the latter, and in the film “Vegas Vacation,” and he joined fellow TV icons Bob Hope and Milton Berle at the 50th anniversary Primetime Emmy Awards, where the three drew a long standing ovation.

On a 2001 episode of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?,” he reprised his famous foreign dub skit, receiving an extended standing ovation by the crowd as well as a surprise birthday cake from the cast and crew.

In 1985 he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. In 2011 he received a lifetime achievement award from the Television Critics Assn.

Caesar’s second autobiography, “Caesar’s Hours,” was published in 2004.

His reign as the star of “Your Show of Shows” has been fictionally chronicled in the film “My Favorite Year” as well as in Simon’s Broadway comedy “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” and explored in the 2001 documentary “Hail Sid Caesar! The Golden Age of Comedy.”

As Coca once observed, “I’m tired of talking about ‘Your Show of Shows.’ But deep inside, I know I’ve done nothing as good since.”

Survivors include two daughters, a son and two grandsons.

(Carmel Dagan and the Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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  1. Marc Nelson says:

    I met Sid in 1976 at a health club in LA, he was 53 and I was 20. I had just moved to LA to settle the estate of my father and 4 members of my family who were killed in a private plane crash the day after Christmas in 1975. I didn’t really know who he was but I knew he was famous. We became very good friends and he became like a second father to me. I would go to his house everyday and would watch tapes of your Show of Shows and Caesars Hour. I would laugh so hard I would cry. He was going through his dark period then and I never knew how bad it was until he gave me a copy of his book “Where have I been” I cried after reading it. I loved this man with all my heart. I am so grateful for the 38 years I knew him. Now he is with his lovely wife Florence and at peace. God bless you Sid, for all the times we shared together talking, laughing and just reflecting, you taught me so much. Rest in peace my friend, I love you.

  2. Paige says:

    Sid Caesar, Shirley Temple, and Ralph Waite, all within days. How sad that we now have no-talents like the Kardashians and Lindsay Lohan.

  3. Verneoz says:

    He was an original. He was the comedian’s comedian whose launch coincided with television’s Golden Age. And he did it without the naked profanity, and the hateful insults comedy is known for today.

    • frances Clausen says:

      You are so right..the language heard today by comedians is unnecessary..were they good comedians they would not need the profanity…Sid Ceaser as an example..his shows guaranteed laughter without cringing at the words,which he garbled anyway..a great great man and we’ll not see another like him.
      may he rest in peace now.

  4. frances Clausen says:

    He was the greatest of the great. I’ve never ever forgotten his shows or missed any of them, he’ll always be remembered by me and I regret that latest generations missed his genius.

  5. Bernie says:

    Life is such that we love those who make us laugh. So Sid we really loved you;

  6. You are probably entertaining everyone Upstairs. Good for you for the longevity. As a kid I thought you were the funniest person who walked the Face of the Earth. I am no longer a “kid” and still enjoy old cuts on the television, only now I am a lot older. Save some of your best for when we get to meet. My condolences to your family and hope they know how deeply you will be missed.

  7. Bill Felter says:

    Rest in Peace Mr. Caesar. And THANK YOU for the many, many years of laughs you have given me. Laughter is the best medicine, and you were one of the best doctors out their.

  8. Mickey FIsher says:

    The greatest talent ever to step in front of a television camera past, present and future.

  9. Ray Bradley says:

    An old friend of mine, who grew up in an orphanage in NY said Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner used to come into the orphanages and entertain the kids… one day my friend was out in LA visiting, and Carl Reiner was eating dinner at the same restaurant we were… my pal Preston, went over and told Carl how much he enjoyed, and how it has always stayed in his heart all they did for the orphans… they had a pleasant 30 minute conversation… Nice story. RIP Mr. Caesar.

  10. uglygeorge says:

    It doesn’t surprise NYC cableTV phenom Ugly George that you completely left out Sid’s failed attempt at a comeback in a quickly-cancelled play next to (legendary) Kip’s Place c.1970. The unknown photog UG was asked by (legendary) Earl Wilson to interview Sid & co-stars about this play; my 1st meeting with a Former But Now Failed Icon shocked the ‘heck’ out of me…and will soon be covered along with UG & the uncovered “Oh! Calcutta!” producer who couldn’t fly…some know what I mean.

  11. Donaldsville Larry says:

    I mourned the loss of both of my parents over the past three years, and now the loss of the great Sid Caesar. As a family we would sit on the living room floor on a cold South Dakota winter’s eve and listen to his double-talking routines. Even at such young ages (for we children), he was too funny for words. My parents adored him and all the other entertainers of that late 1950’s to early 1060’s era. So sad to see that genius passing.

  12. Bill G says:

    No one funnier. As a kid, I watched both shows and have some of the skits etched in my cranium. The Gerkin, the biclycleta, the greatest magician in the world, pagliaci… the list goes on and on. There have been great comedians since but Sid C holds a special place in my head and my heart. RIP

  13. Ralph Hickok says:

    Is the “Coast Guard officer Vernon Duke” the composer whose real name was Vladimir Dukelsky?

  14. SANDY says:

    SID CAESAR WAS FABULOUS. A FUNNY FUNNY MAN.
    A REAL TALENT AS WELL AS SHIRLEY TEMPLE.
    LOOKING BACK, I REMEMBER LOVING BEING ENTERTAINED BY BOTH TALENTS.
    NOT LIKE THE TALENT OF TODAY THAT DEALS WITH HEAVY DUTY DRUGS AND SUCH GLAMOR
    THAT INFLUENCES OUR YOUNG.
    GENIUS…

  15. Elaine Mayes says:

    RIP Sid, you blessed the world with your talents for many decades.

  16. teeseeree says:

    For some reason, I had always thought he was the guy in the movie, “Airplane!” whose wife had eggs coming out of her mouth. Someone told me later that it wasn’t him. Does anyone know who that actor was?

  17. Victoria Venezia says:

    I too used to watch the re-runs in the ’80s I wish I had not been born so late in life. God rest your funny heart and your wonderful soul. You will be missed Sid :(
    BTW Who is that pictured to the left of Sid?

    • Sheryl says:

      First of all, a great talent Sid Caeser, you were one of the greats… My uncle was Bob Hamilton of the Hamilton Trio that appeared weekly on the show of shows. The men in the photo with Sid are Red Buttons and Mickey Rooney. Red is gone now and Mickey still here. A generation of brilliant comedians and actors are gone. Let’s hope we can produce more like them…looks like we gave a good start. Bravo Sid, you were great!!! RIP

    • Beth says:

      That’s Red Buttons

    • Patrick Juvet says:

      Red Buttons

  18. The Bucktown Kid says:

    I remember watching him and the rest of the gang on Your Show of Shows with my parents and sister as a kid during the 1950’s. It was unique and funny and there has been nothing like it ever since. When I was teenager,working in our local theater we played “It’s a Mad Mad Mad World” for many weeks. People laughed so hard they had tears in their eyes. His comedic genius and that of his associates is what many in TV and in motion pictures are standing on the shoulders of to this very day.

  19. Mr. Hollywood says:

    A towering figure in the world of comedy. We so badly need laughter in our world today and there is less and less of it. His work will live on … and what a staggering amount of it. Young people today interested in comedy: watch what this man did and learn!

  20. Joel says:

    We have lost, today, a ground-breaking comedic visionary who made comedy seem so easy.
    When that happens, you’ve done your job extremely well. God bless and rest your soul Sid. Your contribution to television and the millions you touched will be your legacy here on Earth forever.

  21. Reblogged this on Lioness of Social Media Marketing and commented:
    We have lost another wonderful celebrity. Sid Caesar. Rest in Peace

  22. big daddy D says:

    RIP Sid Caesar. I used to watch Your Show of Shows repeats in the late 80s/early 90s. His brand of comedy owes much to the comedians that have followed him.

  23. For those of us who were kids when Sid and Imogene Coca performed in the early days of television, we will never forget them or their humor. Put succinctly, they were wonderful! :-)

    God bless you, Sid.

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