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Sid Caesar: A Larger-Than-Life Figure, With a Longer Shadow

Sid Caesar can be judged, in part, by the company he kept. As the star of “Your Show of Shows,” he famously provided a spawning ground for numerous titans of comedy, with a writing staff that included Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.

Caesar, who died Wednesday at the age of 91, assembled that talent at a time when TV was in its infancy. As a consequence, he was not only a larger-than-life figure, but through the program’s influence on so much that followed, cast an even longer shadow.

The sense of romance surrounding the show, and that era, was such as to spawn the thoroughly enjoyable movie “My Favorite Year,” which imagined a guest appearance by a very Errol Flynn-like movie star (played, wonderfully, by the late Peter O’Toole) and a tough-minded host (Joseph Bologna) approximating Caesar.

For many, given the passage of time, familiarity with Caesar is no doubt limited, or confined to those handful of clips we tend to see over and over again at Paley Center events – the comic cavorting on the beach with Imogene Coca in a spoof of “From Here to Eternity,” his teary-eyed honoree on a “This is Your Life”-type program, or his dexterity both with physical and fast-talking verbal comedy.

Even more telling, though, is the esteem in which those who worked for him have held Caesar through the years. Beyond heralding Caesar as a genius and (in Reiner’s case) the greatest sketch comedian of all time, Brooks has feasted on talking about Caesar’s prodigious physical strength, telling stories about his Herculean feats that seem to grow with each repetition.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Caesar’s career is that he peaked so early, enjoying success and building admiration in the 1950s that was never quite equaled in the years that followed. Part of that has to do with a drug and alcohol problem, as outlined in the above obituary, that essentially erased what should have been his prime.

There were film roles, to be sure – in everything from “Grease” to Brooks’ “Silent Movie” to a hilarious vignette in “A Guide for the Married Man” – but the greatness he conjured in those early black-and-white days dwarf them.

As writer extraordinaire Aaron Sorkin noted in a piece for the Huffington Post, Caesar provided a glimpse of what he did – and what he could still do – by walking into a room to receive a life-achievement award a couple of years ago looking terribly frail, and then proceeding to deliver a routine of ad-libbed nonsense that left everyone howling.

If he could still do that at 89, just imagine what he left on the table in his 50s and 60s.

Sid Caesar was known for many things over the course of a long and celebrated life, but in that context, it’s hard to escape one description that probably can’t be overstated.

Not underappreciated, but alas, underemployed.

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