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Sid Caesar, 91; TV shows inspired generations

Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca during a rehearsal for the Boston Opera Company’s production of “Orpheus” in 1982.

Marvin Lewiton/Associated Press

Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca during a rehearsal for the Boston Opera Company’s production of “Orpheus” in 1982.

Sid Caesar, whose inspired clowning lit up television screens during the 1950s and helped shape American comedy for decades to come, died Wednesday at his Beverly Hills home. He was 91.

Mr. Caesar had been in poor health for the past year, according to Carl Reiner, who was among several sources to confirm the death of his friend and former colleague.

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“Inarguably, he was the greatest single monologist and skit comedian we ever had,” Reiner said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. “Television owes him a debt of gratitude for his pioneering work and the great shows he gave us all. Render onto Caesar what is his due.”

Robert Galbraith/Reuters/File 2002

Mr. Caesar had three series: “The Admiral Broadway Revue,” “Your Show of Shows,” and “Caesar’s Hour.”

That due was considerable indeed. The Washington Post’s Tom Shales once described Mr. Caesar’s ’50s work as “probably the most celebrated comedy ever on television.” He ranks with Milton Berle and Lucille Ball as an inventor of television as a comedy medium.

Mr. Caesar’s work was easily the most creative of the three. Berle brought vaudeville to television, and Ball the comic one-act play (we now call it the sitcom). Mr. Caesar’s three NBC series — “The Admiral Broadway Revue,” “Your Show of Shows,” and “Caesar’s Hour” — delivered something new to the medium, sketch comedy, and made it a television staple.

Mr. Caesar’s series, all broadcast live, effectively defined such comedy. The shows of Red Skelton, Carol Burnett, and the Smothers Brothers followed in Mr. Caesar’s path — and “Saturday Night Live” made that path its own. Recognizing the debt, “SNL” gave Mr. Caesar a plaque naming him an honorary cast member.

“The first and greatest Method comic,” Richard Corliss wrote of Mr. Caesar in Time magazine. “As Marlon Brando was to dramatic acting, Sid Caesar was to comedy.”

It wasn’t just his physicality or intelligence or versatility that made his work so remarkable. It was a unique totality of approach, so that his own personality disappeared in the comedy. As Larry Gelbart, one of his writers put it, “Sid Caesar was born with the ability to be all other men.”

Mr. Caesar’s gift for mimicry and accents played no small part in that ability. It famously took the form of his double-talk routines. What obscenity would later be for Richard Pryor (a comedian he much admired), gibberish was for Mr. Caesar: a trademark device as well as a trampoline to take him to even greater heights of hilarity.

“To this day, people are shocked when they learn that English is the only language I speak,” he wrote in his 2003 autobiography, “Caesar’s Hours.” He credited his experience helping out in his father’s Yonkers, N.Y., diner as teaching him his trademark double talk. The clientele spoke in “a mad mix of Italian, Russian, and Polish dialects,” Mr. Caesar said in a 1992 Globe interview.

An even madder mix went into the making of Mr. Caesar’s shows. The creative ferment that produced them later inspired a sitcom, “The Dick Van Dyke Show”; a movie, “My Favorite Year”; and a Neil Simon stage comedy, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.”

“He dominates a room with his personality” is how Simon describes the main character, who’s based on Mr. Caesar. “You must watch him because he’s like a truck you can’t get out of the way of.”

Mr. Caesar’s standard opening for writing sessions was “All right, let’s hear the brilliance.” Among the talents who toiled for Mr. Caesar were Simon, Reiner, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and Gelbart, who later helped create and write the “M*A*S*H” series for television.

“The Harvard of comedy,” Simon called Mr. Caesar’s writing crew.

Little wonder that the comedian Fred Allen once joked that “Caesar running out of material is like NBC running out of vice presidents.”

Woody Allen has described his stint with Mr. Caesar as “one of my proudest credits” and acknowledged his onetime boss’s influence on his own work. “To this day, I find myself imitating him and taking things from him and writing jokes in the style of Sid Caesar. How could you not? He had a prodigious talent, a great delivery, and great timing.”

Mr. Caesar had an equally gifted lineup of onscreen talent, a Ready for Prime Time Players consisting of Reiner, Imogene Coca, Howard Morris, and, after Coca got her own show, Nanette Fabray. Their collective antics ranged from knockabout slapstick to sophisticated pantomime to parodies of film and opera (“Gallipacci” being a famous example of the latter).

For all Mr. Caesar’s impact within comedy, his popularity with the general public declined rapidly after “Caesar’s Hour” went off the air, in 1957. There were occasional film roles — “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” both iterations of “Grease” — and television guest shots. Mr. Caesar also gave a tour de force performance, playing eight characters, in the Broadway musical “Little Me,” written by Simon.

What he called “the best job I ever had” wasn’t in an opera parody but the real thing, playing Frosch, the jailer, in “Die Fledermaus,” at the Metropolitan Opera in 1987. But Mr. Caesar never returned to the heights of his ’50s heyday.

One reason was his refusal to syndicate repeats of his programs, out of fear they would be radically truncated. Thus younger audiences weren’t exposed to his work, as they were to that of Ball or Jackie Gleason.

Another was Mr. Caesar’s sheer uniqueness. He was neither a joke-telling comedian, like Bob Hope, or a classic comic actor with a bankable persona. “Without a character to hide behind, Sid was lost,” Gelbart once wrote. “Sid simply did not know how to play Sid.”

“I was,” Mr. Caesar wrote in his memoir, “a painfully shy person. Offstage, I was never the life of the party. But in front of a camera, immersing myself in a character, I was able to come alive. Live television was like the opening night of a Broadway show every week. Only on Broadway, there are only 1,500 people and a few critics and the material has been tested and honed on the road for months. With us, the material hadn’t yet been written five days before — and 60 million people were watching.”

That ceaseless pressure led to a decades-long battle with alcohol and barbiturates. The grind of coming up with 80 minutes of live comedy a week, 39 weeks a year, took a grievous toll on Mr. Caesar. “Saturday Night Live,” by contrast, produces 68 minutes of non-advertising time, 23 shows a year. “The only thing that helped me to get to sleep was getting drunk,” Mr. Caesar wrote in “Caesar’s Hours.” “I had to get drunk by 10 o’clock because I had to get to sleep and be up early in the morning.”

Mr. Caesar finally overcame his addictions in 1978. “I survived it all,” Mr. Caesar said in that Globe interview, “blackouts, wipe-out, falling down, disaster, disaster, disaster.”

The son of Max Caesar and Ida (Raphael) Caesar, Isaac Sidney Caesar was born in Yonkers on Sept. 8, 1922. His early comic influences were Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields — and music. “Comedy is music,” Mr. Caesar wrote in “Caesar’s Hours.” “It has a rhythm and a melody. . . . And if you listen for it, you can hear a beat.”

He began his performing career as a musician. Mr. Caesar played saxophone at Jewish resorts in the Catskills as a teenager. He would also occasionally improvise comic bits.

Mr. Caesar’s musicals skills earned him gigs with several notable big band leaders: Charlie Spivak, Shep Fields, Claude Thornhill. That experience would inspire one of his TV characters, jazz musician Progress Hornsby.

After Pearl Harbor, Mr. Caesar enlisted in the Coast Guard. One of the men he served with was the composer Vernon Duke. Impressed by Mr. Caesar’s talent, Duke got him assigned to a Coast Guard stage revue, “Tars and Spars.” The revue was eventually made into a feature film.

Mr. Caesar’s work attracted widespread attention. After the war, he developed a nightclub act and drew raves for his starring role in a Broadway revue, “Make Mine Manhattan.” The show became a model for the “Admiral Broadway Revue.”

The revue was a critical and popular success — too much so. Admiral, a home-appliance manufacturer, found that the demand for its televisions rose so much after the debut of Mr. Caesar’s show that they canceled it after half a season. That fall, though, he was back with “Your Show of Shows.”

“Write, memorize, craft, and execute 90 minutes of live television each week, not for 20 or 22 weeks, but for 39 weeks a year,” Mr. Caesar wrote in his autobiography. “We didn’t know it could not be done, so we did it.”

Mr. Caesar leaves two daughters, Michele and Karen, and a son, Richard. His wife, Florence, died in 2010.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.
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