Skip to main content

Funnyman Sid Caesar dead at 91

By Todd Leopold, CNN
February 13, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • He was known for "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour"
  • Movie credits include "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," "Airport 1975," "Grease"
  • He was part of a pioneering group of personalities who helped establish television
  • The funnyman also had a successful personal life, married for 67 years

(CNN) -- Sid Caesar, whose clever, anarchic comedy on such programs as "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour" helped define the 1950s "Golden Age of Television," has died. He was 91.

A friend of the family, actor Rudy De Luca, did not know the exact cause of death, but said Caesar had respiratory problems and other health problems for several years.

Caesar became famous for "Your Show of Shows," which went on the air in 1950. It lasted four years and was followed by "Caesar's Hour," which combined sketches, musical revues and situation comedy.

Both shows featured writers who became famous in their own right, including Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Mel Tolkin, Lucille Kallen and Larry Gelbart. Woody Allen also contributed to Caesar's comedy as a writer for one of his specials.

Brooks visited Caesar last night to say goodbye, De Luca told CNN.

"Sid Caesar was a giant-maybe the best comedian who ever practiced the trade & I was privileged to be one of his writers & one of his friends," Brooks tweeted Wednesday.

Share your memories of Caesar

Caesar also appeared in a number of films, including "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" (1963), "Airport 1975" (1974) and "Grease" (1978). He received a Tony nomination for his performance in the 1962 show "Little Me," with a book by Simon.

Conan's salute to Sid Caesar
Sid Caesar, whose clever, anarchic comedy on such programs as "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour" helped define the 1950s "Golden Age of Television," died on February 12. He was 91. Sid Caesar, whose clever, anarchic comedy on such programs as "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour" helped define the 1950s "Golden Age of Television," died on February 12. He was 91.
Comedy legend Sid Caesar
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
Photos: Comedy legend Sid Caesar Photos: Comedy legend Sid Caesar
Click through to see people who passed away in 2014. Click through to see people who passed away in 2014.
People we lost in 2014
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: People we lost in 2014 Photos: People we lost in 2014

Caesar, born Isaac Sidney Caesar in 1922, was part of a pioneering group of personalities who helped establish television in its early days. However, while comedians such as Jack Benny and Fred Allen more or less transferred their radio shows to the new medium and Milton Berle's "Texaco Star Theater" was essentially vaudeville on the small screen, Caesar's "Show of Shows" presented movie parodies, wordless pantomimes and brisk routines between the host and co-star Imogene Coca.

"Sid Caesar was a giant. If it weren't for Sid Caesar there might not be television as we know it. He and his co-stars and writers revolutionized television comedy, and really comedy in general," said biographer Eddy Friedfeld, a close friend of Caesar.

It was comedy pitched at a high (or, just as often, low) level -- and it was done live, every Saturday night at 9.

The versatile Caesar was game for whatever the writers came up with. "Caesar could take on many roles," wrote Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh in the reference "The Complete Directory to Prime-Time Network and Cable TV Shows," calling him a "comic genius." "He was the double-talking foreigner (he was a master of dialects), the henpecked husband or the greasy-haired cad."

The words and comedy of Sid Caesar

Among the regular routines were a skit with Coca, "The Hickenloopers," and Caesar as a gibberish-singing opera singer. Reiner and Howard Morris -- later Ernest T. Bass on "The Andy Griffith Show" -- were frequent supporting players.

"We've lost the greatest, monologist, pantomimic, sketch comedian TV has ever known! Word GENIUS is oft misused but not so here. HAIL CAESAR," tweeted Reiner.

The high-pressure hijinks of the writers' room inspired a number of other works, including "The Dick Van Dyke Show," created by Reiner; the 1982 film "My Favorite Year," produced by Brooks; and the 1993 play "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," by Simon.

"When we came in, we didn't have the slightest idea of what we were going to do. We christened the beginning of the week 'Bloody Monday' because we walked into the room with no material. We had three days to pitch lines and ideas and create six complete sketches," Caesar recalled in a 2011 interview.

The high pressure also led to a drinking and drug problem for Caesar. It took him years to kick the habit, until finally he went blank one day while performing on stage in 1977. He checked into a hospital soon after and got clean.

"I couldn't stand me," he said in 2011. "That's why I drank and took pills. I couldn't stand to be around me."

"Your Show of Shows" lasted just four years, but its impact was such that a best-of selection was turned into a 1973 movie, "Ten From Your Show of Shows."

Caesar followed "Your Show of Shows" with "Caesar's Hour," which included Reiner and Morris but not Coca. Among the show's recurring sketches was one in which the trio played "The Three Haircuts," a rock 'n' roll group.

Other regulars on "Caesar's Hour" included Nanette Fabray and Bea Arthur.

"Caesar's Hour" left the air in 1957. In the following decades, Caesar appeared in a handful of films, most notably the comic extravaganza "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," in which he played dentist Melville Crump. He did a number of his own stunt gags and hurt his back in the process.

He appeared in films by his former writer Brooks, including 1976's "Silent Movie" and 1981's "History of the World Part I," and popped up in films such as "Grease" and "Grease 2" (as Coach Calhoun) and "Cannonball Run II."

He hosted "Saturday Night Live" in 1983 and was named an honorary member of the "Not Ready for Prime Time Players" at the conclusion of the show -- the only non-"SNL" cast member to earn the tribute.

Among his honors were two Emmys, a lifetime achievement award from the Television Critics Association and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

He was married to Florence Levy for 67 years until her death in 2010. The couple had three children.

Asked by the Archive of American Television how he'd like to be remembered, he responded with six words.

"I brought laughter to the world," he said.

People we've lost in 2014

CNN's Alan Duke contributed to this story.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 0310 GMT (1110 HKT)
Click through our gallery to remember those we lost this year.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
Country singer Kevin Sharp has died from "complications due to cancer," his mother told CNN. He was 43.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
The brother-in-law of Britain's Prince Charles died in New York after suffering a head injury in a fall, the prince's official residence announced.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 0714 GMT (1514 HKT)
Win Tin, a founding member of Myanmar's National League for Democracy who was jailed for 19 years for political activism, has died at Yangon Hospital. He was 85.
April 20, 2014 -- Updated 2135 GMT (0535 HKT)
Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the middleweight boxing contender who spent 19 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of a triple murder, has died.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1355 GMT (2155 HKT)
Gabriel García Márquez, the influential, Nobel Prize-winning author of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "Love in the Time of Cholera," has died at age 87.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jose Luis "Cheo" Feliciano, a giant of salsa music and Puerto Rican legend, died in a car crash in San Juan, police said. He was 78.
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 0801 GMT (1601 HKT)
Born James Hellwig, before legally changing his name to Ultimate in 1993, he is fondly remembered by many for his rivalries in the ring and for his trademark vivid face paint.
April 7, 2014 -- Updated 2050 GMT (0450 HKT)
Actor Mickey Rooney, one of Hollywood's brightest stars in the 1930s and 1940s, died in California at age 93.
April 8, 2014 -- Updated 2223 GMT (0623 HKT)
Model and TV personality Peaches Geldof, daughter of Irish musician and Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof, has died at age 25.
April 7, 2014 -- Updated 1557 GMT (2357 HKT)
Comedian John Pinette was found dead in a Pittsburgh hotel room. He was 50 years old.
April 3, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
DJ Frankie Knuckles, who died at 59, is remembered as a legendary producer, remixer and house music pioneer.
April 3, 2014 -- Updated 1306 GMT (2106 HKT)
Kate O'Mara, the British actress best known for playing Joan Collins' sister Caress on the 1980s show "Dynasty," has died. She was 74.
March 26, 2014 -- Updated 1203 GMT (2003 HKT)
Ralph C. Wilson Jr. -- the founder and longtime beloved owner of the Buffalo Bills, not to mention a leading figure in the NFL's rise to prominence -- has died.
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
Gwar lead singer Dave Brockie has died at age 50.
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1952 GMT (0352 HKT)
James Rebhorn, whose acting resume includes a long list of character roles in major films and TV shows, has died at age 65.
March 23, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Former Spanish Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez died at age 81 after long illness.
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 0606 GMT (1406 HKT)
Fred Phelps, the founding pastor of a Kansas church known for its virulently anti-gay protests at public events, including military funerals, has died.
March 18, 2014 -- Updated 1910 GMT (0310 HKT)
L'Wren Scott, a noted fashion designer who has been Mick Jagger's companion for more than a decade, was found dead in her apartment of an apparent suicide. She was 49.
March 17, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Scott Asheton, who co-founded and played drums for the influential proto-punk band the Stooges, has died. He was 64.
ADVERTISEMENT