Skip to main content

Funnyman Sid Caesar dead at 91

By Todd Leopold, CNN
updated 10:26 AM EST, Thu February 13, 2014
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 died in 2014. Click through to see people who died 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
updated 11:11 AM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Click through our gallery to remember those we lost this year.
updated 6:40 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Mike Nichols, the award-winning director and pioneering comedian who was one of the few people to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award, has died at 83.
updated 9:13 AM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Jimmy Ruffin, silky-voiced singer of the Motown classic "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted," died in Las Vegas at 78.
updated 2:04 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Prolific television producer Glen Larson passed away at the age of 77 after a battle with cancer. He produced many popular shows, including "Knight Rider" and "Battlestar Galactica."
updated 4:56 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Diem Brown, the MTV reality star whose fight against cancer was an inspiration to many, lost that long battle at the age of 32.
updated 9:24 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne -- the first and, even now, only woman to lead that city -- has died.
updated 6:12 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
Actress Carol Ann Susi, whose brash Brooklyn accent reverberated on the hit television series "The Big Bang Theory," has died after a battle with cancer.
updated 10:35 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
A member of the Sugarhill Gang, whose pioneering hit "Rapper's Delight" brought hip hop to mainstream audiences 35 years ago, died at age 57.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Tom Magliozzi, half of the "Click and Clack" team of brothers who hosted NPR's "Car Talk" radio show, died at age 77.
updated 9:12 AM EST, Sun November 2, 2014
Wayne Richard Wells, the frontman and founder of the California metal band Static-X, has died. He was 48.
updated 5:27 PM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Thomas Menino, who retired this year as the longest-serving mayor in Boston history, has died at 71 after a battle with cancer.
updated 4:22 PM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Elizabeth Norment, best known for her role as loyal secretary to Kevin Spacey's character on "House of Cards," died of cancer at 61.
updated 11:03 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Zambian President Michael Sata, who was nicknamed "King Cobra" for his fiery comebacks and larger-than-life personality, has died. He was 77.
updated 8:07 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Jack Bruce, bassist for the legendary 1960s rock band Cream, has died at 71.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Ben Bradlee, the charismatic Washington Post editor who guided the paper through the era of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, has died. He was 93.
updated 2:19 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Legendary fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, who spent half a century putting high society in haute couture, has died. He was 82.
ADVERTISEMENT