Sid Caesar, whose live television show in the 1950s had, arguably, the greatest assembly of comedy genius’ ever assembled at one time, died today at his Los Angeles area home after a long illness. He was 91. His weekly 90 minute television program, “Your Show of Shows,” boasted the on-screen talents of Caesar, Imogene Coca, Howard Morris and Carl Reiner. The show’s writers room was filled with a virtual who’s who of comedy legends, including Mel Brooks, Selma Diamond, Neil Simon and Danny Simon. His next show, entitled “Caesar’s Hour,” boasted a staff that included Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen. The show was so beloved that it not only inspired the classic Peter O’Toole comedy “My Favorite Year,” which was produced by Mel Brooks, but Neil Simon’s long running play “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.”
Born Isaac Sidney Caesar on September 8, 1922 in Yonkers, New York, Caesar began his professional career as a saxophone player, having studied the instrument at the Julliard School of Music. After graduation he decided to try his luck as a professional musician in New York City but did not fare too well. One thing that went right for him: he met his future wife, Florence, there. They were married in July 1943. After 57 years of marriage Florence passed away in 2010.
After small roles in theatre and film he found his calling in television. In 1949 he and Imogene Coca starred in the variety program “The Admiral Broadway Review.” The show grew so popular that it was broadcast on both NBC and the Dumont Network. In fact, the show became so popular that the sponsor, Admiral Televisions, had to cancel it after 26 weeks because their factory could not keep up with the demand for new television sets. Later in life Casesar would recount how an Admiral executive told him that the company had to decide whether to build a new factory or keep sponsoring the show. They chose the cheaper option. On February 25, 1950, the first episode of “Your Show of Shows” premiered. The show ran through 1954 and was quickly followed by “Caesar’s Hour,” a similar themed show which is best remembered for the first appearance of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s 2000 Year Old Man character. The show ran through 1957. For the rest of the decade Caesar would appear in several television specials.
In the 1960s he made his way to Broadway, starring in the musical “Little Me,” which boasted a script by Neil Simon and choreography by Bob Fosse. His performance, which included eight different characters and thirty-two costume changes, earned him a Tony Award nomination in 1963 for Best Leading Actor in a Musical. He lost to Zero Mostel, who earned Broadway immortality with his performance in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which ironically was co-written by another one of Caesar’s former writers, Larry Gelbart. That same year he and Edie Adams co-starred as a married couple searching for a buried fortune in the film “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
He spent the rest of the decade, and most of the 1970s, making occasional television and film appearances. In 1978 he introduced his talents to a new generation when he was hired to replace Harry Reems as Rydell High School’s Coach Calhoun in the film version of the Broadway musical, “Grease.” He later reprised the role in “Grease 2.” Other film appearances include “Silent Movie,” “Airport ‘75” and “History of the World, Part I.” In 1982 he returned to Broadway opposite Carol Channing and Tommy Lee Jones in the show “Four on a Garden.” The next year he hosted “Saturday Night Live” and received a prolonged standing ovation upon his entrance. After the show he was given a plaque naming him an honorary member of the cast. He is the only host to receive that honor.
He kept busy in the 1990s as well, appearing in “Vegas Vacation” and earning the last two of his eleven Emmy Award nominations in 1995 and 1997 for guest appearances on “Mad About You.” In his career he won two Emmy Awards.