NEW YORK (AP) — Sid Caesar, who died Wednesday at 91, invented TV sketch comedy, gathering a dream team of fellow performers and writers — among them Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and Woody Allen — whose own impact on comedy will be lasting.
“He was one of the truly great comedians of my time, and one of the finest privileges I’ve had in my entire career was that I was able to work for him,” Allen said.
“Your Show of Shows,” which debuted in 1950, and “Caesar’s Hour” three years later, drew as many as 60 million viewers weekly and earned its star $1 million a year.
When “Caesar’s Hour” left the air in 1957, Caesar was only 34. But the unforgiving cycle of weekly television had taken a toll: He relied on alcohol and pills for sleep every night so he could wake up and create more comedy.
It took decades for Caesar to hit bottom. Then in 1977, his recovery began.
After his golden days of live TV, Caesar found success in films (“It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” as well as Brooks’ “Silent Movie” and “History of the World: Part One,” and the musical “Grease”), on Broadway (Simon’s “Little Me”) and even scored in a nonsinging role with the Metropolitan Opera in its 1987 production of the operetta “Die Fledermaus.”
His humor — observational, humanistic — exposed the telling truths of everyday life. How friends fight over a restaurant check. How a schoolboy at his first dance musters the nerve to talk to a girl.
“Real life is the true comedy,” he said in a 2001 interview with The Associated Press. “Then everybody knows what you’re talking about.”
Some compared Caesar to Charlie Chaplin for his brilliance at blending humor with touches of pathos.
Caesar was born in 1922 in New York state, the third son of an Austrian-born restaurant owner and his Russian-born wife. His first dream was to become a musician.
His talent for comedy was discovered when he was serving in the Coast Guard during World War II and got a part in a Coast Guard musical, “Tars and Spars.” He also appeared in the movie version. Wrote famed columnist Hedda Hopper: “I hear the picture’s good, with Sid Caesar a four-way threat. He writes, sings, dances and makes with the comedy.”
Then he broke into TV. He gave little thought to the burden he had taken on: 90 minutes live for 39 weeks a season — and, unlike the present-day “Saturday Night Live,” no cue cards.
“We had an hour and a half of, ‘Boy, it worked!'” he later recalled.
His glory years would be preserved by his former comrades in works of their own.