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Sid Caesar

  • Birthplace: Yonkers, New York
  • Birthday: September 08
Date of passing: 
February 12, 2014

Sid Caesar was an actor and comedian who broke into television in the early days of the medium and is widely regarded as one of its most influential figures. His work Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour laid a foundation for variety and sketch-comedy programming that remains in place to this day. He was nominated for seven Primetime Emmys and won two; in addition, he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1985.

Upon his induction into the Hall of Fame, writer Jack Slater prepared this tribute for the event's program book:

Sid Caesar was an actor and comedian who broke into television in the early days of the medium and is widely regarded as one of its most influential figures. His work Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour laid a foundation for variety and sketch-comedy programming that remains in place to this day. He was nominated for seven Primetime Emmys and won two; in addition, he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1985.

Upon his induction into the Hall of Fame, writer Jack Slater prepared this tribute for the event's program book:

Sid Caesar probably would not have been a very successful stand-up comic. He never liked one-liners, and he rarely told jokes. Yet he evoked spasms of uncontrolled laughter for nearly a decade, and in the process, he became television's first and foremost actor-comedian, a performer who was always more intrigued by characterization than comedy.

Caesar was remarkable in his various sketches with Imogene Coca on Your Show of Shows. But television's "clown of majesty," as TV Guide called him, was at his best, his most riveting, when he appeared on stage alone. It was then that he became the master monologist, the funny little man inside us all, the American Everyman circa 1950.

During his monologues, he played various roles: a young man frightened by his impending marriage one week, a middle-aged, balding man confronting his own changing image in the mirror the next.

Caesar's brand of humor, with its antic impersonations and overblown images, helped release television from its dependence on the broad, noisy comedy inherited from vaudeville. He gave the fledgling medium a new comedy: satire. For the first time, the ordinary man saw his fears, his doubts, his triumphs — his life — reflected on the home screen. Through Caesar's personal brand of satire, the ordinary viewer for the first time could laugh at himself.

Born in Yonkers, New York, in 1922, Caesar initially aspired to be a saxophonist. After high school graduation, he worked in a band at the Avon Lodge in the Catskills, where he also helped comedian Jackie Michaels perform his pie-in-the-face slapstick routines.

Enlisting in the Coast Guard during World War II, he played saxophone in the base orchestra and wrote comedy skits for a military revue. Eventually, he performed comedy routines in a Coast Guard recruiting show entitled Tars and Spars, directed by one of Caesar's first mentors, Max Liebman. The show was made into a 1946 movie.

Returning to New York, Caesar worked the nightclub circuit and, in 1948, acted in a stage revue called Make Mine Manhattan, directed by Liebman. The following year, when Liebman began producing and directing the weekly NBC-DuMont show, The Admiral Broadway Revue, he brought Caesar to television.

The Revue is remembered today primarily because it brought together the comedy team of Caesar and Imogene Coca and was the predecessor of the television golden age classic, Your Show of Shows. It lasted nineteen weeks, after which electronics corporation Admiral withdrew its sponsorship.

At that point, Sylvester (Pat) Weaver, then vice-president of television at NBC, approached Liebman about producing a new weekly live comedy-variety show. Initially packaged as The Saturday Night Revue, consisting of The Jack Carter Show from Chicago followed by Your Show of Shows from New York, the program dropped Carter after the second season and took on the Your Show of Shows name.

With Caesar, Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris, Your Show of Shows was one of the most ambitious entertainment projects in the history of the new medium. It was a live ninety-minute telecast that presented a wide range of original comedy nearly every week for four years. It was clear that Caesar possessed a comedy talent of extraordinary range, from pantomime to monologues to satirical burlesques of opera, ballets, popular TV shows and movies.

Memorable characters included Charlie Hickenlooper, the lumbering, loutish husband of Coca's social-climbing Doris Hickenlooper, and the professor, the self-styled expert on everything or, as Caesar has described him, "the fraudulent know-it-all with a German accent."

Garnering two Primetime Emmys for Caesar and Coca, and another two for itself, Your Show of Shows went on for 160 weeks, until June 5, 1954. Caesar then returned to television with Caesar's Hour, a comedy-variety show that ran until May 25, 1957, and garnered more Emmys. Subsequent shows included ABC's Sid Caesar Invites You, which expired after a four-month run in 1958, and the 1963-64 ABC comedy-variety program, The Sid Caesar Show.

Since then, Caesar has appeared on television in such shows as Mad About You and the telefilm Love Is Never Silent and in movies such as It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Airport '75, Silent Movie, Grease and The Cheap Detective. In 2012, he was featured in the documentary Lunch, about a group of classic comedians and comedy writers who regularly lunch together.

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