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Sid Caesar

Sid Caesar

[see-zer]
Caesar, Sid, 1922-, American comedian, one of the stars of the 1950s "golden age of live television," b. Yonkers, N.Y. While performing in a World War II military show he met the producer Max Liebman who, impressed with Caesar's comic abilities, later sponsored him in club gigs and had him host the television variety show Admiral Broadway Review (1949). In Your Show of Shows (1950-54) Caesar performed skits, improvisations, satire, doubletalk rendered in dialect, and monologues, often with Imogene Coca and Carl Reiner. The show's brilliant corps of writers included Reiner, Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, and Mel Tolkin. Coca went on to her own television show, and Caesar returned with Caesar's Hour (1955-57). After the 1950s Caesar's television career was largely reduced to guest appearances. He also performed in a number of movies, including It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Silent Movie (1973), and Grease (1978).

See his memoirs, Where Have I Been? (1982) and Caesar's Hours (2003); T. Sennett, Your Show of Shows (rev. ed. 2002).

Isaac Sidney "Sid" Caesar (born September 8, 1922) is an Emmy Award-winning American comic actor and writer known as the leading man on the 1950s television series Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour, and to younger generations as Coach Calhoun in Grease and Grease 2.

Biography

Early life

Caesar was born in Yonkers, New York, the son of Jewish immigrants Ida (née Raphael) and Max Caesar, who ran a twenty-four-hour luncheonette. Caesar would help his parents by waiting on tables and it was during this time that Sid learned to mimic many of the accents he would use throughout his long career. He first tried his double-talk with a group of Italians, his head barely reaching above the table. They enjoyed it so much, they sent him over to a group of Poles to repeat it in Polish, and so on with Russians, Hungarians, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Lithuanians, and Bulgarians. Despite his apparent fluency in many languages, in reality Caesar can only speak English and Yiddish. The Caesars were a funny family and Sid's older brother Dave was his comic mentor and 'one-man cheering section'. They created their earliest family sketches from then current movies like Test Pilot and Wings.

At fourteen, Caesar first went to the Catskills as a saxophonist with Mike Cifficello's Swingtime Six and would also occasionally perform in sketches. After graduating from high school in 1939, Caesar's family was still reeling from the Great Depression and he moved out, intent on a musical career. He arrived in New York City penniless and tried to join the musician's union (later he audited classes at the famed Juilliard School of Music). That first summer on his own, he played at the Vacationland Hotel in Swan Lake in the Catskills. There under the tutelage of Don Appel, the resort's social director, Caesar played in the band and learned to perform comedy, doing three shows a week.

During the summer of 1942, he met his future wife Florence Levy at the Avon Lodge. After joining the musician's union, he briefly played with Shep Fields, Claude Thornhill, Charlie Spivak, and even Benny Goodman. In September 1942, Caesar joined the United States Coast Guard. Fortunately, he was posted to Brooklyn so he was able to maintain contact with his family and fiancée. Vernon Duke, the famous composer of Autumn in New York, April in Paris, and Taking a Chance on Love, was also stationed at the same base and he collaborated with Caesar in musical revues.

Caesar's knack for wisecracks, however, got bigger applause than the musical numbers, and the show's producer asked him to do stand-up between his numbers. While still in the service, Caesar was ordered to Palm Beach, Florida where Vernon Duke and Howard Dietz were putting together a service revue, Tars and Spars. There he met the civilian director of the show Max Liebman, later the producer of his first hit television series. Tars and Spars toured nationally and then a film version was made at Columbia Pictures. He also got a part in The Guilt of Janet Ames. He married Florence Levy on July 17, 1943. They are the parents of three children.

Career

After the war, Caesar and his wife stayed in Hollywood, but despite a few offers to play sidekick roles, Caesar decided to go back to New York where he got a club date as the opening act for Joe E. Lewis at the Copacabana nightclub. He reunited with Max Liebman, who guided his stage material and presentation. That appearance led to a contract with the William Morris Agency and a nationwide tour. Caesar also performed in a Broadway revue Make Mine Manhattan which featured The Five Dollar Date, one of his first original pieces in which he sang, acted, double-talked, pantomimed, and wrote the music.

Caesar began his television career when he made an appearance on Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater. In early 1949, Sid and Max met with Pat Weaver, vice president of television at NBC (and father of Sigourney Weaver), which led to Caesar's appearance in his first series Admiral Broadway Revue with Imogene Coca. The Friday show, simultaneously broadcast on NBC and the Dumont network, was an immediate success but its sponsor, Admiral Corporation, an appliance company, could not keep up with the demand for its new television sets, so the show was cancelled on account of its runaway success. On February 23, 1950, Caesar appeared in the first episode of Your Show of Shows, a Saturday night ninety-minute variety program produced by Max Liebman whose premier featured Burgess Meredith as guest host, and other musical guests Gertrude Lawrence, Lily Pons, and Robert Merrill. The show launched Caesar into instant stardom and was a mix of scripted and improvised comedy, movie and television satires, Caesar's inimitable double-talk monologues, top musical guests, and large production numbers. The impressive guest list included: Jackie Cooper, Robert Preston, Rex Harrison, Eddie Albert, Michael Redgrave, Basil Rathbone, Charleton Heston, Geraldine Page, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Pearl Bailey, Fred Allen, Benny Goodman, Lena Horne and many other big stars of the time. It was also responsible for bringing together one of the best comedy teams in television history: Sid, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, and Imogene Coca. Many prominent writers, denizens of the famed Writer's Room, also got their start creating the show's madcap sketches, including Lucille Kallen, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Michael Stewart, Mel Tolkin, and Larry Gelbart. Sid Caesar won his first Emmy in 1952. In 1951 and 1952, he was voted the United States' Best Comedian by Motion Picture Daily's TV poll. The show ended after 160 episodes on June 5, 1954.

Just a few months later, Sid Caesar returned with Caesar's Hour, a one-hour sketch show with Morris, Reiner, a young Bea Arthur, and much of the seasoned crew. Nanette Fabray replaced Imogene Coca who left to star in her own short-lived series. Ultimate creative and technical control was now totally in Caesar's hands. The show moved to the larger Century Theater, which allowed longer, more sophisticated productions and the weekly budget doubled to $125,000. The premier on September 27, 1954 featured Gina Lollobrigida.

Contemporary movies, foreign movies, theater, television shows and even opera all became targets of satire by the writing team, whose frenetic and competitive spirit produced some of the best comedy in television history. Often the publicity generated by the sketches boosted the box office of the original productions. Some notable sketches included: From Here to Obscurity (From Here to Eternity), Aggravation Boulevard (Sunset Boulevard), Hat Basterson (Bat Masterson), and No West For the Wicked (Stagecoach). Even silent movies were parodied, which showed off the impressive pantomime skills of the entire ensemble. They also performed some recurring sketches. "The Hickenloopers" were television's first bickering couple, predating The Honeymooners. In "The Professor", Caesar was the daffy expert who bluffed his way through his interviews with earnest roving reporter Carl Reiner. In its various incarnations, "The Professor" could be Gut von Fraidykat (mountain-climbing expert), Ludwig von Spacebrain (space expert), or Ludwig von Henpecked (marriage expert). Later, "The Professor" evolved into the Mel Brooks' famous "The Two Thousand Year Old Man".

Everything was performed live including the commercials, which only took up seven minutes of the one hour show, as compared to today's shows which average about 22 minutes of commercials per hour. Famous Hollywood movie stars (or their agents) clamored to be on the show but in reality doing a sketch in one shot with no cue cards and minimal rehearsal time was a challenge for many of the famous stars used to languid preparation and numerous retakes.

In his book Caesar's Hours, Caesar describes the essence of his comedy as 'working both sides of the street', the deliberate blending of comedy and pathos in the tradition of the great comedians of the Twenties and Thirties--his idols Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, and W. C. Fields. His sympathetic portrayal of the follies and foibles of his characters resonated with a weekly live audience of over 60 million Americans. He was a master of impeccable timing, careful preparation, and quick-witted flexibility, relying heavily on an endless variety of rapidly changing facial expressions and a strong physical presence. Though by nature shy, Caesar reveled in his characters. The most difficult moment of the show for Caesar was the opening, when he had to say 'good evening ladies and gentlemen'.

Caesar's Hour was followed by Sid Caesar Invites You, reuniting Caesar and Coca, and in 1963 with the The Sid Caesar Show, which alternated with Edie Adams in Here's Edie. Caesar also teamed up with Edie Adams in the Broadway show Little Me, a successful Neil Simon play, with choreography by Bob Fosse and music by Cy Coleman in which Sid played eight parts with 32 costume changes. Caesar and Edie Adams played a husband and wife drawn into a mad race to find buried money in the mega-movie-comedy It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

Later years

Throughout the 70s and 80s, Caesar continued to make occasional television and night club appearances and starred in several movies including Silent Movie, History of the World, Part I, Airport 1975 and as "Coach Calhoun" in Grease and its sequel, Grease 2, in 1982. In 1973, Sid and Max Liebman mined their own personal kinescopes from Your Show of Shows (NBC had 'lost' the studio copies) and they produced a feature film Ten From Your Show of Shows, a hilarious compilation of some of their best sketches. In 1977, after blanking out during a stage performance of Neil Simon's The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Sid gave up alcohol 'cold turkey'. His autobiography, Where Have I Been, published in 1983 and his second book, Caesar's Hours, both chronicle his struggle to overcome alcoholism and barbiturates.

Although advancing in age, Caesar has remained active by appearing in movies, television shows, at award shows and autograph signings. In 1997, he made a guest appearance in National Lampoon's Vegas Vacation and The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit in 1998 based on a Ray Bradbury novel. Also that year, Caesar joined fellow television icons Bob Hope and Milton Berle at the 50th anniversary of the Primetime Emmy Awards where the three were greeted with a long standing ovation. He reprised his famous double-talk skit in an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway? in 2001. In 2003, he joined Edie Adams and Marvin Kaplan at a 40th anniversary celebration for It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. In 2004, Caesar's second autobiography, 'Caesar's Hours', was published, and in March 2006, Caesar was presented with the 'Pioneer Award' at the 2006 TV Land Awards. Although appearing quite frail, Caesar performed his famous double-talk for over five minutes.

Awards

Year Award (number) Result
1987 Lifetime Achievement Award in Comedy
2005 DVDX Award Won
1997 Emmy Award Nominated
1995 Emmy Award Nominated
1958 Emmy Award Nominated
1957 Emmy Award Won
1956 Emmy Award Nominated
1954 Emmy Award Nominated
1953 Emmy Award Nominated
1952 Emmy Award Nominated / Won
1951 Emmy Award Nominated
2006 Pioneer Award
2001 Career Achievement Award
Unknown Star on the Walk of Fame

Further reading

  • Sid Caesar and Eddy Friedfeld, Caesar's Hours: My Life in Comedy, with Love and Laughter, January 30, 2005.
  • F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, Sid Caesar's Broadway debut, New York Daily News, October 18, 2004.

References

External links

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