Entertainment & Arts

Sid Caesar: Mel Brooks and Woody Allen pay tribute

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Media captionSid Caesar was well known for appearing in the 1950s TV series Your Show of Shows, and later as Coach Calhoun in Grease

Mel Brooks and Woody Allen are among those who have paid tribute to veteran US comedian Sid Caesar, who died on Wednesday aged 91.

"Sid Caesar was a giant," tweeted Brooks. "Maybe the best comedian who ever practiced the trade."

"He was one of the truly great comedians of my time," echoed Allen.

Caesar, who has been credited with inventing TV sketch comedy, was a major influence on Brooks, Allen and Carl Reiner, who all worked with him.

"I was privileged to be one of his writers and one of his friends," wrote Blazing Saddles director Brooks, who got his break creating sketches for the classic TV series Your Show of Shows.

The live 90-minute show, which combined improvised and scripted comedy, dominated the Saturday night viewing habits of millions of Americans from 1950-54.

It also brought together Caesar and Reiner, who worked as a writer on the show.

"Inarguably he was the greatest single monologist and skit comedian we ever had," Reiner said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter.

"Television owes him a debt of gratitude for his pioneering work and the great shows he gave us all.

"Render onto Caesar what is his due. He deserves real applause from the American people."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Caesar was presented with a TV Land Pioneer award by Billy Crystal in 2006

Caesar won an Emmy for Your Show of Shows in 1952, and the series came to an end in 1954 after 160 episodes.

Months later he returned with Caesar's Hour, a one-hour variety show which briefly achieved similar cult success, paving the way for comedy stalwarts such as Saturday Night Live.

Larry King, paying tribute, called him "a dear friend, a comic genius and an American classic - there will never be another one like him."

Whoopi Goldberg mourned the passing of "another great". "Funny man. We honoured him at the very first Comic Relief. RIP," she tweeted.

Admired for his physicality and masterful improvisation, it was to Caesar's show that the best comedy writers aspired.

"Only the presidency was above that," opined Allen in Gerald Nachman's Seriously Funny.


"The first time I saw Caesar it was like seeing a new country," Neil Simon, another writer in Caesar's dream team, once stated.

"All other comics were basically doing situations with farcical characters. Caesar was doing life."

Among his primary subjects were parodies of various film genres, television shows and opera.

"It was fun, but hard," Caesar said in 1984. "I worked six days a week, putting the script together, working with the writers.

"The show had to be written by Wednesday night because Thursday we had to put it on its feet. Friday we showed it to the technicians, and Saturday was the show. Sunday was our only day off, and I used to stand under the shower and shake."

By the age of 30, success was taking its toll and Caesar was addicted to pills and alcohol. He was also prone to terrible fits of temper, with the New York Times recalling how he once dangled Mel Brooks from an 18th-floor window until colleagues restrained him.

Caesar's Hour's success was short-lived and the show was cancelled in 1957. In the late 1950s and early 60s he began to fall out of favour with the public.

He made a brief comeback in 1962 playing seven characters in the musical Little Me, co-created by Simon. He also co-starred in the hit 1963 film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, alongside Milton Berle and Mickey Rooney.

Among British audiences, he is perhaps best remembered as Coach Calhoun in the film Grease, but at this stage his health was at an all-time low, reportedly spending four months in bed.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Caesar (r) at the 1998 Emmys, with Milton Berle and Bob Hope

After collapsing backstage during a performance of Simon's The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, he was persuaded to give up alcohol and barbiturates.

"I had to come to terms with myself," he recalled. "Do you want to live or die? Make up your mind. And I did. I said, 'I want to live.' And that was it: the first step on a long journey."

Caesar's career spanned six decades, appearing sporadically in later years, on TV, on Broadway and even at the Met making his opera debut in a 1987 production of Die Fledermaus.

In 1983, Caesar hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live, where he received a standing ovation at the start of the show and was awarded a plaque that declared him an honorary cast member.

He had been ill for about a year before his death, according to Reiner. His wife, Florence, whom he married in 1943, died in 2010. He leaves a son and two daughters, as well as grandchildren.

"Real life is the true comedy,"' he said in a 2001 interview with the Associated Press. "Then everybody knows what you're talking about."

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