Sid Caesar, the prodigiously talented pioneer of TV comedy who paired with Imogene Coca in sketches that became classics and who inspired a generation of famous writers, died Wednesday. He was 91.
Family spokesman Eddy Friedfeld said Caesar, who also played Coach Calhoun in the 1978 movie "Grease," died at his home in the Los Angeles area after a brief illness.
"He had not been well for a while. He was getting weak," said Friedfeld, who lives in New York and last spoke to Caesar about 10 days ago.
Friedfeld, a friend of Caesar's who wrote the 2003 biography "Caesar's Hour" learned of his death in an early morning call from Caesar's daughter, Karen.
Carl Reiner, who worked as a writer-performer with Caesar on his breakthrough "Your Show of Shows" sketch program, said he had an ability to "connect with an audience and make them roar with laughter."
"Sid Caesar set the template for everybody," Reiner told KNX-AM in Los Angeles. "He was without a doubt, inarguably, the greatest sketch comedian-monologist that television ever produced. He could adlib. He could do anything that was necessary to make an audience laugh."
In his two most important shows, "Your Show of Shows," 1950-54, and "Caesar's Hour," 1954-57, Caesar displayed remarkable skill in pantomime, satire, mimicry, dialect and sketch comedy. And he gathered a stable of young writers who went on to worldwide fame in their own right — including Neil Simon and Woody Allen.
"The one great star that television created and who created television was Sid Caesar," said now-deceased critic Joel Siegel on the TV documentary "Hail Sid Caesar! The Golden Age Of Comedy," which first aired in 2001.
While best known for his TV shows, which have been revived on DVD in recent years, he also had success on Broadway and occasional film appearances, notably in "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World."
If the typical funnyman was tubby or short and scrawny, Caesar was tall and powerful, with a clown's loose limbs and rubbery face, and a trademark mole on his left cheek.
But Caesar never went in for clowning or jokes. He wasn't interested. He insisted that the laughs come from the everyday.
"Real life is the true comedy," he said in a 2001 interview with The Associated Press. "Then everybody knows what you're talking about." Caesar brought observational comedy to TV before the term, or such latter-day practitioners as Jerry Seinfeld, were even born.
In one celebrated routine, Caesar impersonated a gumball machine; in another, a baby; in another, a ludicrously overemotional guest on a parody of "This Is Your Life."
He played an unsuspecting moviegoer getting caught between feuding lovers in a theater. He dined at a health food restaurant, where the first course was the bouquet in the vase on the table. He was interviewed as an avant-garde jazz musician who seemed happily high on something.
The son of Jewish immigrants, Caesar was a wizard at spouting melting-pot gibberish that parodied German, Russian, French and other languages. His Professor was the epitome of goofy Germanic scholarship.
Some compared him to Charlie Chaplin for his success at combining humor with touches of pathos.
"As wild an idea as you get, it won't go over unless it has a believable basis to start off with," he told The Associated Press in 1955. "The viewers have to see you basically as a person first, and after that you can go on into left field."
Caesar performed with such talents as Howard Morris and Nanette Fabray, but his most celebrated collaborator was the brilliant Coca, his "Your Show of Shows" co-star.
Coca and Caesar performed skits that satirized the everyday — marital spats, inane advertising, strangers meeting and speaking in clichés, a parody of the Western "Shane" in which the hero was "Strange." They staged a water-logged spoof of the love scene in "From Here to Eternity." ''The Hickenloopers" husband-and-wife skits became a staple.
"The chemistry was perfect, that's all," Coca, who died in 2001, once said. "We never went out together; we never see each other socially. But for years we worked together from 10 in the morning to 6 or 7 at night every day of the week. What made it work is that we found the same things funny."
Caesar worked closely with his writing staff as they found inspiration in silent movies, foreign films and the absurdities of '50s postwar prosperity.
Among those who wrote for Caesar: Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Simon and his brother Danny Simon, and Allen, who was providing gags to Caesar and other entertainers while still in his teens.
Carl Reiner, who wrote in addition to performing on the show, based his "Dick Van Dyke Show" — with its fictional TV writers and their temperamental star — on his experiences there. Simon's 1993 "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" and the 1982 movie "My Favorite Year" also were based on the Caesar show.
A 1996 roundtable discussion among Caesar and his writers was turned into a public television special. Said Simon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright: "None of us who've gone on to do other things could have done them without going through this show."
(Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)