LOS ANGELES – Sid Caesar, the TV comedy pioneer whose rubber-faced expressions and mimicry built on the work of his dazzling team of writers that included Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, 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.
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 Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart ("M*A*S*H") and Allen.
"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 in a statement.
Reiner, who was a writer-performer on the breakthrough "Your Show of Shows" sketch program, said Caesar could "connect with an audience and make them roar with laughter."
"Sid Caesar set the template for everybody," Reiner said. "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."
While best known for his TV shows, he also had success on Broadway and occasional film appearances, including the 1963 comic epic "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World," "Grease" and its sequel, "Grease 2," in 1982.
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 2001. "Then everybody knows what you're talking about."
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.
"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's most celebrated collaborator was Imogene 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. "The Hickenloopers" husband-and-wife skits became a staple.
Reiner based his "Dick Van Dyke Show" – with its fictional TV writers and their temperamental star – on his experiences at the Caesar show. Simon's 1993 "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" and the 1982 movie "My Favorite Year" also were based on the Caesar show.
He was one of many stars who raced to find buried treasure in "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World," and in 1976 he put his pantomime skills to work in Brooks' "Silent Movie."
But he looked back on those years as painful ones. He said he beat a severe, decades-long barbiturate and alcohol habit in 1978, when he was so low he considered suicide.
"I had to come to terms with myself. 'Yes or no? Do you want to live or die?' " Deciding that he wanted to live, he recalled, was "the first step on a long journey."
Caesar was born in 1922 in Yonkers, N.Y., the third son of an Austrian-born restaurant owner and his Russian-born wife.
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.
"Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour" reached as many as 60 million viewers weekly and earned its star $1 million annually.
When "Caesar's Hour" left the air in 1957, Caesar was only 34. But the unforgiving cycle of weekly television had taken a toll: His reliance on booze and pills for sleep every night so he could wake up and create more comedy.
It took decades for him to hit bottom. In 1977, he was onstage in Regina, Saskatchewan, doing Simon's "The Last of the Red Hot Lovers" when, suddenly, his mind went blank. He walked off the stage, checked into a hospital and went cold turkey. Recovery had begun, with the help of wife, Florence, who was by his side for more than 60 years and helped him weather his demons.
"You think just because something good happens, THEN something bad has got to happen? Not necessarily," he said with a smile in 2003, pleased to share his hard-won wisdom: "Two good things have happened in a row."