Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sid Caesar

Isaac Sidney "Sid" Caesar (September 8, 1922 – February 12, 2014)

Caesar was the youngest of three sons born to Jewish immigrants living in Yonkers, New York. His father, Max, had emigrated from Poland; his mother, Ida (née Raphael), from the Russian Empire. The surname "Caesar" was given to Max, as a child, by an immigration official at Ellis Island. Max and Ida Caesar ran a restaurant, a 24-hour luncheonette. By waiting on tables, their son learned to mimic the patois, rhythm and accents of the diverse clientele, a technique he termed "double-talk," which he would famously use throughout his career. He first tried his "double-talk" with a group of Italians, his head barely reaching above the table.

They enjoyed it so much that they sent him over to a group of Poles to repeat his native-sounding patter in Polish, and so on with Russians, Hungarians, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Lithuanians and Bulgarians. Despite his apparent fluency in many languages, Caesar could actually speak only English and Yiddish. Sid's older brother, David, was his comic mentor and "one-man cheering section." They created their earliest family sketches from movies of the day like "Test Pilot" and "Wings".
At fourteen, Caesar went to the Catskills Mountains as a saxophonist in Mike Cifichello's Swingtime Six band, and occasionally performed in sketches in the Borscht Belt. Later on, he would audit classes at the famed Juilliard School of Music.

After graduating from Yonkers High School, Caesar left home, intent on a musical career. He arrived in New York City penniless, and failed to join the musicians' union. But he found work at the Vacationland Hotel on Swan Lake in the Catskills, as a saxophonist. Under the tutelage of Don Appel, the resort's social director, Caesar played in the dance band and learned to perform comedy, doing three shows a week. In 1939, he enlisted in the United States Coast Guard, and was stationed in Brooklyn, New York, where he played in military revues and shows. Vernon Duke, the famous composer of "Autumn in New York", "April in Paris", and "Taking a Chance on Love", was at the same base and collaborated with Caesar on musical revues.

During the summer of 1942, Caesar met his future wife, Florence Levy, at the Avon Lodge. They were married on July 17, 1943, and had three children: Michele, Rick, and Karen. After joining the musicians' union, he briefly played with Shep Fields, Claude Thornhill, Charlie Spivak, Art Mooney and Benny Goodman. Still in the service, Caesar was ordered to Palm Beach, Florida, where Vernon Duke and Howard Dietz were putting together a service revue called Tars and Spars. There he met the civilian director of the show, Max Liebman, who later produced his first television series. When Caesar's comedy got bigger applause than the musical numbers, Liebman asked him to do stand-up bits between the songs. Tars and Spars toured nationally, and became Caesar's first major gig as a comedian.

After the war, the Caesars moved to Hollywood. A film version of Tars and Spars was made by Columbia Pictures in 1946, and in it Caesar reprised his role. The next year, he acted in The Guilt of Janet Ames. But despite a few offers to play sidekick roles, he decided to return to New York, where he became the opening act for Joe E. Lewis at the Copacabana nightclub. He reunited with Max Liebman, who guided his stage material and presentation. That job 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's television career began with 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 first series, The Admiral Broadway Revue with Imogene Coca. The Friday show was simultaneously broadcast on NBC and the DuMont network, and was an immediate success. (In order for it to be carried on the only TV station then operating in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — DuMont's WDTV — the sponsor had to agree to a simulcast.) However, its sponsor, Admiral, an appliance company, could not keep up with the demand for its new television sets, so the show was cancelled after 26 weeks - ironically, on account of its runaway success. According to Caesar, an Admiral executive later told him the company had the choice of building a new factory, or continuing their sponsorship of Revue for another season.

On February 23, 1950, Caesar appeared in the first episode of Your Show of Shows, a Saturday night 90-minute variety program produced by Max Liebman (who had previously produced The Admiral Broadway Revue). The premiere featured Burgess Meredith as guest host, and other musical guests Gertrude Lawrence, Lily Pons, and Robert Merrill. The show, was a mix of scripted and improvised comedy, movie and television satires, Caesar's monologues, musical guests, and large production numbers. Guest stars included: Jackie Cooper, Robert Preston, Rex Harrison, Eddie Albert, Michael Redgrave, Basil Rathbone, Charlton Heston, Geraldine Page, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Pearl Bailey, Fred Allen, Benny Goodman, Lena Horne and many other stars of the time. It was also responsible for bringing together the comedy team of Caesar, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, and Imogene Coca. Many writers also got their break creating the show's sketches, including Lucille Kallen, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Michael Stewart, Mel Tolkin, Sheldon Keller 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/variety show with Morris, Reiner, Bea Arthur, and much of crew. Nanette Fabray replaced Imogene Coca who left to star in her own short-lived series. Ultimate creative and technical control was now in Caesar's hands. The show moved to the larger Century Theater and the weekly budget doubled to $125,000. The premier on September 27, 1954, featured Gina Lollobrigida.
Contemporary movies, foreign movies, theater, television shows opera all became targets of satire by the writing team. 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). They also performed some recurring sketches. "The Hickenloopers" were television's first bickering couple, predating The Honeymooners. As "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 Mel Brooks' "The Two Thousand Year Old Man". The most prominent recurring sketch on the show was "The Commuters", featuring Caesar, Reiner and Morris involved with everyday working and suburban life situations. Years later the sketch "Sneaking through the Sound Barrier", a parody of the British film, The Sound Barrier, was run continuously as part of a display on supersonic flight at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
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.

Caesar's Hour was followed by Sid Caesar Invites You in 1958, briefly reuniting Caesar and Coca. In 1963, Caesar appeared on television, on stage, and in the movies. Several As Caesar Sees It specials evolved into the 1963-64 Sid Caesar Show (which alternated with Edie Adams in Here's Edie). He starred with Virginia Martin in the Broadway musical Little Me, with book by Neil Simon, choreography by Bob Fosse, and music by Cy Coleman. Playing eight parts, with 32 costume changes, he was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor (Musical). On film, Caesar and Edie Adams played a husband and wife drawn into a mad race to find buried loot in the 1963 screwball comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, 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 1971, he starred opposite Carol Channing and a young Tommy Lee Jones in the Broadway show Four on a Garden. 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 compilation of some of their best sketches. In 1974, Caesar said, "I'd like to be back every week" on TV and appeared in the NBC skit-based comedy television pilot called, Hamburgers. 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. In 1983, Sid hosted season 8, episode 12 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 at the conclusion of the show (he is the only host to receive this honor). In 1987-89, Caesar appeared as Frosch the Jailer in Die Fledermaus at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Caesar remained active by appearing in movies, television shows, at award shows and autograph signings. In 1995 he appeared in the movie The Great Mom Swap. In 1996 the Writers Guild of America, West reunited Caesar with nine of his writers from Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour for a special, two-hour panel discussion featuring head writer Mel Tolkin, Caesar, Carl Reiner, Aaron Ruben, Larry Gelbart, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Danny Simon, Sheldon Keller, and Gary Belkin. The event was taped, and later broadcast on PBS in the United States and the BBC in the UK. It has since been made available on DVD. In 1997, he made a guest appearance in 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. Billy Crystal also paid tribute to Caesar that night when he won an Emmy for hosting that year's Oscar telecast, recalling seeing Caesar doing a parody of Yul Brynner in The King & I on Your Show of Shows. Caesar performed his famous double-talk in a foreign dub skit (a skit format inspired by, and paying homage to double-talk) on the November 21, 2001 episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway? In 2003, he joined Edie Adams and Marvin Kaplan at a 40th anniversary celebration for It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Good Night Mr. Caesar
Say Hi to Imogene

Stay Tuned

Tony Figueroa
Post a Comment