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 early Wednesday. He was 91.
Caesar died at his home in the Los Angeles area after a brief illness, family spokesman Eddy Friedfeld said.
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 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.
'Real life is the true comedy'
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 theatre. 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 humour 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."