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Sid Caesar

Comedian

Comedian

Born: September 8, 1922; Died: February 12, 2014

Sid Caesar, who has died aged 91, was a comedian who became one of US television's biggest stars in the 1950s. On programmes such as Caesar's Hour, he displayed a great talent for impersonation, clowning and parody but the programmes were also a breeding ground for some of the best comedy talent of the 20th century including Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, who created the Dick Van Dyke Show.

Caesar also had a somewhat erratic career in film. He appeared in Brooks' Silent Movie in 1976 and was one of the stars of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in 1963. He also made a memorable appearance in Grease as the coach who tries to take John Travolta's Danny under his wing.

However, much of Caesar's career was affected by psychological and addiction problems. For many years, he was addicted to barbiturate and alcohol and at one point considered suicide. "I had to come to terms with myself," he said. "Do you want to live or die?"' Deciding that he wanted to live, he said, was the first step back and his career enjoyed a renaissance when his television shows began to appear on DVD.

He was born in 1922 in Yonkers, New York, the third son of a Jewish Austrian-born restaurant owner and his Russian-born wife. His first dream was to become a musician and he played saxophone in bands in his teens.

He first discovered his talent for comedy and mimicry while he waited tables in his father's restaurant and after the restaurant went bust during the Depression, he began to pick up work as a comedian.

When the Second World War broke out, he was called up and served as a coastguard in Brooklyn but his superiors saw his talent for comedy and he was seconded to entertaining the troops, appearing in a musical, Tars And Spars, which was later made into a film, in which Caesar also appeared.

That led to a few other film roles, nightclub engagements, and then his breakthrough hit, a 1948 Broadway revue called Make Mine Manhattan. He also started to get work in television and by 1950 was the star of his own series Your Show Of Shows.

In Your Show Of Shows, which ran from 1950-54, and its successor Caesar's Hour (1954-57), Caesar displayed remarkable skill in pantomime, satire, mimicry, dialect and sketch comedy. He also gathered a stable of young writers who went on to worldwide fame in their own right, including Woody Allen.

"He was one of the truly great comedians of my time," said Allen, "and one of the finest privileges I've had in my entire career was that I was able to work for him."

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 he never went in for clowning or jokes, insisting that the laughs come from the everyday. "Real life is the true comedy," he said. "Then everybody knows what you're talking about."

In one celebrated routine, he impersonated a sweet machine; in another, a baby; in another, a ludicrously overemotional guest on a parody of This Is Your Life. He was a wizard at spouting melting-pot gibberish that parodied German, Russian, French and other languages. His professor character was the epitome of goofy Germanic scholarship. Some compared him to Charlie Chaplin for his success at combining humour with touches of pathos.

His most celebrated collaborator was Imogene Coca, his Your Show of Shows co-star. Coca and Caesar performed skits that satirised the everyday such as marital spats and inane advertising.

"The chemistry was perfect," 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 six or seven 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 and found inspiration in silent movies, foreign films and the absurdities of 50s post-war prosperity.

Among those who wrote for Caesar were Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon and his brother Danny, and Allen, who was providing gags to Caesar and other entertainers while still in his teens.

In 1962, Caesar starred on Broadway in the musical Little Me, written by Simon, and was nominated for a Tony. He played seven different roles, from a tyrannical movie director to a prince of an impoverished European kingdom.

The 1970s were much harder for Caesar as he struggled with addiction. In 1977 he was on stage in Regina, Canada, when suddenly, his mind went blank. He walked off stage, checked into a hospital and underwent cold turkey.

Carl Reiner, who worked as a writer-performer with Caesar on his breakthrough Your Show Of Shows sketch programme, said: "Sid Caesar set the template for everybody. He was without a doubt, inarguably, the greatest sketch comedian that television ever produced."

He is survived by his three children. His wife Florence died in 2010.

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