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 Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, 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.
While best known for his TV shows, which have been revived on DVD in recent years, Caesar also had success on Broadway and occasional film appearances, notably in “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.”
In his two most important series, “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, Brooks 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.
Caesar performed with such talents as Howard Morris and Nanette Fabray, but his most celebrated collaborator was the brilliant Imogene Coca, his “Your Show of Shows” co-star.
Increasing ratings competition from Lawrence Welk’s variety show put “Caesar’s Hour” off the air in 1957.
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 comically perfect young man to a tyrannical movie director to a prince of an impoverished European kingdom.
In 1976, he put his pantomime skills to work in Brooks’ “Silent Movie.”
But he later 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 he wanted to live, he recalled, was the “first step on a long journey.”