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.
“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.
Friedfeld, who with Caesar wrote the 2003 biography “Caesar’s Hours: My Life in Comedy, With Love and Laughter,” learned of his friend’s death in an early morning call from Caesar’s daughter, Karen.
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 (“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, told KNX-AM Los Angeles that he had an ability to “connect with an audience and make them roar with laughter.”
In a statement, Reiner called Caesar “inarguably the greatest pantomimist, monologist and single sketch comedian who ever worked in television,” adding that the actor-comedian was a great flame who attracted “all the comedy moths” including Brooks and Simon.
Friedfeld said Caesar always shared the acclaim.
“Sid was an innovator, he and his team. He was very careful about never taking credit alone. He believed in his co-stars and his writers,” he said. “They created the amazing vehicles for him to be creative.”
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.”
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 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.
The son of Jewish immigrants, Caesar was a wizard at spouting melting-pot gibberish that parodied German, Russian, French and other languages.
Some compared him to Charlie Chaplin for his success at combining humor with touches of pathos.