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Sid Caesar Dead at 91

Comedian and television pioneer "Sid" Caesar (born September 8, 1922) died today at the age of 91. He was best known for the television series Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour, and as Coach Calhoun in the movie Grease.

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.

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, Caesar and Max Liebman met with Pat Weaver, vice president of television at NBC, 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 in 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 other members of his former 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 and opera all became targets of satire by the writing team.

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.

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 in 1963 for a Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a 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. (Wiki)