Sid Caesar, a comedic force of nature who became one of television’s first stars in the early 1950s and influenced generations of comedians and comedy writers, died Wednesday at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 91.
His death was announced by Eddy Friedfeld, a family spokesman.
Caesar largely faded from the public eye in his middle years as he struggled with crippling self-doubt and addiction to alcohol and pills. But from 1950 to 1954, he and his co-stars on the live 90-minute comedy-variety extravaganza Your Show of Shows dominated the Saturday night viewing habits of millions of Americans. In New York, a group of Broadway theater owners tried to persuade NBC to switch the show to the middle of the week because, they said, it was ruining their Saturday business.
Albert Einstein was a Caesar fan. Alfred Hitchcock called Caesar the funniest performer since Charlie Chaplin.
Television comedy in its early days was dominated by boisterous veterans of vaudeville and radio who specialized in broad slapstick and snappy one-liners. Caesar introduced a different kind of humor to the small screen, at once more intimate and more absurd, based less on jokes or pratfalls than on characters and situations. It left an indelible mark on American comedy.
“If you want to find the ur-texts of ‘The Producers’ and ‘Blazing Saddles,’ of ‘Sleeper’ and ‘Annie Hall,’ of ‘All in the Family’ and ‘MAS*H’ and ‘Saturday Night Live,’” Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times when he was its chief theater critic, “check out the old kinescopes of Sid Caesar.”