Younger generations might not recognize Sid Caesar's famed name.
But without his ground-breaking television talent there would likely not be today's long-running "Saturday Night Live" on NBC, mixing music and sketch comedy. It was Caesar, paired with the great Imogene Coca in NBC's Saturday night 90-minute hit "Your Show of Shows," which premiered Feb. 25, 1950, that paved the way for "SNL." Even Carol Burnett has credited Caesar and Coca as her career inspiration, and the model for her own wildly successful CBS variety show that premiered in 1967, a decade after Caesar left TV.
Caesar, 91, died Wednesday at his home in the Los Angeles area after a brief illness according to family spokesman Eddy Friedfeld.
"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, a friend of Caesar's who wrote the 2003 biography "Caesar's Hour" told The Associated Press he learned of the comedian's death in an early morning call from Caesar's daughter, Karen.
"He was one of the most brilliant comedic actors ever," Burnett told me Wednesday, after hearing news of Caesar's passing.
"I first fell in love with the variety format because of his show, and having Sid as a guest on my show years later was one of the joys of my career."
Carl Reiner, who worked as a writer-performer with Caesar on his show, based his temperamental comedian character Alan Brady from "The Dick Van Dyke Show" on Caesar, as well as the group of zany TV comedy sketch writers, from his own experiences working with Caesar and his TV staff of other "young comedy writers" that included Neil Simon, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.
As described in his Associated Press wire obit by writers Lynn Elber and Frazier Moore, Coca and Caesar were hailed as innovators, "performing skits that satirized the everyday — marital spats, inane advertising, strangers meeting and speaking in clichés and even a parody of the Western 'Shane' in which the hero was Strange. They staged a water-logged spoof of the love scene in 'From Here to Eternity.' 'The Hickenloopers' husband-and-wife skits became a staple."
"The chemistry was perfect, that's all," said Coca, who died at age 92 in 2001.
"We never went out together or see each other socially. But for years we worked together from 10 in the morning to 6 or 7 at night, every day of the week. What made it work is that we found the same things funny."
After just three seasons, there were as many as 60 million viewers weekly, and Caesar earned $1 million annually at a time when, as he put it, "$5 bought a steak dinner for two."
When Coca left the show in 1954, NBC trimmed "Your Show of Shows" to an hour and hired another smiling redhead, Nanette Fabray (who is 93 and lives in California), renaming the series "Caesar's Hour." After three years, the show was cancelled because of increasing ratings competition from Lawrence Welk's variety show.
Caesar was only 34 at the time his show left the airwaves, and in the midst of a 10-year spiral into a world of barbiturates and alcohol. With Florence, his wife who spent 60 years at his side, he beat his demons, and in 1976, put his pantomime skills to work in Mel Brooks' film parody comedy "Silent Movie." It was his first major film since he joined Ethel Merman and Mickey Rooney with the galaxy of stars who raced to find buried treasure in the 1963 comic epic "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World." Caesar played Coach Calhoun, opposite Eve Arden as Principal McGee and Fannie Flagg as Nurse Wilkins, in the 1978 movie "Grease." He reunited with Brooks again in 1981 for the parody film "History of the World: Part I."