Sid Caesar made America turn on, tune in and damn near die laughing.
TV comedy started with Caesar's Your Show of Shows on Saturday nights in the 1950s. Mel Brooks learned to write comedy while writing for him. So did Woody Allen, Neil Simon, M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner, who says he based The Dick Van Dyke Show on his experience while writing for Caesar.
Caesar was known for his furious temper and superhuman strength. He was known to punch through walls, and once punched a horse — a gag that Mel Brooks paid homage to in Blazing Saddles.
To Brooks himself, Caesar did worse than a punch. After one writing session Brooks said, "I gotta get out." Sid said, "OK," and held him out of a hotel room window, hanging high above the street.
ABCNEWS entertainment critic Joel Siegel talked to Caesar about his antics with Brooks and the rest of his career.
Joel Siegel: "How high was that window?" Sid Caesar: "We were 18 stories up at the Palmer House." J.S.: "Wow, he could have flown." S.C.: "Been a long flight down … I said, 'How far you want to go out?' That was for real. I said, 'You out far enough now? You want to go out a little further?' And my brother was there luckily. My brother pulled me and him back. And we put him down. But that was true."
Caesar's legacy is more than showbiz-deep. To Americans who grew up during TV's golden age, the memories are personal.
Joel Siegel: "When I think about Sid Caesar what I see and I hear is you on television, but I see my father and I hear my father laugh. My father's been dead for 15 years, and this is what it was …" Sid Caesar: "I always have to say, whenever we were writing, I said, 'Where is the truth in this thing?' I got to believe this. If I don't believe it, I don't care … And when you talked about your father, my father saw it, I knew it was going be the last time because he had cancer. When I knew that he was going to go and he saw the last show, it was the proudest thing in the world." (crying) J.S.: "What show was that? Do you remember the show that that was? When was that?" S.C.: "That was right at the beginning of the shows. He died just in the '50s. Just there for a couple of shows, but he knew I was on my way. And that was a great thing for me."
'This is Your Life'
Sid Caesar: "People come up to me and they thank me: "I thank you for the many, many hours of laughter." And it's nice, you know. And they'll always remember one piece. And it's always something different. It amazes me … They saw them once 50 years ago, and they still remember them." Joel Siegel: "I remember this sketch, This Is Your Life, a big TV show in the early '50s. But what if the surprise guest was so surprised … he didn't want to be on it." S.C.: "Oh, the This is Your Life — yeah, we did that I knocked some of the extras down and then I try, I started to run away. I threw a punch and I hit him. It was mayhem. And when Howie [Morris] grabbed my leg, that was ad-libbed." J.S.: "You didn't know?" S.C.: "No. He just did it. I said fine, I'll walk with him."
Click here to watch video of some of his finest moments.