Imogene Coca, the elfin actress and satiric comedienne who co-starred with Sid Caesar on television's classic Your Show of Shows in the 1950s, died today. She was 92.
Coca died of natural causes at her Westport residence, said longtime friend Mark Basile. "She was a humanist," Basile said. "Her humanity was so strong, so giving. She made people want to be with her.'
Star of TV’s ‘Golden Age’
Coca's saucer eyes, fluttering lashes, big smile and boundless energy lit up the screen in television's "Golden Age" and brought her an Emmy as best actress in 1951. Although she did some broad burlesque, her forte was subtle exaggeration. A talented singer and dancer, her spoofs of opera divas and prima ballerinas tiptoed a fine line between dignity and absurdity until she pushed them over the edge at the end. "The trouble with most comedians who try to do satire," a critic once wrote, "is that they are essentially brash, noisy and indelicate people who have to use a sledge hammer to smash a butterfly. Miss Coca, on the other hand, is the timid woman who, when aroused, can beat a tiger to death with a feather." With Caesar she performed skits that satirized the everyday — marital spats, takeoffs on films and TV programs, strangers meeting and speaking in cliches. "The Hickenloopers" husband-and-wife skit became a staple. Once she and Caesar pantomimed a wife posing for her amateur photographer husband. He kept rearranging her mobile features for the perfect look and wherever he put her lip or eyebrow, that's where it stayed. "The great thing about Imogene is that her left nostril never knows what the right one is doing," director-producer Max Liebman said.
‘Chemistry Was Perfect’
Coca and Caesar complemented each other marvelously. "The chemistry was perfect, that's all," Coca once said. "We never went out together; we never 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." Wrote Caesar in his 1982 autobiography, "Where Have I Been?": "She's a great actress and we grew so used to working together on stage that she could guess what I was going to say — and react to it — when the thought was still in my head." Show business came naturally to Coca, who was born in Philadelphia on Nov. 18, 1908. Her father was an orchestra conductor, her mother an actress and vaudeville dancer; she was their only child. She started piano lessons at age 5, singing lessons at 6 and dancing class at 7. She made her stage debut as a dancer at 9 and did a solo singing stint in vaudeville at age 11. "I never thought of myself in comedy at all," she once said. "I loved going to the theater and seeing people wearing beautiful clothes come down the staircase and start to dance. I wanted to play St. Joan."