His was a meteoric rise in the brave early days of live TV. As top banana in the ensemble of Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris and Nanette Fabray, as patron to a band of incandescent writers with names like Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen, Sid Caesar made Your Show of Shows (1950-54) and Caesar’s Hour (1954-57) into a Saturday night viewing habit. But behind his classic satiric comedy were real tears of rage, a skid into alcoholism and barbiturate addiction. In Where Have I Been? (Crown, $12.95), his autobiography co-authored with Bill Davidson, Caesar recounts his “20-year blackout” and the heroic endurance of Florence, 60, his wife of 39 years, and their three children (Michele, 35, married and an artist; Rick, 30 and a physician in Oregon; and Karen, 26, who’s a political press aide in Los Angeles County). Shortly before the book’s publication this month, Caesar spoke to PEOPLE correspondent Doris Klein Bacon and explained how he had devised a therapy of his own three years ago in which he argued with and counseled himself via tape recorder. Through it, he began his reconciliation with family, friends and, most important of all, with his own life.
I began to go heavily with booze when I played in Make Mine Manhattan on Broadway back in 1948. That’s when the pressure first got to me. Everybody has a different pattern, and mine was to get smashed in private after work. I didn’t unwind. I unraveled.
It got worse as time went on. Once when we were doing Caesar’s Hour for NBC, Neil Simon wrote a skit, “A Drunk There Was,” maybe as a hint to me of my condition. But I thought it was about someone else, not me. Did the network people know? When [then NBC President Robert] Kintner came and told me I was finished, he was aware that I’d been drinking. They had told the doctors to give me pills to get me off the booze. But Scotch and pills taken together had such an effect that I said, “Mmmm.”
I could always get as many pills as I wanted, even when I would be performing on the road. I’d pass out in airplanes, and there were flights when I took so many pills that the stewardesses panicked when they couldn’t wake me at the destination. Besides, when you’re a drunk, it doesn’t matter what city you’re in. The first thing you think about is where is that bottle, let’s start. When we were in Athens years ago, Florence wanted to see the Acropolis. We wanted to go in a taxi. The taxi didn’t show up and, relieved, I went back to the room and got drunk.
Florence thought of quitting on me many times. I would get abusive with her, never physically abusive but verbally, yes. What I couldn’t say to the people at the networks I would take out on her. But in those days you never talked about divorce, you just didn’t do it. Her mother would tell her a bad husband is better than no husband. My three children resented me, too. They didn’t have a father.
I went through years of psychoanalysis. And I kidded myself along. Maybe I’d lay off booze for two days, and then I’d celebrate. Three days, maybe a week and, bang, I’m back drinking. I’m not putting psychoanalysis down, but it just doesn’t work for alcoholics. And I wouldn’t want to go into a hospital or join AA because I was afraid that word would somehow leak out. At that time alcoholism wasn’t considered a disease. It was thought of as a curse, the curse of drink.
In 1978 I hit bottom. From January to April I stayed in bed and never came down for meals. It was a big thing for me to shower and shave. I was afraid to go out of our house in Beverly Hills, even to get a haircut. At my worst, I had been downing eight Tuinals and a quart of Scotch a day. When I was awake I’d think of nothing but “I must do it faster, kill myself faster.” I’d get up to take pills just to go back to sleep. I had no friends. My life was over.
Looking back now, I guess I was predisposed toward the problems I wound up with. My immigrant parents owned a luncheonette in Yonkers, N.Y., and the Depression devastated my father. And me, also, though I was only 7 or 8 at the time, because this man whom I’d looked up to like a god crumbled before my eyes.
Later on, when success came to me so fast, so easily, I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. I actually felt guilty and afraid because I didn’t know where all this success, this applause, this money came from. I had no faith in my own talent, so it had to be some kind of Power that bestowed this gift on me. I lived in dread that some night onstage, the Power would take the gift away and I’d be found out.
Another thing about my insecurity: We lived on a hill in Yonkers, and my brother Dave, 10 years older than I, took care of me. Dave used to play a game. He’d have me in the carriage, and he would tie a long string to the handlebars. Then he’d let the carriage roll down the hill, pull me back up with the string and let it all run down again. I was used to seeing hands on the carriage, and when I saw none, I felt like I was falling out of control. That was a big fear.
The same pattern continued through my life. There were hands on my carriage, or I always knew I was going to be pulled back up. There was Max [Sid’s producer Max Liebman]. There was Florence. But when I got my own show, all the toys were mine, and I said, “There’s nobody here to say ‘No.’ ” There were no hands on the carriage, and that’s when I started to go crazy.
I was a violent drunk. I’d rip sinks out of walls, and once, in a drunken rage, I came close to killing Mel Brooks. We were in Chicago at the Palmer House. Mel said, “I don’t want to sit around watching you drink Scotch; let’s go out.” I grabbed him. “You want to go out?” I said, “I’ll show you out,” and then I dangled him out the window, 18 stories up. Fortunately, Dave was there, too. He’s even stronger than I am and pulled us both back.
Finally I went to the town of Regina in Canada in 1978 to do Last of the Red Hot Lovers at a dinner theater. I couldn’t remember my lines, even where to stand. I went back to my dressing room and made a decision: Did I want to live or did I want to die? I opted for life. At Regina General Hospital they took me off all pills, cold turkey. I climbed the walls for seven days while I was being detoxified.
Then in September 1979 I went to Paris for five months to make The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu with Peter Sellers. Not speaking French, I had only myself to talk to and spoke into a tape recorder at least twice a day. I split myself into two personalities: Sid the father and Sidney the wayward child. I argued, I fought, I made friends with myself. Later I learned I had stumbled onto a technique utilized long ago by the great psychiatrist Carl Jung, but I didn’t know that at the time.
Since then I’m really, truly making it. It doesn’t come in a flash but a little bit every day. I still need the Sidney part of me; he’s funny, he jumps around, he has crazy ideas. But then the other me, Sid, comes in and says, “That’s enough, Sidney, I’m too punched out and I’m tired of being depressed.” Sid’s the one who keeps Sidney in line.
I’ve been off booze for four years now. I do 300 sit-ups and leg lifts every day, 100 push-ups and 50 dips. I chin myself 25 or 30 times, and then I do 100 curls. I take a swim in the pool every morning.
At one point when I was ill, my memory went. Recently I did an episode of Matt Houston, and this time I did a three-page scene in 20 minutes. I was able to memorize it in no time, which is how it used to be. And my creativity has come back.
A man is only a grown-up child, but if you let the child control you, you wind up like John Belushi. I’m 60 years old, and I’m still learning. With my own self-therapy, I finally realized there weren’t going to be any more hands on the carriage. I’m in control now.