The clown who helped popularize TV watching also had to deal with his dark side

By Stephen M. Silverman
February 12, 2014 03:15 PM

Sid Caesar, the deft side-splitter who helped establish the new medium of television as he also established himself as a comedy legend, has died. He was 91.

“He had not been well for a while. He was getting weak,” family spokesman Eddy Friedfeld told the Associated Press.

With a deceptively simple philosophy of humor – “I don’t take myself too seriously,” he told PEOPLE in 1989. “I just laugh at myself a lot and call myself a dummy” – Isaac Sidney Caesar had been eliciting laughs since the Great Depression, when he mimicked the accents of customers who came into his Russian-Jewish parents’ luncheonette in his native Yonkers, N.Y.

Trained as a teenage saxophonist in the Catskill Mountains’ “Borscht Belt” (so named because the beet soup was a favorite among immigrant and first-generation American resort patrons), Caesar also honed his comic craft as a Catskills tummler, a sort of on-premises master emcee who kept the hard-to-please guests entertained throughout the day.

It was also in the Catskills that he met Florence Levy, whose uncle owned the hotel where Caesar worked, the Avon Lodge. They both said it was love at sight.

“I was in my last year at Hunter College; we were still dating when Sid went into the service, the Coast Guard,” Florence Caesar told the couple’s local paper, the Toluca Times, in Toluca Lake, Calif., in 2009.

“Luckily he was stationed in New York so we were able to continue seeing each other, even though my parents weren’t too happy about it,” she said. “They never thought he would amount to anything, that he’d never have a real career or make any money. But we were married one year after we met, in July of 1943.”

They not only stayed married for nearly seven decades, but had three loving children: two daughters and a son, Michele, Karen and Rick. They survive him. Florence Caesar died in 2010.

A Legend Is Formed

During World War II, Caesar also made a professional marriage, with the director of the showbiz revue Tars and Spars: Max Liebman, who after the war would end up producing Caesar’s TV show.

To say Caesar caused a sensation on TV is to understate the case. For eight years, beginning in 1950, he delighted America each week with a crazy salad of skits, pantomime and gentle satire. Your Show of Shows, which Caesar helped script, produced such stellar comedy writers as Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Neil Simon and also made a star out of his madcap sidekick, the incomparable Imogene Coca.

Yet the weekly grind took its toll. Overwhelmed by his early success, Caesar turned to drink and barbiturates. “I didn’t unwind,” he told PEOPLE in 1982. “I unraveled.” His show suffered, was ultimately canceled, and Caesar – a self-described “violent drunk” – was never able to recapture his former glory.

“I went to a psychiatrist for 20 years and kept asking, ‘What am I trying to punish myself for?’ ” he later told PEOPLE. “I never found out. Finally I said, ‘I don’t care.’ ”

With support from his family, he managed to reclaim his life. Staying clean and becoming a health fanatic, he spent his many remaining years popping up in a handful of movies (including It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, as an accident-prone dentist, and Grease, as the track coach) and TV shows and lecturing on a subject he knew best – comedy.

But as he grew older, and grew sober, he also became an expert on another great subject: Sid Caesar.

“I’m really, truly making it,” he told PEOPLE when he turned 60. “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.”