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February 13, 2014

Sid Caesar dies at 91

LOS ANGELES — Milton Berle was the funnyman whose pioneering presence in the nation’s living rooms earned him the title Mr. Television.

But Berle echoed the past. His wildly popular wisecracks and cavorting were repurposed from his burlesque days for the brand-new miracle of TV.

Sid Caesar was different. Arriving on Berle’s heels in 1949, Caesar was the future of TV comedy — a future that was evergreen and, with his death on Wednesday at 91, is certain to survive him. To put it simply: Caesar invented TV sketch comedy and gave it stature as a funhouse mirror of the everyday.

“Saturday Night Live,” to name the most obvious example, is a weekly homage to his creation.

To do it, Caesar gathered a dream team of fellow performers and writers — among them Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and Woody Allen — whose own impact on comedy will likewise be lasting.

“From my vantage point,” Reiner said, “he was inarguably the greatest pantomimist, monologist and single sketch comedian who ever worked in television.”

“He was one of the truly great comedians of my time, and one of the finest privileges I’ve had in my entire career was that I was able to work for him,” Allen said.

Caesar was a brawny young man with a beetle brow, rubber face and distinctive mole on his left cheek whose first comedy-variety show, “The Admiral Broadway Revue,” premiered in February 1949 and was off the air by June. Its fatal shortcoming: popularity. It was selling more Admiral television sets than the company could make. Admiral, its exclusive sponsor, pulled out.

But the audience was primed for Caesar’s subsequent efforts. “Your Show of Shows,” which debuted in 1950, and “Caesar’s Hour” three years later, drew as many as 60 million viewers weekly and earned its star $1 million annually at a time when $5, he recalled, “bought a steak dinner for two.”

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