Hail, Caesar!

Comedian Sid Caesar. CBS News

You have to go back a bit, to 1951, to what seems now to have been a simpler time, reports CBS News "48 Hours" correspondent Bill Lagatutta for CBS News' "Sunday Morning." Television was very young and, if you were fortunate enough to own a set, odds are that, on Saturday night, you were watching Sid Caesar.

Says Larry Gelbart: "There was no star bigger than Sid. He shared space in the pantheon with Lucille Ball and Milton Berle, but not many others."

And Neil Simon: "He was a magnificent performer, and it burned out very quickly, I think, because it was so high-powered."

And Woody Allen: "Everybody watched him weekly with fanatical devotion. It was a ritual."

Caesar was a former saxophone player who’d gotten his comedic start doing sketches in the Coast Guard. Then in 1950, when Sid Caesar was 27, NBC tapped him to star in a new television program: "Your Show of Shows," 90 minutes of entertainment.

It was live, every Saturday night, 39 weeks a year, co-starring Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris. The comedy was smart (what they'd call today "cutting edge"), timely, and just plain funny.

Says Caesar, "It's a wonderful feeling when the audience laughs. Whoosh. That's like, that's the payoff."

What was it like to be such a big star and be, 29, 30 years old?

"Yeah. I didn't know. It was too fast," he replies. "I didn't really appreciate it. I really didn't because I was so busy doing shows."

Many of Caesar’s finest moments haven't been seen since they were broadcast live nearly half a century ago. Only now have the old grainy kinescopes been pulled from a vault, where Caesar had kept them, and digitally restored on DVDs and videotapes. So it is possible once again to try to decipher Caesar's famous "doubletalk."

Today, at age 78, he still speaks perfect gibberish.

Many of today's television comedies, from sketch shows like "Saturday Night Live" to situation comedies, can trace their roots back to "Your Show of Shows."

After four years of "Your Show of Shows," Coca went off to do her own program and was replaced by Nanette Fabray. The show, now called "Caesar's Hour," ran until 1957, continuing a diet of sketches and parodies.

The sketches were the work of perhaps the most extraordinary group of writers ever assembled for one broadcast.

Playwright Neil Simon was one of those writers. Says he, "I think that Sid has a remarkable eye and ear for the writers. Almost everyone who came out of that show went on to write theater and films and television and be successful in all of them."

Mel Brooks and Woody Allen wrote for Sid Caesar. So did Larry Gelbart, who went on to write the TV show "MASH" and the movie "Tootsie." He recalls, "It was a very, uh, charged room, a lot of very gifted people, a lot of very neurotic people, and there was a lot of electricity there."

The writers' room has attained a kind of mythical status. What was it really like in there?

Says Caesar, "You had to know your business because these guys were…they were geniuses. When I first sat down with these fellas, I said, 'Check your egos at the door. There's no egos here. It's what's good is good, and what's no good is no good.'"

Brooks recalls, "I should have been impressed, but I wasn't. I was a cocky kid. I was filled with hubris and this marvelous ego and I thought I was God’s gift to creative writing, and it turned out I was."

Carl Reiner used his experience in the writers' room when he created "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Brooks did, too, in the film, "My Favorite Year." And so did Neil Simon, in "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," a hit play that's just been made into a movie for Showtime, with Nathan Lane in the role based on Caesar.

"I think I came pretty close to at least paraphrasing the truth," says Simon. "Sid was both the funniest man that I've ever worked with and the angriest. What he was angry about, I don't know.

"I remember walking into his dressing room on the night of the show, on a Saturday night, and putting on his make up, and he was talking to the mirror and saying, 'Go! Go make a fool of yourself in front of America!' I think that's what he was afraid of."

Caesar adds, "It was such a mixture of laughter and terror, because you knew that 9 o’clock Saturday night, you had to be there, rain or shine, that's it."

Not all the sketches went as planned, "From Here to Obscurity," a spoof of the film "From Here to Eternity."

"Now the guys are throwing pails of water, the stagehands, and I said, 'Pace them. Give us a chance to talk, and then throw the water, and make it warm. Don’t make the water cold.' 'Right. Got you, Mr. Caesar.' Well, the first pail of water was brrrrrr. They forgot."

He ad-libbed, "Pretty rough tonight, ain't it?"

In real life, Caesar was having a rough time with his own success.

"And Sid, after every show, would go backstage and have a tumbler of scotch," recalls Gelbart.

"It was heartbreaking to us, 'cause we all loved him," says Simon.

He had it all. He was famous. Everyone knew him and loved him. He had a ton of money, making a million dollars a year, which was a lot of money back then. Why did it fall apart for him?

"Because I couldn't keep it up," says Caesar. "I was fooling myself. I was taking to starting to drink. I started to take sleeping pills, 'cause I couldn’t sleep."

It wasn't his addictions, though, but the very popularity of television itself that came to bury "Caesar's Hour." Sketches about foreign movies and opera and jazz all appealed to the television viewers of the early 1950s, because they were more educated, more affluent, and could afford to buy a television set. Once the prices began to come down and everyone began buying TVs, the networks decided to program more to the mainstream.

"I don’t think we were too smart for the room," explains Gelbart. "I think the room got bigger, and this was just kind of a boutique show and couldn't survive."

ABC put an accordion player from North Dakota up against "Caesar's Hour."

"Lawrence Welk was the guy who knocked me out of the box," says Caesar. "He outdid me."

Caesar was just 34 when the bubble burst on his weekly program. After that, he did some movies like "Grease" and "It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," and television specials and theater. It would be many years before he could give up his addictions.

He recalls, "I was doing a play in Canada, and I came out, and I couldn't remember my lines, which never happened to me. And that's when I stopped drinking. I stopped taking pills."

Just like that?

"Oh, you shake a little bit," he says.

And while he continued working for years, never did his flame burn as brightly as it did when Caesar ruled Saturday nights.

Would the show not seem as funny today?

"Some of the better sketches we did would still be hilarious," says Simon. "But I don't think that's a test of the material or Sid Caesar. I mean, nothing is meant to last except maybe the Mona Lisa and a few other great thousand paintings."

Gelbart's view: "He had a fantastic run. I just wish it had gone on a little longer."

And what does Caesar himself say? What is his legacy?

"The legacy is comedy," says Caesar. "I made people laugh, and that's a wonderful thing...because when you make people laugh, they're getting better."

For information about Sid Caesar's refurbished kinescopes, go to www.sidvid.com.

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