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The Caesar Of Early Television

Sid Caeser
CBS/AP
If you go back a bit, to what seems now to have been a simpler time, when television was very young. If you were fortunate enough to own a set, odds are that on Saturday night you were watching Sid Caesar. Bill Lagattuta reports on the Caesar sensation for CBS News Sunday Morning

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.

It was live, every Saturday night, 39 weeks a year. Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris were co-stars. The comedy was smart, witty, cutting edge.

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

Many of Caesar's finest moments, like the couple fighting to Beethoven's Fifth, have not been seen since they were broadcast live nearly half a century ago. The old grainy kinescopes been pulled from a vault, where Caesar kept them, and digitally restored on DVDs and videotapes.

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 Fabrey. The show, changed its name to "Caesar's Hour" and ran until 1957. It continued a diet of sketches and parodies, like 'Aggravation Boulevard,' the story of a silent screen star on the verge of talkies.

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.

"I think that Sid has a remarkable eye and ear for the writers," Simon says.

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.

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

Gelbart, who went on to write the TV show "MASH" and the movie "Tootsie," created one of Caesar's most memorable characters, jazz musician Progress Hornsby.

The writers' room has attained a kind of mythical status.

"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," says Caesar.

"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," remembers Brooks.

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." So did Simon, in "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," a hit play that has 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. 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," says Simon.

Caesar says, "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, like the spoof of the film "From Here to Eternity" which became 'From Here to Obscurity.'

"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" Caesar recounts.

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

Gelbart says, "Sid, after every show, would go backstage and have a tumbler of scotch like that."

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

He had it all. He was famous, everyone knew him, and loved him. He was making a million dollars a year, which was a lot of money back then. But it all fell apart.

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

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.

Gelbart says, "I don't think we were too smart for the room. I think the room got bigger, and, um, 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. He outdid me," says Caesar.

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 says, "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."

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 seem as funny today as it did when it was new?

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

"He had a fantastic run. I just wish it had gone on a little longer," says Gelbart.

Now age 78, Sid Caesar has left a legacy.

He says, "The legacy is, uh, comedy. I made people laugh, and that's a wonderful thing to feel about. Because when you make people laugh, they're getting better."