Milton Berle, the man called Mr. Television, had started in TV the year before; but Berle, 14 years Caesar's senior and in vaudeville since age 12, was already an old pro. Caesar, whose television debut was in fact on Berle's "Texaco Star Theater," was a fast-rising newcomer, much of whose previous work had been under the auspices of the Coast Guard. (His first film was the 1946 Coast Guard revue "Tars and Spars.") He was 26 and making a splash on Broadway in "Make Mine
Tall, dark and handsome, with an elastic, soft-featured face, Caesar had been a musician before he became a comedy star -- a saxophone player, and a serious one. (He was hoping to study in France until the war intervened. He could sing too.) Indeed, his comedy is exceptionally musical, as in his double-talk routines, where he sounds to be speaking a foreign language but isn't. And there were pantomimes performed to Grieg (as a pianist) and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (an arguing couple, with
He is remembered as the leader of a quartet. Accompanying him in
The brilliance of that core ensemble aside, there's never any question, in any of Caesar's series, whose show it is. He has the authority of a star, even when he is the buffeted object of chaos in a sketch and not its generator. He has volume and power and presence.
Though the shows were performed in large spaces -- not a TV studio, but a legitimate theater -- the sketches can seem quite intimate, with the camera working in close to catch the pinball play of Caesar's features. The comedy was at times broad and theatrical and often slapstick, but it was also sharp and perceptive about character and, for want of a humbler word, civilization -- anticipating the more obviously learned satire of Nichols and May or Stan Freberg while not forsaking the pratfall or the funny face. "It remains an island of engaging literacy in TV's sea of mediocrity,"
The show had an urban, specifically New York energy, and even more specifically a New York Jewish energy -- which, like
He could be volatile. He struggled with alcohol and depressants. As early as 1956, he wrote in Look magazine of hiding behind his characters -- unlike Berle, who most always played Berle on his show, Caesar was almost always other people. "Offstage, with my real personality for all to see, I was a mess," he wrote. He would lose his temper sometimes, he later told an interviewer, "because I was holding things in all the the time.... You don't pick at the little things. When somebody's creating something you don't pick at it, you let it develop."
He believed in working hard and respecting the job -- all the jobs it took to put on a TV show, "from the cameramen to the people who cleaned up." He was not a perfectionist, exactly, because live television is the enemy of perfection. Or rather, perfection in live television is not a matter of flawless execution of a preconceived idea, but of being successfully present in the moment. Caesar forbade cue cards or teleprompters on his set, because they drew their eyes out of the scene. "I said, 'Know it,'" he later recalled. "Because when you know it you don't have to look at the cards... Because the eyes are the soul. You act with your eyes."
Perhaps not coincidentally, the implied point of many of his sketches -- such sketches as remain available to see, anyway -- is that civilization is always on the point of breaking down, that all it takes to crack the thin veneer of human politesse or custom is to be one sandwich short at a board meeting, or to be sitting in the wrong seat at a movie theater. A sketch in which Caesar returns home to wife Coca on her birthday devolves into a 12-minute argument that plays like a comic
Many today will know him best not for a television but a movie performance. (No, I'm not talking about "Grease." And, no, I'm not talking about "Grease II," either.) In "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," Caesar -- hired as a substitute for fellow video pioneer Ernie Kovacs, who had died in a car crash -- is paired with Kovacs' widow,
He would continue to show up in films -- Brooks put him in "Silent Movie" and "