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Sid Caesar, Opera Star, Still Has a Hankering for TV

Associated Press

Sid Caesar has this idea for a television show: It would be live. It would have comedy sketches. And wouldn’t it be great if Imogene Coca were available?

The pilot’s done. He just can’t get it on the air. “It hasn’t been on yet,” Caesar groused, “and it’s been canceled three times.”

Time was when networks didn’t play the “don’t call us, we’ll call you” game with Sid Caesar, the presiding genius on “Your Show of Shows” from 1950 to 1954.

That was the Golden Age of video vaudeville, when Caesar, Red Skelton, Milton Berle and others mixed music and sketch comedy. Now, in the age of the sit-com, Caesar is a struggling salesman.

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“I have an idea, but it’s like talking to the wall,” he said, complaining that television has become a timid rehash of someone else’s hits.

‘ “Yes, we want something, but see, what we want is something altogether different, something that will really come on and shake them up, and we want it altogether different. We want it the same as this show.’

“They need something,” he said, and his advice is: “Take a chance. Do it live! Get comedy! And do it! Don’t talk about it, don’t talk it to death.”

CBS has custody of the pilot for a half-hour weekly series called “The Sid Caesar Show,” the same title Caesar used for an ABC series in the 1963-64 season. The new version might go on early next year as a mid-season replacement, said CBS spokesman Jim Sirmans.

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Meanwhile, what’s a legend to do?

At 65, Caesar is a decade past conquering alcoholism, is trim and fit as a wrestler--the real kind, like they have in college--and eager to work. Recovering quickly from a broken hip in September, he is talking with a producer about a possible Broadway show, just finished a movie, “Nothing’s Impossible,” with Danny Thomas and Milton Berle, and is making his debut at the Metropolitan Opera.

“To be at the Metropolitan, that’s top-drawer stuff,” Caesar said. “I’m a little in awe of it.”

He is appearing eight times in December as Frosch, the drunk who appears in Act III of “Die Fledermaus,” a non-singing role that provides scope for Caesar’s double-talk routines in ersatz German and Italian.

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Though he is in New York to do opera, Caesar talked eagerly about television, a medium he apparently watches just enough to be disgusted.

“There’s very little spontaneity on television. Even the news is on tape,” he said. “Nothing is live anymore, except for the morning shows. I think that is one of the dimensions we’re missing in television.”

“Saturday Night Live” gets a qualified nod.

“I thought some of the early ones were very, very good,” he said. “But what bothers me an awful lot is the reading of cards. I like eye contact. The whole process of acting is listening and looking at the other person.”

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“Your Show of Shows” was done without cue cards, without teleprompters, 90 minutes a week, 39 weeks per season, Caesar said.

It ran from 1950 to 1954 on NBC, starring Caesar, Coca, Carl Reiner and, from 1951, Howard Morris. The talented corps of writers included Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart.

After Caesar and Coca split, the show was reincarnated as “Caesar’s Hour” and ran until May 1957. Caesar and Coca reunited for “Sid Caesar Invites You” in 1958, but the show survived just four months.

Though it still enjoys an enormous reputation, “Your Show of Shows” was a middling performer in the ratings, lagging behind big hits such as “I Love Lucy,” Arthur Godfrey, Red Skelton and Milton Berle. Its best year was the 1951-52 season when “Your Show of Shows” ranked No. 8, and the show, Caesar and Coca each won Emmys. The next year it ranked 19th, and Caesar never cracked the top 25 again.

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Except for “The Cosby Show,” the only sit-coms Caesar admires all had family ties to “Your Show of Shows"--"The Dick Van Dyke Show,” created, written and directed by Carl Reiner; “All in the Family,” with Carl’s son Rob as the Meathead, and “MASH,” created and frequently written by Gelbart.

Of the rest, he said, “It’s all 6 years old and down.” Lapsing into rapid-fire double talk, he offered a sample show:

“You go with him and I’ll take him, or you go with her. Didn’t she look like you? Well, it was dark. She didn’t know; I thought she was you. And you were him, and he was you. I didn’t know that she was you. I was me at that time, but I wasn’t me, of course I used to be. I had her dress on. She didn’t know that.”

His conclusion? “America is in bad shape.”

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The pilot for CBS had Dorothy Loudon instead of Coca, still his first choice as co-star, but Caesar was encouraged by the chemistry.

The show, he said, “was pretty good. I don’t think it was great, but it showed me where I could get better.

“That’s still in never-never land. Meanwhile, I have to get on with my life.”


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