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TV comedy pioneer Sid Caesar, whose legacy includes modern sketch comedy, sitcoms, dies at 91

FILE - This June 18, 1990 file photo shows comedians Sid Caesar, left, and Imogene Coca in New York for the Museum of Broadcasting's first annual

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FILE - This June 18, 1990 file photo shows comedians Sid Caesar, left, and Imogene Coca in New York for the Museum of Broadcasting's first annual "Salute to Television." Caesar, whose sketches lit up 1950s television with zany humor, died Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. He was 91. (AP Photo/Aubrey Reuben, File)

LOS ANGELES, Calif. - To put it simply: Sid Caesar invented TV sketch comedy and gave it stature as a funhouse mirror of the everyday. Some compared him to Charlie Chaplin for his brilliance at blending humour with touches of pathos.

The genius of 1950s TV comedy is illuminating television even today. Shows from sketch comedy stalwart "Saturday Night Live" to sitcoms owe a debt to Caesar's brilliant interpretation of material by America's greatest comedy writers, among others.

The actor-comedian, who died at 91 on Wednesday at his Los Angeles area home after a brief illness, was remembered by actor-director Carl Reiner as a great flame who drew comedy writer "moths" including Mel Brooks and Neil Simon to his side.

He was "inarguably the greatest pantomimist, monologist and single sketch comedian who ever worked in television," Reiner said.

"Your Show of Shows," 1950-54, with co-star Imogene Coca, and "Caesar's Hour," 1954-57, were his major achievements.

On "Your Show of Shows," Caesar staged 90 minutes of skits, revues, pantomime and satire that his audience found not only hilarious, but also vividly relatable. His comedy style, while often antic, was rooted in reality.

"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," Woody Allen said in a statement.

While Caesar's sketch comedy lives on in shows like "SNL," his emphasis on humour born out of human nature is part of current sitcoms such as "Modern Family," said longtime friend Eddy Friedfeld. He and Caesar wrote the 2003 biography "Caesar's Hours: My Life in Comedy, With Love and Laughter."

Among Caesar's TV staff writers, Friedfeld noted, several went on to create memorable sitcoms, including Reiner's "Dick Van Dyke Show," based on his "Your Show of Shows" experiences, and Larry Gelbart's "M-A-S-H."

While Caesar was best known for his TV shows, which have been revived on DVD in recent years, he also had success on Broadway and occasional film appearances, notably in "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World."

Caesar was born in 1922 just north of New York City in Yonkers, New York, the third son of an Austrian-born restaurant owner and his Russian-born wife. His first dream was to become a musician, and he played saxophone in bands in his teens.

His talent for comedy was discovered when he was serving in the Coast Guard during World War II and got a part in a Coast Guard musical, "Tars and Spars." He also appeared in the movie version. Wrote famed columnist Hedda Hopper: "I hear the picture's good, with Sid Caesar a four-way threat. He writes, sings, dances and makes with the comedy."

That led to a few other film roles, nightclub engagements, and then his breakthrough hit, a 1948 Broadway revue called "Make Mine Manhattan."

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: unimagined 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."

Increasing ratings competition from Lawrence Welk's variety show put "Caesar's Hour" off the air in 1957.

When "Caesar's Hour" ended, its star was only 34. But the unforgiving cycle of weekly television had taken a toll: He had started relying on alcohol and pills for sleep every night so he could wake up and create more comedy.

He beat a severe, decades-long barbiturate and alcohol habit in 1978, when he was so low he considered suicide. "I had to come to terms with myself. 'Yes or no? Do you want to live or die?'" Deciding that he wanted to live, he recalled, was "the first step on a long journey."

After his golden days of live TV, Caesar found success in films ("It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" as well as Brooks' "Silent Movie" and "History of the World: Part One," and the musical "Grease", on Broadway (Simon's "Little Me") and even scored in a nonsinging role with the Metropolitan Opera in its 1987 production of the operetta "Die Fledermaus."

His humour — observational, humanistic — exposed the telling truths of everyday life. How friends fight over a restaurant check. How a schoolboy at his first dance musters the nerve to talk to a girl. How a gum ball machine behaves when fed a coin (one of Caesar's countless impersonations). Or how someone, like his double-talking German professor, manages to pose as an expert despite expertise in nothing.

"Real life is the true comedy," he said in a 2001 interview with The Associated Press. "Then everybody knows what you're talking about." Caesar brought observational comedy to TV before the term, or such latter-day practitioners as Jerry Seinfeld, were even born.

Florence, his wife of more than six decades, died four years ago, Friedfeld said. Caesar is survived by two daughters and a son.

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