Sunday, February 16, 2014

My thoughts on Sid Caesar

The great Sid Caesar passed away last week and lots of you have asked why I haven’t written about him; why I haven’t done one of my tributes. It’s because my tributes tend to be glowing and they’re always from the heart. As much as I admired Sid Caesar, I did not feel that way about him. For my tributes to mean anything they must be sincere, and truth be told, I was not a big fan of Sid Caesar personally.

You’ve all been to funerals of people who were uh… difficult, and sat through eulogies that portrayed him as a saint. All the while you’re thinking, “Who is he kidding?” I didn’t want to be that guy.

Side note: There was a longtime Hollywood actor/personality named George Jessel. He was probably most famous for delivering eulogies at funerals. One time, as the story goes, he was waxing poetic, glanced down at the open casket, stopped and said, “Hey, I know this man!”

Sid Caesar’s talent was extraordinary. His influence on television can not be overstated. He was a one-man SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. When I taught my comedy class at USC I devoted a large portion of one session to Sid Caesar. I showed clips and discussed his greatness and importance in length. You’ve doubtless been seeing and reading tributes all week. They’re all terrific. Billy Crystal, in particular, wrote a lovely one.

So the only thing I could add would be any personal experience I had with the gentleman. And since that wasn’t good I had planned to just let it pass. But my silence was apparently more noticeable than I had assumed.

So here’s my encounter with Sid Caesar, and I will say this – it taught me a very valuable lesson so I do have him to thank for that. In 1980 I was hosting a Saturday night talk show on KABC radio in Los Angeles. Sid agreed to be my guest one night. I couldn’t be more excited. I cleared an entire hour for him, prepared lots of questions, and figured we’d get tons of calls from adoring listeners. I promoted the show for weeks. Like I said, this was a huge deal for me. I was not used to meeting Comedy Gods.  This was going to be a love fest and I knew he'd enjoy it. 

He showed up at the station very surly. This was during his notorious “drinking” phase I was later to learn. I figured, “Okay, that’s what he’s like off-the-air. I’m sure he’ll turn on the charm once the red light goes on.”

I was wrong.

From the minute he turned on the mic he was nasty, rude, and bitter. I started taking phone calls. The board lit up like a Christmas tree. But after he dismissed and belittled the first two callers the lines went dead. Who wants to subject themselves to that kind of abuse? I looked on the clock. It’s was 8:10. I had :50 minutes to go (and very few commercials). They were the longest fifty minutes of my life. Sid basically just beat the shit out of me on the radio.

The next morning I called my friend, Ronn Owens, who is the top talk show host in San Francisco on KGO. I laid out my tale of woes and when I was finished he said, “It was your fault.” “MY fault? How could it possibly be my fault?” “It’s your show,” he said. “When you have a bad guest you just dump him at the next break and move on.” “Yeah, but this was Sid Caesar. He drove all the way to the station. I promoted this. I couldn’t just blow off Sid Caesar,” I said. “So what?” was his reply. “If you have a bad guest, whoever it is, dump him. You should have enough prepared material that for any emergency you can just go to another topic and keep the show rolling.” Since that day I have never done a talk show where I wasn’t prepared to the teeth.

Like I said, this was during a bad phase in Sid Caesar's life. Had I known him at a different time, or had I worked with him in his halcyon days (okay, I would have been 2 but I was funny even then), I might have a completely different impression of the man. He was a true giant who, like all of us, was plagued with demons. So I celebrate his legacy and invite you to celebrate it as well. If you’re not really familiar with his work, go to YouTube and watch some of his sketches. He was truly remarkable. Remember him for that.

72 comments:

AndrewJ said...

Sorry about your encounter with Sid. Is it true he was originally up for the role of Coach on Cheers?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Thanks for that. I personally prefer to remember people exactly as they were - good and bad bits left in. So I'm especially grateful for that story.

I always thought MY FAVORITE YEAR (and the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW) made it pretty clear how difficult and demanding Caesar could be - though of course since those were both comedies the Caesar clones had to be at least *somewhat* of a rooting interest.

I don't know if Caesar was an alcoholic, but your story makes it sound like it. The ones I've known, like this story, veered from brilliant charm to black rage without warning, and yes, you had to be ready to deal with both.

wg

Hamid said...

I thought the lesson you were going to say you'd learned was the "never meet your heroes" one, referring to experiences of meeting an idol and finding out he or she is an asshole. There are some stars I like so much, that I'd be devastated if I met them and discovered they're not nice people.

By the way, Ken, I strongly recommend you see The Lego Movie. It's one of the funniest, sweetest and most charming movies I've ever seen. The script is genuinely witty and it even throws in some sly social commentary, including a dig at dumb sitcoms with a show called Where's My Pants?

Which leads to a Friday question: In your opinion, what's the worst sitcom ever?

Mike McCann said...

Ken,

Thanks for your honest reflection on Sid. Those of us in position to meet famous people don't always encounter them in their best moments. A very famous and beloved baseball figure is my professional counterpart to your night with Sid. I interviewed this icon once at the ballpark -- and met him at the book signing of a friend of his some years later. Unlike the lovable character he's always been portrayed as, he came off as grumpy and uncooperative. He showed zero wit and appeared unhappy some reporter needed quotes.

Luck of the draw, I suppose.

Canda said...

But what obligation do stars have to us? I know we all want them to be who they are on the screen, but how possible is that? Actors and comedians become someone else for a reason. They often need to hide behind a different persona.

I had heard that one way they got Sid Ceasar to perform better in a sketch was to move a prop on stage from the position it had in the rehearsal. This would so throw him, he would act even more manic and hilarious.

When you consider the manic characters he played, and how brilliant he was, there had to be someone who was not quite normal underneath. Very much like Peter Sellers, who they said would remain in character, even off camera, which was disconcerting to those who worked with him.

I disagree with the person who said, "dump him" from your show. I think you would have been better off going with his mood, asking him what made him most angry about the business today.

Terrence Moss said...

I appreciate this, Ken. It's always tough to speak truthfully about your experience with someone everyone is just glowing about -- particularly in the wake of their death.

Being 34, I'm not as familiar with his work but I've known of him and his influence on TV comedy for a long time.

It's a shame so much of his work has been lost, destroyed and recorded over. Dumb ol' NBC -- even in the early days.

Scooter Schechtman said...

Here's a fitting epitaph about a different Sid:
SHINE ON YOU VERKAKTE DIAMOND

LouOCNY said...

Mike McCann - Since your hints about your encounter was pretty straightforward, we should be able to say that he was grumpier than the average Bear..a?

Anonymous said...

While I understand your chagrin, you are a long time comedy writer. Imagine what the pressures of doing an hour-long show or a 90-minute show live, each week, with only seven or ten minutes of commercials for nearly a decade would do to you.
And you are the person who will be held responsible for tis success or failure.

Curt Alliaume said...

I'm not shocked by this - I don't know when Caesar had the worst of his alcohol and drug problems, but he either still had them in 1980 or was just getting over them. Plus, as several sources note, Caesar had a really, really hard time speaking to an audience in his own voice - he was much better as a character, or if he was given an "accent" to work with. So, two strikes - and that apparently was enough.

Bryan said...

It happens Ken. The man was a comedic giant, but it's well known that he had quite a temper and an "attitude". This is why I've always steered clear of celebrities I really look up to. Johnny Depp said that he was afraid to meet Keith Richards. When asked why he replied, "what if he was an $%&&hole?" Fortunately for Mr. Depp he wasn't,at least not to Mr. Depp. The few times I've actually met a celebrity that I admired they were nice to me. Star Trek's Patrick Stewart was especially warm and gracious, but I've seen the other side and it'll ruin your feelings about someone for life. Just like anyone else, they can be nice, or not. My 1st encounter with Dick Clark changed the way i felt about him and it wasn't good. Sometimes though we have to work with them and that can be awful too as you found out. I had a few airshifts that were torture because of a celeb guest. So I avoid celebs like the plague.

Mr. Hollywood said...

I met and interviewed Caesar when TEN FROM YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS was coming out ... many years ago. Went to his house in Holmby Hills ... have interviewed hundreds of stars and I always kept an open mind.
Sadly, Caesar was very frail, his voice was soft, almost a whisper. He was thin ... didn't have much to say. He was pleasant, but there was barely enough material to use.
Over the years I had my share of meanies: Richard Pryor the bottom of the barrel. Lucy ... horrible. But then there have been Alan Alda, Carol Burnett, Jack Benny, Jimmy Stewart. It's a lot of timing but I agree with you Ken ... you can only judge them personally by the time they spent with you. Caesar should have been more professional ..or he sinply should have said no to the interview!

blinky said...

I met him in 1976 in Sarasota. We were shooting him for the local cut-in of the Jerry Lewis Telethon. All I remember is he kept talking about himself and how he used to do things in the good old days.

Michael said...

From all that I read, Caesar was an alcoholic. Eventually, he conquered his addiction, if that's the correct term. He also apparently had a huge ego ... and was entitled to it. As Dr. Samuel Johnson said, in lapidary inscriptions, man is not upon oath, meaning that on tombstones we aren't honest. But the obituaries on Caesar conveyed that he could be difficult.

sanford said...

For those of you who might not be from Chicago or ever listened to Roy Leonard I found this interview. Roy has a face book page and some how i missed this post after Cesar passed away. As you will notice it was done in 1983 so maybe Sid was in better shape than when Ken did his interview. Roy was a great interviewer. I already posted this on Ken's twitter feed. Hope all of you listen to this.
http://wgnradio.com/2013/07/04/sid-caesar/

Steve McLean said...

Ken, in an industry filled with people who are sycophants, mean-spirited or both, you are neither. Your honesty is always refreshing.

benson said...

Ken, the question that comes to mind is did you and your mentor Larry Gelbart discuss Caesar, and were his impressions of him different?

RCP said...

Sometime during the mid '70s, Your Show of Shows was being rebroadcast (it may have been on PBS) over the course of a few weeks and I'd watch it with my parents, who remembered these episodes well from their original airings. I very much enjoyed them and Sid Caeser in particular.

Thanks for relating your experience, Ken - sorry you had to deal with that. Having had some family members and friends who were suffering from alcoholism or drug addiction, I know well what it's like to be with them at their worst. Fortunately, most made it through to the other side; a couple tragically did not. The difference in their personalities once they had freed themselves was like night and day. During the night period, they were hell to be around.

Wayne said...

Sid Caesar was a pioneer in TV comedy but not a pioneer in being a bitter show biz A-hole.

Kim T. Bené said...

Friday Question: M*A*S*H had first rate acting, memorable characters, an unusual premise... and of course incredible scripts. However the audio was lousy. When they were shooting outside it was fine. But when they shot exterior scenes in the studio the audio was always echoy and sounded exactly like they were simply shooting film in a big metal warehouse. When they shot interiors in the studio the audio was OK because the "buildings" were all tents so the fabric muffled the echo but you can close your eyes and pick out every single scene shot as an exterior inside the studio. Lots of other sitcom shot exterior-set scenes inside a studio and never had that same echo/booming... think all those scenes of Tim Allen and his faceless neighbor over the fence in his back yard. Even the Lucy show had Lucy stomping grapes in a vineyard with better audio than M*A*S*H had 20 years later. What gives?

Breadbaker said...

Last October, the rabbi giving my uncle's eulogy at his graveside service said, "and he was such a wonderful father none of his children rebelled." I looked at my mom, my sister, and then to my first cousins, his children, and we were all stifling laughs. So I piped up with, "will a dissenting opinion be in order?" That cracked up the rest of the family and friends.

Kathleen said...

I believe Carl Reiner based the character of "Alan Brady" on Sid Caesar. Can anyone confirm that?

emily said...

What a gentlemanly way to explain your reasoning. WTG Ken.

Kirk said...

I was one of those wondering why you didn't do anything on Caesar. Thank you for sharing this, even if it wasn't the best experience.

@RCP--Here in Cleveland, Your Shows of Shows was shown on the NBC affiliate right aftr Saturday Night Live. This was in 1976. Three hours of sketch comedy, new and old.

MikeBo said...

I think the story of a historical figure should include all sides. Bravo for your story on Sid Caesar. I was still very young when "Show of Shows" aired, but I still remember the characters and most of the sketches. Years after "Show of Shows" went to black I visited a city in Germany that had a huge clock in the town square. The hour struck and the life size figures came out- cuckoo clock style - with their mallets to strike the bell to chime the hour. As the first one hit the bell with his hammer, I started to laugh. By the time the wooden figures had finished, I was on the ground holding my stomach, I was laughing so hard. My wife and my brother were asking me what was so damn funny. "It's real I gasped through tears of laughter. "The Magic Clock of Glicken Glocken!." In spite of your tale of woe, Ken. Your reminiscence reminded me of the laughter that Caesar brought us.

Kosmo13 said...

Most of the famous people I've met have been very nice, with probably fewer than 5% being unpleasant. But I feel there's no such thing as a bad encounter with a celebrity. If they act like a jerk or an a-hole, that makes just as good a story to tell other fans.

I wouldn't want to have to interview a drunk or abusive person on a live radio show, but meeting them under other circumstances provides a colorful anecdote with which to regale friends and family.

Chris said...

Friday question: shome shows always do 2/3/4 stories each episode, some made it a rule to only do one story per episode. Some, however, will do multiple stories one episode and just one for the next. Who makes the decision for each episode and what factors are involved when you go one way or another each week?

Matt Neffer, Boy Spotwelder said...

I actually had a couple of people reach out to me this week with sympathies… Since I am a comedy writer and a huge aficionado of classic comedy and broadcasting in general, they assumed I would be busted up, or at least reflective, on Caesar's passing.

I felt kind of sheepish to admit that Caesar's work never really meant that much to me. I'm young (ish) so I wasn't around for Your Show of Shows or at Caesar's peak, but I've also reached out (and reached back) for so many comics and shows from that era that I have a reasonable familiarity with the comedy of the time.

I love Gleason, and Jack Benny, and Bob and Ray, and Dick Van Dyke, and Carl Reiner and countless others. But certain early TV comics like Caesar and Berle kind of leave me cold. Reading all the tributes this week though, I feel like I need to dig deeper into Caesar's work to see if I've missed something. YouTube recommendations from other posters welcome!

Dubin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dubin said...

His autobiography details the dark days with drugs and alcohol. An illuminating read.
http://www.amazon.com/Where-Have-Been-Sid-Caesar/dp/0451125010
~Richard Dubin

D. McEwan said...

"Wendy M. Grossman said...
I don't know if Caesar was an alcoholic, but your story makes it sound like it."

"Michael said...
From all that I read, Caesar was an alcoholic."


I'm surprised to find folks unaware of Sid's alcohol and drug problems. He wrote a searingly honest account of his hit-rock-bottom years, Where Have I Been: An Autobiography. He's very upfront about being a major alcoholic. Given all the abuse Sid heaped on himself, it's amazing he made it to 91. It's amazing he made it to 51.

Sid was one of those comic actors, Peter Sellers was another, who only exist in character. Out of character, he had no identity, no personality, at all. And while he went through a toxic period which Ken had the misfortune to hit the dead center of, and had an almost legendaryily bad temper, he recovered to a great extent, and many are the accounts of a good man hamstrung by a lack of self-identity, whereas Peter Sellers was a full-out insane, toxic, nasty man who caused to whither all he touched, and did his best to destroy everyone he knew, everyone he worked with, everyone he met, and every stanger he passed on the street. Folks who worked with Sid long-term all seemed to love him. Peopel who had to work with Sellers after about 1963 tend to blanch with terror at the mention of his name.

"Kathleen said...
I believe Carl Reiner based the character of "Alan Brady" on Sid Caesar. Can anyone confirm that?"


Consider it confirmed. Alan Brady was based on Sid, only without the booze, drugs, and attempting to throw Mel Brooks out of an upper-story window. So is "King Kaiser" in My Favorite Year. ("King," "Kaiser," and "Caesar" are all synonyms. Hardly subtle.) So is "Max Prince" in Neal Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor. (Again the name game. "Prince" = "Little King" = "Little Casear.")

Meeting one's idols is always risky. I was a gigantic Steve Allen fan until the day I had the misfortune to meet him. He was so awful to me, gratuitously awful, that it destroyed my love for him. Ever since (And it happened in 1968), I have been unable to watch Steve Allen with anything but disgust. A friend of mine who had been one of Steve's writers had warned me about him, but I hadn't listened. He said: "Here's the big clue about Steve's ego: he wrote an autobiography at 35." Meetnig Dick Cavett was a bummer experience also, and Harry Chapin, and Karen Black.

But the number of celebs I admited where meeting them was a pleasure have vastly outnumbered the sour ones. Had I decided to avoid meeting my heroes out of fear they'd turn out to be like Steve Allen I'd never have developed my friendships with Daws Butler, with Larry "Seymour" Vincent, and with Barry Humphries, and those relationships enormously enriched my life, and have been worth a hundred horrible Steve Allen-type experiences. And you never know who will surprise you. I had trepidations going in when meeting Milton Berle, having heard the horror stories, and I was pretty much quaking in my shoes the first time I met Gore Vidal, he being about hte most-intimidating, caustic man alive then. Both Milton and Gore treated me with respect, kindness and class. Both put me at ease, and made me feel like an equal.

(continued)

D. McEwan said...

(Continued)

Re: dumping guests. Sometimes ya just gotta. When I was producing "Sweet Dick" Whittington's radio show (Another major person in my life I'd have been bereft of had I feared meeting those I admired), we had a guest on one day we had to dump mid-interview. Now this man, a BELOVED TV comedy icon, star or co-star of multiple successful TV sit-coms, now passed away, was not a toxic asshole, nor rude, nor difficult. This is why I am not identifying him. He wasn't awful. But he was dull, deadly, deadly dull. Getting answers of more than two words from him was like hauiling a mountain of lead across the desert single-handed. He was answering questions with nods, for Christ's sake, in a radio interview. He had no anecdotes, no gags, almost no discernable personality.

So mid-way through, Dick said: "Well, I know you have to leave. I'm sorry you couldn't be here for the full hour, but thanks for coming," and put on a record, while this major TV comedy star looked severely non-plussed. This was the first he'd heard that he had a conflicting appointment. The "Conflict" was that dead air was more interesting than he was as an interview subject. Neither Dick nor myself held any malice towards this man, but we had to cut him loose.

"Mr. Hollywood said...
Over the years I had my share of meanies: Richard Pryor the bottom of the barrel. Lucy ... horrible."


We did an interview with Lucy, recorded at her home, just Dick, myself, and Lucy, while Gary Morton had the task of keeping the dogs quiet. I would not call out experience with Lucy horrible. We got a very good interview from her (She was plugging just-opened Mame), but she was scary! She did snap a couple times. I'd prepared Dick for the interview and in my prep I'd included that she'd done a Marx Brothers movie, which she did, Room Service, suggesting askng for some Marx Brothers anecdotes.

Dick: "Now you did movies with the Marx Brothers. Did they..."

Lucy: "NO! I did NOT!"

I suppose it was pluralizing "Marx Brothers Movies," rather than "Movie," but for whatever reason, she shut that line of inquiry down like a lead door slamming shut. Dick was shooting me "Your ass is grass" looks as he scrambled to find a line of inquiry that wouldn't shut her down. After, I had to furnish Dick with proof I was right and Lucy wrong to keep my job. Not a warm cuddly person, Lucy.

I guess I'm lucky I never met Sid, because his work was magnificent.

Mr. Hollywood said...

D. McEwan, a bit more on my time with Lucy: I did a total of 6 interviews with Lucy, because I was with CBS Radio at the time and they wanted to plug her various CBS shows. None of the interviews was before 2pm ... all we were at her house ... all were done with her imbibing from a glass ... and, as was your experience, if she deemed a question not up to snuff, she would rip you! The deep whiskey/cigarette voice of her didn't help on radio either. So... I DIDN'T love Lucy!
And one add re the mention of Milton Berle earlier in a comment: a total loudmouth asshole. As mean as they come. It would take too long to tell you the full story here ...

Steve said...

Mark Evanier has a nice write up on Sid at his newsfromme site, although it does touch on some of the same things talked about here.

Mike Barer said...

I read Sid's obit which talked about his alcohol abuse. It had to be the reason that he was essentially out of the business by the mid 1960s, at least as far as I can tell.

Hank Gillette said...

And one add re the mention of Milton Berle earlier in a comment: a total loudmouth asshole. As mean as they come. It would take too long to tell you the full story here ...

Having to go through life with everyone trying to get a glimpse of your Johnson in the men’s room would make anyone mean.

Seriously, I hope you’ll post your story, even if it is long.

Les said...

This is why my mother doesn't like to hear "inside stories" about celebrities. She loved Danny Kaye until she read a book about him in which Kaye came off as a very nasty, unpleasant person.

I have a friend whose father interviewed Sid Caesar a few years back, when an unsuccessful attempt was made to syndicate material from "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour" to local stations packaged into a half-hour format ala "Carol Burnett and Friends." He found him very nice and very funny, but of course he was no longer drinking and had a product to sell.

@Hank Gillette: From what I've read about Berle, it wasn't necessary to sneak a peek at his legendary member in the men's room. He was apparently only too happy to show it off.

Mister Charlie said...

Berle didn't need to unreel it all into the open to amaze or win a bet, just about a foot or so...

Michael said...

D., thanks. I had read that Caesar was an alcoholic, and that's all I meant to say, but I didn't say it very well. Obviously, I didn't know him, wasn't there, etc.

A word on Steve Allen, whom I always enjoyed on "What's My Line?" but found too self-centered on "I've Got A Secret"--Garry Moore always understood that he may have had the billing, but everybody was the star (speaking of nice people, Carol Burnett said of him that he taught her that if you're not having fun doing a show, you shouldn't be doing it). Then my wife found two of his books for me for Christmas for about 50 cents each--a book on television and one of his books on comedians. They are almost unreadable because they are so pompous. Too bad he started believing his press clippings.

Lynda said...

Steve Allen: This is a man who stated that Woody Allen's comment that Bob Hope was his favorite comedian and the performer he often modeled himself on couldn't possibly be true because he -- Steve Allen -- didn't like Hope. Therefore, it wasn't possible that anyone he liked and respected as much as Allen could feel that way.

I remember seeing him on some TV program late in his life, talking about women's fragile egos and the sad, pathetic lengths they go to to preserve the illusion of youth. All the while, he has a screamingly obvious hairpiece plopped on top of his aging head, apparently completely unaware of the irony.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

I worked with Sid Caesar in The Hallmark Hall of Fame: Love Is Never Silent TV movie. I was an extra and I spent the day walking on the sidewalk, past "his" shop. It was a fun experience as I got to were a costume from the 1930's, and I had an interesting encounter with Mare Winningham (that's a story for another day).

During a break in the filming he was enjoying Ice Cream cones with the children in the production. I wanted one too!

Johnny Walker said...

Seems like a fair and lovely tribute to me. Very nice and honest. Like Wendy, I have to say that I prefer that people are honest about the dead -- yes, including the ones I know.

To me it's just as insulting to someone's memory to pretend they were perfect as it is to pretend they were monster. Either way you're pretending they're something they weren't -- which isn't remembering someone at all, but throwing out their memory and making something up. Could there be anything more disrespectful?

We're all flawed, and if we can't accept each other, flaws and all, in death, when the hell can we? (Those that love you in life, do so in spite your flaws, after all.)

Plus, in this case it sounds like if Sid Caesar had sorted himself out, apologized, came back and done a brilliant hour of radio with you, all would have been forgiven. And for all you know, the memory of giving a perfectly pleasant DJ shit for an hour was one of THOSE memories that popped into his head at 4am and made him feel terrible.

Anyways, either way, this is was a very welcome tribute in my books.

Johnny Walker said...

Wow, I just read all the comments. Fascinating stories. Thanks for sharing, especially D. McEwan and Mr Hollywood.

When you watch old clips of stars on chatshows, like Carson, or whathaveyou, it's sometimes amazing just how obviously their flaws are on display. Despite a lot of the negative stuff people say about today's celebrities, they generally know how to come across well.

There's a couple of interviews with Pryor, for example, where he's clearly hugely uncooperative and rude to his interviewer -- even infront of a studio audience.

Carla said...

Mister Charlie said...

Berle didn't need to unreel it all into the open to amaze or win a bet, just about a foot or so...

It wasn't his foot he showed, silly... te-hee

Chris Ekman said...

Mark Evanier has a new post today that touches upon Caesar again, and he excerpts the passage from Caesar's first autobiography where he discusses being considered for Cheers. You can read it here:
http://www.newsfromme.com/2014/02/17/done/

In his telling, he wanted to rewrite the part, the Charles brothers said no, and he walked out abruptly. He takes a dismissive tone, but the book came out the same year Cheers debuted, so he can't have known what an opportunity he'd blown.

Ken, did you ever hear anything about this episode? It's amazing to me that they even considered him - it's hardly possible to imagine Caesar playing second fiddle to anybody.

Harry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Harry said...

I lucked out. I saw him and Imogene Coca in their touring show based on YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS sketches when it came through Boston about 20 years ago. The notion of two elderly people -- I think Coca was past 80 -- playing two young people in slapstick bits sounds terrifying and unfunny, but they were just great.

While we were waiting in the lobby before the show, Sid came in through the front door. He was matter-of-fact about it, but I assume he craved a little jolt of attention to get him energized for the performance.

Afterwards, my mother (who was in her late 50s at the time) stood with the crowd hanging out at the stage door. Coca emerged. On stage, she'd been razor sharp and boisterous, but she was now a frail old woman, with apparently poor eyesight.

Then Sid came out. He was around 70, and thanks to all the bodybuilding, was in great shape. And he fussed all over my mother (the fact that she's very small and walked with canes was probably a factor). We both got his autograph on our programs.

Nice to have had a very brief, entirely pleasant encounter with an idol.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

I don't know if it is true Sid Ceasar was up for the role of Coach in Chers, but in one of his autobiographies he writes about a meeting with two young comedy writers who want him to play something that sounds an awful lot like Coach and it is set in the same time period. Of course, he blows them off because they don't understand comedy and don't want to listen to his tips on how to make it better...

Steve said...

Yep, Mark Evanier posted the following excerpt from Sid's first autobio -

" …I was called over to Paramount Studios to meet with two TV producers who had sold ABC a pilot for a new situation-comedy series. I was told they had been associated with Taxi, a series I thought was quite good. Their new show was about a bar and the quaint characters who hung out in it. I was to be one of the quaint characters.

I had read the script, which they sent over in advance, and I didn't like it very much. The role they had in mind for me, in particular, was pure cardboard, strictly one-dimensional. But I saw some promise in it if I could be allowed to add some of my own shtick. So I went over to see the producers.

I expected to be meeting with Jim Brooks or Stan Daniels, two top talents, who, in addition to creating Taxi had previously been involved with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, among others. Instead, I found myself in a room with a couple of twenty-five year olds who seemed to know of me only from a part I had played in the movie Grease in 1977. I soon realized that, like so many of their generation in the industry, their concept of comedy did not go back beyond Gilligan's Island, on which they had been raised as children.

I said, "I have a few ideas to make my part a little more interesting and meaningful." They stared at me coldly and said, "We're perfectly satisfied with the part as we wrote it, Mr. Caesar." I felt my temper rising, but I controlled it. I went through the motions of having an amiable chat with them before I got up and said, "OK. That's it. Thank you. Goodbye." They were startled. Actors don't walk out on the almighty writer-producer when a possible five-year series contract is being dangled in front of them.

But I figured the concept was so poor it probably never would make it to a series anyway. Besides, even if it did, who would want to be associated with such shit?"

Have to think the 'couple of twenty-five year olds' he met with (who were actually in their 30s) were the Charles' brothers. Sid's first book came out right around the time that Cheers first went on the air.

RCP said...

I enjoyed reading both Mr. Hollywood's and D. McEwan's accounts of dealing with Lucy in person. How odd that she would consider being associated with The Marx Brothers as a negative; especially since she also did a Three Stooges short in the mid '30s.

There's an interesting contrast between two books about Lucy: Jim Brochu's Lucy in the Afternoon and Lee Tannen's I Loved Lucy. Both men knew her over a number of years (Tannen during the last decade of her life) and both are affectionate. Brochu's account, however, was bascially a Valentine, e.g., he first approached Lucy as a teenager to ask for her autograph; she ignored him, which he found endearing. He also gave Lucy's version of Madeleine Kahn's firing from "Mame": according to Lucy, Kahn had deliberately sabotaged production so she could get out of playing Agnes Gooch and join the cast of Blazing Saddles. Other accounts state that Lucy fired Kahn for unprofessionalism, which seems hard to believe.

Tannen's book was hardly a hatchet job, but he described some less-than-admirable behavior on Lucy's part. His account is no doubt more acccurate, as it earned a supportive blurb from Lucie Arnaz that began, "It's time." Both of Lucy's children obviously love her, but they too would seem to prefer an honest portrayal of their mother rather than canonization.

Johnny Walker said...

Wow. What an excerpt! And what a nightmare Caesar reveals he would have been if he'd gotten the part. No respect for the showrunners, no belief in the character, total disregard for the show.

Nice discovery, though.

Johnny Walker said...

I'm not so sure that Lucy was offended by being associated with the Marx Bros. It sounds like she was offended by the mistake by the interviewer. As in, "how dare you not bother to know my career, MY career -- Lucy!, before interviewing me!".

D. McEwan said...

"Mr. Hollywood said...
And one add re the mention of Milton Berle earlier in a comment: a total loudmouth asshole. As mean as they come. It would take too long to tell you the full story here ...?


Prior to meeting Berle I had heard many such tales of Milton, too many for them to be altogether untrue. I must have gotten him on a good day, because he could not have been kinder to me. One of the first things I always did when the guests arrived was offer to get them coffee. (They would be arriving at the radio station around 8:30 AM).) Some said yes, some said no, ONLY Milton Berle said: "Show me where the coffee is, please, and I'll get my own. You don't need to wait on me. You have your own dignity." He walked about with his arm around my shoulders, and talked to me like a son. He showed me class. I'm not denying your experience of him; I'm just making clear that my experience of him was vastly different, as different as our experiences of Lucy were very much the same.

"Les said...
@Hank Gillette: From what I've read about Berle, it wasn't necessary to sneak a peek at his legendary member in the men's room. He was apparently only too happy to show it off."


An acting teacher I studied with for 6 years, who was openly gay, encountered Milton in a steam room once. The subject came up. Milton asked: "So you wanna see for yourself?" Well, of course he did. So Milton casually flipped open the woel and displayed it with pride. Bill reported that the legends were true. Though as another gay friend of mine said: "It really doesn't matter how big Milton's is, it's still attached to Milton Berle, with Berle's face above it. Ew."

(A lady friend of mine, now passed away, had an affair with Forrest Tucker over a couple years. Serious affair. She reported to me that the legends about his were true also, all 14 inches of them.)

D. McEwan said...

"Lynda said...
I remember seeing
[Steve Allen] on some TV program late in his life, talking about women's fragile egos and the sad, pathetic lengths they go to to preserve the illusion of youth. All the while, he has a screamingly obvious hairpiece plopped on top of his aging head, apparently completely unaware of the irony."

Hilarious. I shall be retelling that one. Nice to see my Steve-o aversion is shared. I've mentioned my nasty encounter with Allen before elsewhere (Which occured when I was a star-struck 18-year-old who worshipped him. There's no excuse for how he treated me), usually only to have it provoke annoyance and outrage that I, a mouse, would dare to impune the reputation of this great TV pioneer and funny man, a king.

Well, he was a great TV pioneer and a very funny man, and gave to many major career boosts, but he was also a self-absorbed egotistical jerk. There was no fan of Steve's on earth whose opinion of Steve was as high as Steve's opinion of Steve.

" Johnny Walker said...
Wow, I just read all the comments. Fascinating stories. Thanks for sharing, especially D. McEwan and Mr Hollywood."


You're most welcome.

"RCP said...
He also gave Lucy's version of Madeleine Kahn's firing from 'Mame': according to Lucy, Kahn had deliberately sabotaged production so she could get out of playing Agnes Gooch and join the cast of Blazing Saddles. Other accounts state that Lucy fired Kahn for unprofessionalism, which seems hard to believe."


I believe Lucy fired Madeline (For which I shall never forgive her; how I pine to see Madeline's Agnes) because "There's only ONE funny red-head in a Lucille Ball movie!" As a result, there were no funny redheads in that ghastly movie.

Mame being bloody awful hurts all the more because the novel Auntie Mame: An Escapade is almost a sacred text to me; I own several copies of it, including a first edition. The movie with Roz is one of my favorites.

Steve said...

Johnny Walker,

Yep, it sure is. I hate to disparage Sid too much, but it's tough to see the show enjoying the success it did if he had ended up being cast as coach. A few thoughts:

1. Obviously, it's pretty much impossible now to see anyone other than Nicholas Colasanto in the role.

2. Sid would've been by far the most known name in the cast. Even though he wouldn't have been the lead (or second lead), would NBC have marketed the show as a vehicle for him?

3. The Sam/Coach dynamic of course would've been different. For one, Sid, like Ted Danson, was 6' 2". And I can picture the amount of scenery chewing Sid would've done during those scenes. Perhaps the Charles Bros. could, too, so maybe Sid wasn't THAT high on their list to begin with.

RCP said...

Johnny Walker said...

"I'm not so sure that Lucy was offended by being associated with the Marx Bros. It sounds like she was offended by the mistake by the interviewer."

But she did indeed appear in Room Service. It could be - as D. McEwan suggests - that using the plural 'movies' ticked her off, as that wasn't exactly the case. 'Offended' may not be accurate, as I'd forgotten that Harpo had appeared on I Love Lucy in one of the show's best classic routines. Lucy seemed to genuinely enjoy working with him, and both Ricky and Fred paid tribute by dressing up as Groucho and Chico. Of course, Ethel and Fred always pulled off looking like an affectionate pair.

D. McEwan - I think you're right about this. I've also heard the theory that Lucy had found Kahn to be somehow threatening, and made a point of getting her fired. When Brochu described this conversation with Lucy, he wrote that her eyes welled with tears and she remarked that she couldn't understand why people said nasty things about her in the press - both in this instance and others. I guess like Joan Crawford, who remarked after working with Ball: "And they say I'm a bitch!"

Kirk said...

"@RCP--Here in Cleveland, Your Shows of Shows was shown on the NBC affiliate right aftr Saturday Night Live. This was in 1976. Three hours of sketch comedy, new and old."

That's about the right year, but they aired earlier in Northern Virginia - my parents would never have stayed up until 2:30 a.m. - even for Your Show of Shows. Nor would they have sat through SNL for that matter. Sounds like a great three-hour line-up, though.

cadavra said...

I seem to recall Reiner said that Alan Brady was a combination of Sid, Berle and Gleason--but mostly the latter two, who were reportedly far worse to their crew than Sid was.

My one encounter with Sid was pleasant. It was the 40th Anniversary screening of MAD MAD WORLD at the Egyptian in Hollywood, with much of the surviving cast in attendance. Sid, who was quite frail, had been led in the side door and was sitting by himself in the front row off to the side. Clutching my copy of "Where Have I Been?", I went down and asked if I could impose on him for a couple of minutes. He smiled and said, "Sure, siddown." I mentioned seeing him and Imogene at the then-Westwood Playhouse the night his lapel mike went out and he had to revert to pantomime to finish a sketch. He nodded and said, "Yeah, that was pretty wild." He then graciously signed my book "With love and laughter" and I withdrew, thanking him for all the joy he'd given me. So either I got lucky or he'd mellowed with age.

Steve said...

Ah, looks like Ken's/the Charles Bros. recollection of things goes along with what I was thinking. Again from Mark Evanier' site -

"My buddy Ken Levine, who was a producer on Cheers and many other fine programs wrote in to say…

First off, I was not in the meeting between Sid Caesar and the Charles Brothers, and I only heard about it from their side. And that was quite a few years ago so I my memory might not be razor sharp.

But the way I heard it, they were not thrilled at the idea in the first place. As gifted as Caesar was, he wasn't how they pictured the role. But out of respect to him, they cheerfully agreed to the meeting. He came in and told them the script was shit. It was the surly abusive Sid that day. He offered all kinds of ideas that they thought were horrifying, and treated them like they were idiots. The meeting ended. The Charles Brothers told Sid's agent he would not be getting the part and no further consideration would be given. And that was that. It used to be a running joke in the room that first season — we'd write a Coach bit and say, "Can you imagine Sid Caesar doing this?" Then we'd re-enact the scene playing Coach as the scariest human being ever.

I can also tell you that no one was ever more gracious and kind in meetings than the Charles Brothers. If you can't get along with them, the problem is you. Or the bottle."

Like Mark says, I think Sid was off alcohol by the time Cheers was cast, but maybe he was going through "dry drunk" syndrome.

Steve said...

Or maybe he was just kind of a jerk

Steve said...

Mark also says that Sid once admitted that he held a lot of jealousy (which Mark interpreted as resentment) that former co-workers like Brooks, Reiner, Simon and Gelbart were very successful and in positions of power and that while all went on and on about what a comedy genius Sid was...there wasn't a lot of hiring going on. Most notable among the parts he got from the men named above was probably his role in Mel's "Silent Movie".

As Mark says, though, the lack of casting probably had a lot to do with them knowing that Sid couldn't function well unless you were doing The Sid Caesar Show and he was the one calling the shots.

I have to think there's another book on Sid coming in the next fe years.

Mike Doran said...

Two observations, purely from a civilian point of view:

- This past weekend, I went to my DVD wall at home and got out my set of the complete run of Checkmate, the CBS detective show from '60-'62.
In the second season, Sid Caesar appeared in a straight dramatic role, as an all-night deejay who believed that an old rival was trying to murder him.
Throughout the episode, Caesar's character (whose name I've momentarily forgotten, "Johnny" something) pops pills of various colors, and occasionally swigs down something obviously alcoholic, all the while staying on-air and melting down furiously.
Those of you who've read Caesar's books are aware that Sid's problems were both alcohol- and Pharma- related, which makes me wonder why he would have elected to play such a role in 1961 - at which time he'd not had a regular show in six or seven years, and was in the full grip of his addictions.
That he was a boozer and pillhead could hardly have been unknown by the Checkmate producers, or by CBS, for whom he was doing occasional specials, or by his fellow actors on the episode.
So there are some questions, with maybe no answers at this late date.

- Regarding Cheers:
It's kind of ironic that the role Sid Caesar wouldn't take because he couldn't control it, was assumed by Nick Colasanto, who at that point in his career was working more as a director on TV dramas.
Here's a guy who directed Peter Falk on at least two Columbos, and apparently he was the most cooperative of actors when in that position.
How would Dirctor Colasanto have dealt with "I-know-it-all" actor Caesar?
Another unanswerable question.
If Mark Evanier reads this, maybe he can guess ...

Pat Reeder said...

To Doug McEwan:

I'm sorry you had such a bad experience with Steve Allen, who was always one of my idols. But in fairness, I'd like to say that I dealt with him three times, and on all three occasions, he was one of the kindest, most gracious people I ever met, celebrity or otherwise. The first time was when I just wrote to him c/o his publisher, asking for advice, since I was a young aspiring comedy writer from rural Texas with no showbiz contacts at all. I just wrote out of frustration and never really expected a response, but I got back a personal letter, sympathizing with my situation and offering to look at my material and offer any guidance that he could.

A few months later, I met him in person after a show in Dallas. He remembered me and said my tapes were on his desk, but he had been really busy and hadn't had time to listen yet. But he promised he would get back to me soon. A few days later, I got a letter from his secretary, saying that Mr. Allen had called her from Dallas and told her to write to me to confirm that he planned to get back to me as soon as he returned to L.A. from his tour. I later found out that during the time when he said he'd been "busy," he'd been getting treatment for cancer. I couldn't believe that with something like that to deal with, he'd taken time out from his schedule to help out a kid from Texas he didn't even know.

Then, several years later, when I was writing the book "Hollywood Hi-Fi" and wanted to include his single, "Schmock! Schmock!", I wrote to ask him a few questions about it. He not only answered the questions, he sent me a big box of scripts and about two dozen cassettes worth of his songs, and said if there was anything else he could do to help, just let him know. He also sent me a very nice note about the book after I sent him a finished copy.

I don't know why our experiences were so different. I also once produced a radio commercial that Dick Clark came in to voice, and he couldn't have been nicer.

I never met Milton Berle, but I have heard that the episode of "SNL" he hosted was the only one Lorne Michaels would never allow to be rerun. Apparently, the cast and crew thought he was the nastiest jerk who ever came on the show. Or perhaps I should say, "the biggest prick." And he only took out enough to prove it!

Finally, I never met Sid Caesar, but I did see him live at the Hungry i in NYC in the late '80s. Got to sit about 15 feet away as he did his famous pantomime bits. He was as hilarious and brilliant as he'd been on TV 35 years before.

Chris Juricich said...

I appreciate your honesty about your feelings about this funny guy. Its rare to see that and it's appreciated.

Isn't it true that being honest propels relationships or stories just as well as dishonesty?

Anonymous said...

The risk you run hiring someone like Sid Caesar to play Coach is that he'll never really play the part and let the character take over. He'll always be Sid Caesar. Sometimes even if the actor really tries the audience can't or won't accept the as the character. That was the problem hiring someone like Lucy to play a character part. She might have played it brilliantly but the public could only see her as "Lucy."

D. McEwan said...

"Pat Reeder said...
I never met Milton Berle, but I have heard that the episode of 'SNL' he hosted was the only one Lorne Michaels would never allow to be rerun."


It's one of the SNL's Lorne locked away and won't allow to be rerun, along with Lousie Lasser's, Steven Segal's (Whom I've read Lorne saying more than once was the worst SNLhost ever) and the live-from-Mardi-Gras fiasco one. There may be others, but those are the ones I know of.

"Anonymous said...
The risk you run hiring someone like Sid Caesar to play Coach is that he'll never really play the part and let the character take over. He'll always be Sid Caesar."


Like Peter Sellers said of himself, Off-screen there was no Sid Caesar." Sid needed to play a character that wasn't him to be anyone at all. Therefore, though Sid undoubtedly would have tried to impose his own comic ideas, schtick, and dated references on the character, the very last thing he would have done was "always be Sid Caesar." Indeed, that is the one thing he could not do. There was no "Sid Caesar."

Pat Reeder said...

To Doug McEwan:

I'm old enough to have watched the very first "SNL" with George Carlin, so I actually remember seeing the Louise Lasser episode. As I recall, it was like watching someone on Thorazine have a slow-motion nervous breakdown on camera.

Anonymous said...

D McEwan: Thanks. You said what I meant more accurately than I did. That Caesar likely would not have disappeared into the part of Coach, but would probably have imposed his own shtick, funny accents and routines onto the character. The public would never have been seeing Coach. Just another Sid Caesar character.

BTW, aren't the Lasser, Berle and Mardi Gras shows included on the DVD sets of SNL's first five seasons?

D. McEwan said...

Pat Reeder said...
To Doug McEwan:
I'm old enough to have watched the very first 'SNL' with George Carlin, so I actually remember seeing the Louise Lasser episode. As I recall, it was like watching someone on Thorazine have a slow-motion nervous breakdown on camera."


I was watching the night SNL debuted also. Hell, I'm old enough to have seen the very first Tonight Show, only I wasn't allowed to stay up that late on school nights. It was all I could do to get my parents to let me stay up late enough to see Bilko. I saw the Louise Lasser episode, the Milton Berle episode, the Steven Seagal episode and the Mardi Gras fiasco. Your description of the Louise Lasser show was on the nose, and highly likely was what was in fact happening.

Anon, I have no idea if the Lasser, Berle and Mardi Gras episodes are on DVDs or not, but I highly doubt it. Perhaps someone who owns those sets can answer that for both of us.

Tony said...

Surprisingly, the Lasser, Berle and Mardi Gras shows are all on the DVDs, and all are fascinating to watch,.in their own way. Lasser is just lost. Berle works his old bag of tricks, determined to steal every scene he's in. (My favorite moment is watching him when his old hat monologue gets off. He's clearly furious. A close second is his closing performance of "September Song," done in a fashion that would have been corny twenty-five years earlier.) The Mardi Gras show is just chaos. You have to wonder if any of these people had ever been to Mardi Gras before they came up with the idea of doing a live show in the middle of it.

Tony said...

I meant, "When his old-hat monologue gets cut off."

Damned phones.

D. McEwan said...

Thanks, Tony, for that clarification. I'll have to hunt up the DVDs to re-see those catastrophic nights of long ago.

The backstage accounts of the Mardi Gras episode are fascinating. They were really unprepared for this overly-ambitious broadcast attempt.

AndrewJ said...

Famously, the Mardi Gras parade never showed up on that episode, reportedly because a float ran over a reveler earlier in the evening.

Laraine Newman was on the Kevin Pollak Chat Show awhile ago, and she said she later found out that the New Orleans city fathers were so pissed off with Lorne and the SNL crew during the run-up to the broadcast, they simply re-routed the parade that night so it wouldn't go by the NBC cameras.