Sid Caesar's new grasp on life.
Sid Caesar never dreamed ofbecoming a star, and when it happened he bought the entire package: a big salary, fat cigars, fancy cars, expensive suits, thick steaks, and the best liquor.
Yet through it all he wasplagued by a recurring nightmare: His older brother, pushing him in a baby carriage, would suddenly let him go flying down a hill. Caesar always woke frightened, feeling out of control. And that's just the way he once lived his life: frightened and out of control.
As one of television's originaltop bananas, Caesar had proved himself a genius at making people laugh. His manic comedy--skits on married life, movie satires, his classic Swiss-clock routine, and his zany-professor shtick-became a legend of 1950s television on the 90-minute "Your Show of Shows" and later on "Caesar's Hour."
However, behind the satiriccomedy was a distraught man bent on self-destruction. At the height of his popularity, Caesar drank to excess and swallowed pills by the handful. Afterward, when the spotlight had faded, his problems only worsened. Not until he plotted his suicide did Caesar turn his insight into human behavior inward and find the courage to ask himself, "Do you want to live or do you want to die?"
Today, Sid Caesar is very muchamong the living. The spirit that made him one of television's most inventive performers burns brightly. You notice it first in the pull of his dark eyes, powerful magnets in a face surprisingly youthful after battling so many drunken nights and years of inner rage. His body in unbelievably good physical condition from exhausting daily workouts, Caesar, at 63, has dedicated himself to enjoying the richness of life. "All the fun you have in life comes only from what you put into it," he says.
Caesar's victory over his long addictionto alcohol and pills has all the makings of a dramatic television movie, but he instead expressed the struggle in a more personal manner--his 1982 autobiography, Where Have I Been?, a candid chronicle of the 20 years he lost to alcohol and drugs. And last year, he made Sid Caesar's Shape-Up, an exercise videocassette for people over 40. In it Caesar, who exercises every morning for an hour and a half and avoids fat, salt, and sugar in his diet, explains the benefits of a philosophy of fitness:
"I enjoy working out," hesays. "It's not that I have to work out every morning. I can work out. That's the difference. That's something that, whatever the powers are, I was given." Caesar says he acquired a whole new lease on life when he began channeling his addictive nature from alcohol into exercise. "Now, instead of knocking life down, tearing it apart, I graciously accept life," he says.
Sitting behind a large desk inhis Hollywwod office, Caesar gestures toward a wall filled with row upon row of videocassettes made from his classic television shows. He has spent months editing various segments into half-hour programs for syndication to a television market clamoring for the old, live broadcasts. "This is the follow-through to what we did back then," he says.
Offers to air the old showshave been made before, but Caesar wasn't up to putting them out. "But I kept true to it," he explains. "As drunk and as crazy as I was on pills, I never deviated from that past. I always felt that its time would come. In my drunkenness, in that stupor of pills, I still had that feeling of wanting to do something. But I couldn't. I was too busy being drunk, too busy running away from me."
Caesar pops a cassette into hisvideotapes player. A moment later, he appears in black and white on the television screen, a younger man exchanging lines in a sketch with equally youthful Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca, and Howard Morris, the team that made "Your Show of Shows" top rated for four seasons. "Live television is an altogether different animal than television is today," Caesar explains. "What you saw was what you got. There was no laugh track, no editing, no sweetening.
"I didn't come in and have a scripthanded to me. Never happened. The show took six long days to write, and I was there on Monday morning, working with the writers, putting in the blank sheet of paper. See, the show had to be written by Wednesday. Thursday we put it up on its feet. Friday we went over it with the technicians and Saturday was the show--live."
NBC eventually decided that twohits were better than one--so the network gave both Caesar and Coca their own shows. A line-up of hall-of-fame comedy writers, including Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Larry Gelbart, made the new "Caesar's Hour" a huge success. However, the star of the show was moving in the opposite direction. Away from the camera, Caesar would drink--never before work but always after--and soon, he was mixing tranquilizers with a nightly fifth of scotch. "I couldn't stand me," he says. "That's why I drank and too pills. I couldn't stand to be around me."
Caesar aways enjoyed the audienceresponse and the laughs; at the same time, hamstrung by a lack of confidence in his work, he was unable to appreciate the success he had achieved. "There was always doubt and insecurity there," Florence, his wife of 42 years, recalls. "HE became a star immediately. He was very young and it happened very fast. I was hard on him. There was always the feeling that it would go away on that he didn't deserve it."
Inevitably, the habitual drinkingbegan to affect Caesar's work. His performances acked their old quality, and the criticism of them fit neatly into his pattern of self-hatred. "I'd just drink more," he says. "I was sick, burned out. I'd had too much booze and too many pills." Finally, his ratings began to slip; "Caesar's Hour" was canceled after four seasons. Caesar had been making $25,000 a week, or nearly $1 million a year. The 35-year-old's star would never again climb so high. "I blame no on but myself," he says.
Caesar had blazed a path in the1940s through New York's top nightclubs--first the Copacabana, the top spot in the country, then the Roxy. "I went right to the top," he recalls. "I didn't know what was going on. It was that fast." Caesar was already taking in $3,500 a week when he landed a part in Make Mine Manhattan, a show in which he later starred for a year on Broadway. He was only 26.
Three decades later, Caesar, unableto leave his bedroom for months, had become a prisoner of alcohol and pills. Leaving the house for a haircut would prove a harrowing experience. In Saskatchewan to appear in the opening night of Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Caesar couldn't remember his lines or even where to stand; he never made it out for the second act. "Finally I had to make a decision," he says. "Did I want to live or did I want to die?" And then he said out loud: "I want to live!"
It was the first step of a toughclimb. In September 1978 Caesar went to Paris for five months to make The Fiendish Pot of Dr. Fu Manchu with Peter Sellers. Unabe to speak French, he had only himself to talk to; soon he began speaking into a tiny Sanyo tape recorder at least twice a day. It proved strangely therapeutic. "I was two people," he explains, "Sid the wayward child and Sidney the father. One part wants to be the kid and drink and take pills, and the other part comes in and says, 'Wait a minute.'"
The self-therapy seemed to work. "Iactually said, 'Let's make friends. Let's enjoy it. You're an idiot if you don't. Let's help each other.' And that's how it got started," Caesar recalls. "It slowly dawns upon you that what you're doing is not right. You're not going to last too long if you keep doing this. And if you don't alter your whole way of life, you better say good-by."
Although he's already assured of aplace in entertainment history, the idea of fading into the past hasn't even entered Caesar's mind. "I've only recently learned how to appreciate life, to appreciate what I've done," he says.
The irony, of course, is thattoday's television audience will have an opportunity to appreciate the work Caesar did years ago. But then Sid Caesar knows the secret to life is how well you follow through.