How World War II Helped Make a Comedian Out of Sid Caesar

Sid Caesar, who died Wednesday, credited the Coast Guard for helping him find his career in comedy.

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The contributions Sid Caesar, who died Wednesday at the age of 91, had to the entertainment are many. He was both a pioneer in television sketch comedy, he brought Jewish humor to a mainstream audience and he was an exceptional performer of the skill that became known as “foreign-language double-talk,” a talent he honed as a child listening to the clientele at his immigrant father’s restaurant.

Like so many men of his generation, Caesar also served in the military, enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939 and was stationed in Brooklyn, New York – not far from his hometown of Yonkers. Reflecting later on his life's path, Caesar would often bring up the roles “luck” and “fate” played and how much World War II was a part of that equation.

“When World War II started, I was a doorman at the Capitol Theatre. And when the war ended, I was a comedic performer in Hollywood,” Caesar wrote in his memoir "Caesar's Hours: My Life in Comedy, with Love and Laughter."

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His original plans to study classical music in Paris were disrupted by the outbreak of World War II, so it’s no surprise he called it the “turning point in my life.”

While serving in the Coast Guard, he helped to organize dances on the base, and he and his co-organizers “became the celebrities on the base.”

But his turn in entertainment didn’t stop there. Inspired by the shows put on by the Army and the Air Force, the Coast Guard sought to get together its own touring act. Caesar was first recruited for the orchestra, as he had befriended the man in charge of organizing the band. But he also met Max Liebman, who had just finished working on the hit World War II movie “Up in Arms,” and who would go on to produce Caesar’s TV show “Your Show of Shows.” It was Liebman who pulled Caesar out of the orchestra and cast him as a comedian.

Washington sent an order for Ceasar to be transferred to Palm Beach, where he toured with the Coast Card revue across the county. Coast Guard officer Vernon Duke heard Caesar performing and hired him for the film that would become “Tars and Spars," and off to Hollywood Caesar went. From there his career took off in both movies and in television, but he never turned his back on the Coast Guard, be it recording public service announcements for its recruiting campaign to speaking in front of Coast Guard officers.

Along the way, he also got pretty good at mocking German military officers, one of his signature acts.