HOLLYWOOD -- 'I was the walking dead for 18 years,' Sid Caesar confessed this week. 'And it's only been two years since I kicked my drug addiction.'
Caesar was one of a legion of Americans hooked on 'legal' drugs prescribed by doctors and psychiatrists he trusted.
Twenty years ago, at the height of his career following 'Your Show of Shows' -- perhaps the most honored and original comedy show in TV history -- Caesar was a distraught, hyper bundle of nerves.
He was a multimillionaire, surrounded by sycophants and hustlers. Demands on his time and fortune were horrendous. He was pulled apart emotionally and physically drained. His nerves were screaming raw ends. Sleep was impossible.
The one-time hilarious, inventive comedian -- often described as a genius -- became paranoid. He mistrusted everyone. He was bitter, vindictive and suspicious. He made enemies. He was, simply, a nervous wreck.
Like many another American sprinting on a 100-mile-an-hour treadmill, Caesar went to doctors. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for psychiatrists.
'You know what they did for me?' he asked. 'They put me to sleep instead of curing the problem, prescribing Valium and Equinol. After a while I was taking 50 milligrams of Valium a day. Whenever I took a Valium, I took an Equinol.
'From 1962 to 1978 I was asleep on my feet. The insidious part is you don't know it. Along with these heavy drugs I was drinking pretty good, too. And my doctors and the headshrinkers knew it.
'Believe me, I contributed to my own problems. I took the pills. But the doctors made them available. The guys I really blame are the shrinks. I got a great education on how to destroy yourself with self-pity, wallowing in it.
'Once the shrinks get you addicted to drugs, they own you lock, stock and barrel. They keep you coming back day after day, year after year, putting their kids through college on your neuroses and drug dependence on them.
'I must have the physical constitution of an ox. God knows how many thousands of people have died from combining those drugs with liquor.'
Not long after becoming hooked, Caesar's paranoia became massive. His friends gave him wide berth. Ten years ago Caesar was a reclusive, withdrawn wretch. He was afraid to leave the house or to talk to people.
He mistrusted everyone, including his wife, Florence, to whom he's been married 37 years. She tried to get him to stop taking the drugs.
All he could do was gulp pills and visit his shrinks for sessions of self-flagellation. Somehow, he managed to keep his career afloat with stage appearances and an occasional TV guest shot.
Finally, his friends despaired of Sid, an empty shell of a man with vacant eyes and mechanical reactions. The brilliant comedian was a zombie.
'In 1978 I was playing a dinner theater in Regina, Canada,' Caesar recalled. 'I almost fell down on stage. A doctor put me in a hospital and took all my drugs away. They had a padded room ready for my withdrawal reactions.
'But I hung in there and a week later went back on stage. That's when you hang onto your soul, mind and body with your teeth -- kicking the drugs cold turkey. I could hardly walk across the stage. But I stayed with it.'
It took Caesar six months of horror, shattered nerves, sleepless nights -- often with no more than an hour's fitful dozing -- to fight off the withdrawal.
He stopped seeing shrinks and went to Paris to star with Peter Sellers in 'Fu Manchu' in the summer of 1979. He worked out in a gym, took long walks and talked into a tape recorder to understand and deal with his mood changes.
'I stopped punishing myself,' he said. 'I quit feeling guilty about who and what I was. I spent five months getting my body in shape in order to get my mind in shape. I willed myself to get better. I lost the paranoia.
'Florence came to visit me and couldn't believe the difference. She was shocked. I'd become a better adjusted man than I had been at any time in my life. I was relaxed, reasonable and enjoying life.
'I could think clearly again. I could feel the circulation in my finger tips. I had quit being a vegetable after 16 years.'
On his return to his Bel Air home, Caesar's old friends -- writer Mel Tolkin, writer-director Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks and others -- were astonished at Sid's transformation. The sick, guarded, furtive wraith had disappeared.
Caesar's first big project since kicking his drug habit is 'Thanksgiving in the Land of Oz' a Nov. 25 CBS-TV animated holiday special in which he provides the voices for eight characters.
The comedian's well-being can be detected in his voice. It brims with wit and enthusiasm, reflecting his new-found zest for life.
'Sure, I'm still a hyper guy,' he said, grinning. 'My nerves aren't what they should be and sometimes I have a hard time sleeping at nights.
'But anything, and I mean anything, is better than being the walking dead. It's left me with a loathing for shrinks and a mistrust of doctors. But otherwise, I'm a whole, happy, functioning man. It's wonderful to be alive again.'
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