Imogene Coca

Active - 1957 - 1988  |   Born - Nov 18, 1908 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States  |   Died - Jun 2, 2001   |   Genres - Comedy

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Biography by Hal Erickson

When she began working with Sid Caesar in 1949, American actress Imogene Coca agreed to have her "official" birth date readjusted to 1920, so that she'd seem more a contemporary of Caesar. In truth, she was born in 1908, and was performing professionally while Caesar was still in knee pants. Feeling that she was not attractive by 1930s standards (though certainly so by the standards of the present), Coca realized early that she'd never be taken seriously as an actress or dancer; accordingly, she went the "Fanny Brice" route by lampooning the Classic Arts. Coca first caught the fancy of the public in Leonard Silleman's New Faces of 1937 (co-starring with then-husband Robert Burton), in which she performed ballet parodies and heavy-drama lampoons. Also in 1937, Coca made her film debut in the 2-reel comedy Dime a Dance; the supporting cast included fellow up-and-comers Danny Kaye, June Allyson and Barry Sullivan. During this period, Coca starred in experimental television broadcasts, recreating her best New Faces sketches. She met producer Max Liebman while starring in the resort-hotel Tamiment revues of the 1940s. It was Liebman's inspiration to team Coca with another Tamiment alumnus Sid Caesar on the 1949 TV weekly The Admiral Revue. This project led to the immortal Your Show of Shows (1950-54), wherein Caesar and Coca shared the spotlight with Carl Reiner and Howard Morris. In 1954, Caesar and Coca parted company. Caesar was able to sustain his success as a solo for awhile, but 1954's The Imogene Coca Show failed to do the actress justice and lasted only a year. Most of Coca's subsequent projects were likewise beneath her talents and doomed to failure. She starred with second husband King Donovan in the 1959 Broadway flop The Girls in 509, was a featured player in the 1963 comedy film Under the Yum Yum Tree, and headlined two weekly TV series, Grindl (1963) and It's About Time (1967). A 1967 TV reunion with Sid Caesar, and the 1973 theatrical release of Ten From Your Show of Shows, thrust Coca back into prominence, allowing her to thrive on the touring-show and tent-musical circuit. In the last two decades, her career has encompassed such highs as the Broadway musical On the 20th Century (as a dotty religious fanatic) and such lows as TV's Return of the Beverly Hillbillies (1982), in which she played Granny's mother. Imogene Coca's most memorable movie appearance of recent years has been as the troublesome Aunt Edna in National Lampoon's Vacation (1983), whose death en route to California provides the film its most tastelessly hilarious sight gag.

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  • Started performing in vaudeville at age 11.
  • Made Broadway debut at 17 in When You Smile.
  • Transition to comedy happened accidentally. While rehearsing in a cold theater for New Faces of 1934, she tried to stay warm by dancing around in a big coat. The producer thought it was funny and worked it into the show.
  • On her legendary chemistry with Your Show of Shows costar Sid Caesar: "Two people couldn't be less alike. We never went out together; we never [saw] each other socially. What made it work is that we found the same things funny."
  • Received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the American Comedy Awards in 1988.