06/18/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT
On a foggy night in 1973, Imogene Coca was driving with her husband, King Donovan, after the couple performed in a dinner theater in Florida. Their car suddenly collided with another. While Donovan sustained a slight leg injury, Coca, in the front passenger seat, was seriously hurt. "The rearview mirror went into my eye," the comedienne, then in her 60s, would recall. "My leg was ripped open, my cheekbone was broken and my ankle fractured."
Yet only a few years later the elfin, 5'3" trouper, a cosmetic lens covering her now-blind right eye, was back on the road for another of the periodic reunion tours she did with Sid Caesar, her leading man on the revered comedy-variety series Your Show of Shows from 1950 to 1954. Because of her impaired vision, remembers Caesar, 78, during rehearsals "I would walk her around the stage, telling her this is stage left, this is stage right." But once the curtain rose, he says, "she came out like a tiger. It was like 40 years were stripped away."
Coca, who was 92 when she died quietly of natural causes on June 2 at her home in Westport, Conn., had shown her fearlessness—and loopiness—to millions long before on Your Show of Shows. In four years of live broadcasts, she played vamps, hoboes, ballerinas and, in one trademark bit, a stripper executing bumps and grinds beneath a drab, baggy overcoat. With a cast that included Carl Reiner and a writing staff that flaunted such fledgling stars as Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Mel Brooks, Show of Shows was a mad laboratory of talent. And its Pierre and Marie Curie were Caesar and Coca, both of whom won Emmys. Even though they didn't socialize away from the set, "we had marvelous chemistry," says Caesar.
They nearly exploded into laughter in 1954 during the most famous of their 800-plus skits. Spoofing Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr's romance-in-the-surf scene in From Here to Eternity, Coca and Caesar gasped out declarations of love while being doused with buckets of water. "I suddenly realized I was drowning," Coca said in 1990, "and it struck me as funny."
Coca had a face made for mugging—"Her left nostril never knows what the right one is doing," said one of her directors, Max Liebman—softened with Chaplinesque vulnerability. If Lucille Ball set the standard for sitcom queens, Coca, who never found similar success after Show of Shows, was later cited as an influence by Carol Burnett and Lily Tomlin. Younger audiences would remember Coca as cranky Aunt Edna, who ends up dead and strapped to the roof of a station wagon in the 1983 Chevy Chase hit National Lampoon's Vacation. "She was a comedienne who would do anything," says Vacation director Harold Ramis. "She never worried about how she looked."
Actually, she did. Coca eagerly followed her father, Philadelphia orchestra conductor Joe Coca, and her mother, Sadie, an actress-dancer, onto the vaudeville stage when she was only 11, but even as an established star, she could barely stand to watch herself on tape or film. Shy and almost phobic about travel, she was accompanied everywhere by her second husband, Donovan, whom she wed in 1960. (First husband Robert Burton, an actor, had died in 1955.) She and Donovan, who died in 1987, "were inseparable," says Vacation producer Matty Simmons.
Coca also had a lifelong passion for animals, especially poodles and Persian cats. "And in the early 1960s," says her friend, actor Mark Basile, "she had a crippled duck named Grover Cleveland."
But to the public, her significant other would always be Caesar, in part because they were so believable as Show of Shows' squabbling couple, the Hickenloopers. As late as 1990, Coca, who was childless, admitted she still didn't know what made them click. "There's no way of figuring out something like that," she said. "If anyone ever does, he'll probably win a Nobel Prize."
Bruce Stockier in New York City and NF Mendoza in Los Angeles