Comedian Imogene Coca, who died on June 2 in Westport, Conn., at 92, was already on the minds of many who can’t watch Pearl Harbor without pining for From Here to Eternity, and who forever link the scene of Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster embracing in the crashing surf with the sight of Coca and Sid Caesar interrupted mid-clinch by a pail of cold water in the face. The parody ”From Here to Obscurity” was one of dozens of sketches from the seminal 1950s TV series Your Show of Shows, in which Coca would throw cold water on pretense, bathos, conformity, and social niceties, sometimes just by raising her eyebrow.
Small, lithe, and uncannily expressive — forever described as ”saucer-eyed” — Coca was the lone girl at the table with Your Show’s comedy kahunas Caesar, Carl Reiner, and Howard Morris. While she played everything from a tremulous wifey to a cuckoo-clock figurine, it was easy to take for granted how powerfully equal she was on a show whose writers included Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Woody Allen.
Reiner remembers Coca as ”the strongest human being I ever met. She was a frail little thing who could work longer and harder than anybody.” But Coca’s matter-of-fact attitude about sexual equality in a largely male milieu was her greatest feat, a confidence that paved the way for Lily Tomlin, Gilda Radner, and every female cast member of Saturday Night Live.
”She played like one of the guys, although she was absolutely a woman,” says veteran SNL writer Marilyn Suzanne Miller. ”It wasn’t about sexiness, nor was it about putting herself down.” Because of her, the whole game changed.