Shy, he wasn’t.
Whatever God threw at young Melvin James Kaminsky during his childhood on the ethnic playgrounds of Brooklyn – the death of his father when he was two, four-brothers-to-a-bed poverty, the bullies who blocked his path – he fired back in the manner of the Hebrew patriarchs in the Old Testament: “Hineni” – “Here I am.” The lyrics to the first song he ever wrote, introducing himself to nightclub audiences in the Borscht Belt, began: “Here I am, I’m Melvin Brooks/I’ve come to stop the show/Just a ham who’s minus looks, but in your heart, I’ll grow.”
And grow he did – in hearts the world over. The Trustees of the American Film Institute have selected Mel Brooks as the recipient of its 41st Life Achievement Award. This honor can be added to a list of such distinguished previous Brooks awards as the Emmy®, Grammy®, Oscar® and Tony®, collectively known as the EGOT, and a long list of other prizes that could lengthen that acronym considerably. At a White House luncheon for Kennedy Center honorees, President Barack Obama confessed to using a fake ID to sneak into BLAZING SADDLES when he was 10 and, in an ad libbed show of affection, begged Brooks not to upstage him even though the filmmaker was “born to entertain.”
Mel Brooks was born on his family’s kitchen table on June 28, 1926. Brooks’ father Max, a process server, died of tuberculosis in 1929. During the Depression, while his widowed mother Kitty earned extra money sewing piecework she took home from the Garment Center, Brooks worked out his feelings of rage and loss by cracking jokes and learning to play drums. He was taught by one of his classmate’s brother, jazz great Buddy Rich, who harnessed Brooks’ teenage fury and within six months of lessons the gifted upstart was good enough to play gigs. Brooks’ talent for rhythm later came to define his improvisational style as he riffed on words and phrases, establishing a beat, filling and repeating, paying off and punctuating funny lines with the percussive panache of a jazz soloist.
Brooks enlisted toward the end of World War II and was sent to Virginia Military Institute where he trained in electrical engineering. He served in France, clearing landmines one month after the Battle of the Bulge. Promoted to corporal, Brooks tested his nerve again, staying on after the war to entertain the troops. Returning stateside, he rose within the comedy ranks to become the tummler or entertainer-in-chief at Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel in Liberty, New York, a show business proving ground for the children of Jewish immigrants. His typical poolside shtick involved walking fully clothed off the end of the hotel’s diving board. With an attention to comic detail that marked his later film projects, Brooks would fill his pockets with rocks so as to stay submerged while his hat remained on the surface of the pool.
Brooks next took the plunge to network television in 1949, contributing material to the Admiral Broadway Revue on the Dumont Television Network and NBC. One year later, the show’s star, Sid Caesar, hired his young protégé for a new program, YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS, where Brooks joined Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Danny Simon and Mel Tolkin, a veritable Murderer’s Row of comedic talent. The writer’s room in THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW created by Carl Reiner in 1961; the 1982 film MY FAVORITE YEAR written by Norman Steinberg, another Brooks collaborator; and Neil Simon’s 1993 play “Laughter On The 23rd Floor” recall in various ways the madness and mayhem of television’s golden era – and all contain high-octane characters based on Mel Brooks.
But perhaps the most enduring personality to come out of that comic conclave of the ’50s was one Brooks embodied and Reiner, as straight man, coaxed into full flower – the 2000 Year Old Man. What began as a private party favor for their show business friends, became with the encouragement of George Burns and Steve Allen a series of hit comedy recordings that influenced generations of comedians. By turns, loveable, engaging, eccentric and opinionated, this Jewish comedy icon, who “went with” Joan of Arc and knew Shakespeare (“a terrible writer”), anticipated such later Brooks creations as THE CRITIC (1963), a satirical look at esoteric filmmaking, which won the Academy Award® for Best Animated Short Film; the ABC television show WHEN THINGS WERE ROTTEN (1975); THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD: PART I (1981) and ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS (1993).
Brooks’ realized the dream of working on Broadway when he penned a spoof of “Death of a Salesman” for “Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1952,” a celebrated musical revue that ushered in a new generation of musical talent. It was a dream first imagined when his Uncle Joe took the nine-year-old to see Ethel Merman in Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.” In the early 1960s Brooks supplied the books for two more Broadway musicals, “Shinbone Alley” and “All American,” before heading to Hollywood.
Brooks joined forces with Buck Henry in 1965 to create the long-running television comedy series GET SMART starring Don Adams as agent Maxwell Smart. A spoof of spy movie heroes like James Bond and Derek Flint, the show added countless catchphrases – including “Sorry about that, Chief,” “missed it by that much” and “would you believe” – to the lexicon and foreshadowed Brooks’ most famous movie genre parodies.
Brooks again won the Oscar® – this time for Best Original Screenplay – for his first feature, THE PRODUCERS (1968), an instant cult classic starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as conmen of the Great White Way mounting the world’s worst musical. In 2001, the stage musical based on the film received a record breaking 12 Tony Awards, with Brooks winning for Best Book (with Thomas Meehan) and Best Score. The show ran for 2,502 performances and spawned numerous international productions as well as its own movie musical. And in every iteration, the show’s signature tune, “Springtime for Hitler,” negated Nazism with joy and laughter.
Beginning in the 1970s, Brooks created a string of film parodies that became his trademark. No cow in Hollywood’s herd was sacred as Brooks roasted filmdom’s most beloved genres – the western (BLAZING SADDLES); the horror movie (YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT); the silent movie (SILENT MOVIE); the Hitchcockian suspense film (HIGH ANXIETY); the sci-fi action flick (SPACEBALLS); and the period costume epic (ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS, HISTORY OF THE WORLD: PART I).
These films targeted more than film conventions; they took aim at greed, racism, anti-Semitism, despotism and death. Brooks cheerfully ignored those critics and others who described his work as vulgar and liberated grateful audiences by acknowledging truths that had been missing from the screen. In the end, all mankind shared beans around his campfire, and another taboo was gone with the broken wind.
In Brooks’ films, and the same is true of the artist himself, the lowbrow happily co-exists with the esoteric. America’s Plautus collects Russian literature. He is a connoisseur of fine wines and subscribes to several medical journals. The hoofer crooning “Sweet Georgia Brown” in Polish in TO BE OR NOT TO BE also championed art films like THE ELEPHANT MAN, THE FLY and FRANCES – serious works from auteurs like David Lynch and David Cronenberg. Having conquered comedy with his modern-day equivalent of a commedia troupe – a peerless ensemble including Dom DeLuise, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman and Gene Wilder – the maturing filmmaker developed an equally strong reputation for dramatic excellence as the founder of Brooksfilms.
Brooks has led an examined life, spending years in psychoanalysis, and his films reflect a deep understanding of male relationships. From Bialystock and Bloom in THE PRODUCERS to Vorobyaninov and Bender in THE TWELVE CHAIRS to Black Bart and the Waco Kid in BLAZING SADDLES, they focus, to a degree perhaps only the fatherless can fathom, on men who find themselves by finding each other.
Brooks found the love of his life in Anne Bancroft, an Italian-American daughter of the Bronx. She was the luminous star of Broadway’s “Two for the See-Saw” and “The Miracle Worker” and later such films as THE GRADUATE and THE TURNING POINT.
When Brooks heard her sing “Married I Could Always Get” in a rehearsal for an NBC special at the Ziegfeld Theatre, he wooed her until married they got – and stayed for 40 years in one of Hollywood’s enduring love stories.
The Brooks oeuvre – take LIFE STINKS, for example – is blunt, but never superficial, escapist or sentimental, not from the man who penned the lyrics to “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst.” The irrepressible writer, actor, author, composer, lyricist, talk show personality, recording artist, rapper, mentor, director and producer continues to present the world as he sees it – exposing its cruelty and responding with a punch that could fell a horse. Brooks may have tamed his own high anxiety with a smooth cover of Sinatra self-assurance or dressed his inner monster in white tie and tails, but his roaring, raunchy, life-affirming energy seems destined to outlive the 2000 Year Old Man. For that, and for making the whole world laugh out loud, Brooks has earned the serious attention of film scholars, the profound admiration of his peers and the gratitude of his myriad fans.
Thank you, Mel.