photo: By Angela George, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10257010
If you’re too young to know Mel Brooks from his heyday, you certainly can still see many reflections of his work today.
The film “The Producers” starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder has been made into a Broadway hit that is still playing. The original production starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, has run for 2,502 performances and counting, and has won a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards.
It was also remade into a 2005 movie starring Lane and Broderick.
Brooks’ “Get Smart” series, which he co-created with writer Buck Henry, was recently made into a movie starring Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway as agents 86 and 99. The same silly, hilarious bits that infused the late 60's comedy and made it a TV hit were in abundance in the movie version.
More recently, there’s been talk of remaking "Robin Hood, Men In Tights," "Blazing Saddles" (which I’d love to see how or if they could,) and "Young Frankenstein."
If you’ve ever watched a Judd Appatow comedy you can clearly see Mel Brooks’ influence - but he is also credited with being the inspiration of hundreds of other filmmakers and writers including the Farrely Brothers, the Wayans, and even Galaxy Quest and Guardians of the Galaxy movies because Brooks spoofed Star Wars first with "Spaceballs."
Mel Brooks, born in 1928 (90) in Brooklyn, real name is Melvin Kaminsky. He was poor, growing up in a tenement. His father died when he was two and he’s said of that “"There's an outrage there. I may be angry at God, or at the world, for that. And I'm sure a lot of my comedy is based in that anger and hostility.”
According to his biography, at the age 9, he went to a Broadway show with his uncle and saw the Cole Porter play, "Anything Goes" with Ethel Merman. At that time he decided he was going into show biz.
He was taught by legendary drummer Buddy Rich how to play the drums and started earning money at it when he was 14.
He served in the United States Army as a corporal defusing land mines as the allies pushed into Germany during World War II.
After the war, Brooks was a Borscht Belt performer in the Catskills playing piano and drums. He sat in one night when one of the regular comedians got sick and ta-da! Mel Brooks was born. He changed his name at that time so he wouldn’t be confused with trumpet player Max Kaminsky.
Sid Caesar was a friend and hired Brooks to write for the "Show of Shows" TV variety with such greats as Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, and Woody Allen.
Something, again that I didn’t know was that The Buddy Sorell character portrayed by Morey Amsterdam on the Dick Van Dyke Show, created by Carl Reiner, was inspired by Mel Brooks.
The 1982 film "My Favorite Year" is loosely based on Brooks' experiences as a writer on the show and an encounter with aging Hollywood actor Errol Flynn.
One of Brooks’ famous skits was the 2000-yr-old man in which he played a man who...”had forty-two thousand children and no one comes to visit.”
The 2000-yr-old man was a huge hit for Carl Reiner and Brooks selling millions of albums and having several iterations as not only comedy albums but TV shows and live performances.
Brooks never considered himself a writer. A funny talker is what he liked to call himself. And he did exactly that early in his career.
In 1963, Brooks won an Academy award for an animated short called “The Critic” which you can find on YouTube and which features goofy animations and Brooks talking about those animations. His improv skills were legendary but as funny as he was improvisationly, despite what he said, he was even better at writing
With his friend, Buck Henry, in 1965 the TV show "Get Smart" was created. The spoof, starring Don Adams as Agent 86, featured a bumbling secret agent quite unlike the suave sophisticated James Bond, 007 who was just setting the movie world on fire. The show garnered seven Emmy awards.
And no doubt inspired Austin Powers, as did many of Mel Brooks’ original spoofs of westerns, musicals, adventure films, Alfred Hitchcock films, and old horror monsters.
Perhaps my favorite Mel Brooks film is "The Producers", a musical comedy about two Broadway producers trying to lose money and mounting a musical production about Adolf Hitler guaranteed to tank - except it didn’t. It featured such notable songs as “Springtime For Hitler.”
Mel Brooks claims it's his job to 'make terrible things entertaining' And he certainly did. The Producers kills me every time.
Unfortunately once made, no major studio or distributor would touch it. An independent distributor finally took it on. It was a smash underground hit and won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and was decades later made into a smash Broadway show.
Oddly enough, even after these amazing successes, Brooks felt his career had flattened in 1972 and that he was done. He lived off residuals from his 2000-yr-old man albums and looked for work which he couldn’t find. Perhaps he offended too many people with his spoof on Nazis.
But if they thought he was done offending, they didn’t know Brooks.
"Blazing Saddles' burst on the film market! Called vile, offensive and repulsive it was also in 1974 the second highest grossing film and a massive success among younger audiences.
“...is a limp, shapeless mess of a film trades in a genuine respect for westerns’ tropes for purile vulgarity and joy-buzzer showmanship.”
It's incisive social commentary through comedy wasn't lost on everyone. It was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Madeline Kahn, Best Film Editing, and Best Music, Original Song (Blazing Saddles.)
The film won the Writers Guild of America Award for "Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen" and in 2006 it was deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Gene Wilder, who was one of the stars of Blazing Saddles, afterwards teamed up with Brooks for "Young Frankenstein." It earned $86 million worldwide and received two Academy Award nominations for Writing, Adapted Screenplay and Academy Award for Best Sound.
In 1980 "Spaceballs", which just turned 30 on June 24th - premiered. It is a spoof of Star Wars with Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet (Darth Vader)
At that time, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen were considered "the two most successful comedy directors in the world today by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. And so of course, Brooks decides to take his career in a different direction when he procured the compelling and award-winning film, "The Elephant Man" (directed by David Lynch).
Knowing that anyone seeing a poster reading "Mel Brooks presents The Elephant Man" would expect a comedy, he set up the company Brooksfilms.
Brooksfilms has since produced a number of non-comedy films, including David Cronenberg's "The Fly," "Frances", and "84 Charing Cross Road."
Also Richard Benjamin's My Favorite Year, which (as mentioned) was partially based on Mel Brooks' real life.
He also produced the comedy "Fatso" that wife Anne Bancroft directed before she died in 2005. Brooks called Bancroft "the guiding force" behind The Producers and Young Frankenstein for the musical theater. After meeting her he said, "From that day, until her death…we were glued together.”
Brooks has 55 credits as an actor, 44 as a writer, 23 as a producer and 12 as a director.
He’s garnered hundreds of awards including being only one of 12 people (and the only writer) to have an EGOT - Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.
Astoundingly, Brooks also won a Hugo and Nebula award - scifi’s highest honors, for "Young Frankenstein."
As usual, scratch a genius and you get genius. This insightful interview had one segment that stood out.
CNN: When you look back over your work, have you found that there's something universally true of a good joke?
Brooks: I think a good joke always refers to the human condition, to how our dreams fall apart or how we expect something and it doesn't happen. A good joke translates in human experience. It doesn't have to parody anything. A good joke, he says, is a human event."
Brooks has never sat still long.
Quote: “I'm still a horse that can run. I may not be able to win the Derby, but what do you do when you retire?”
I guess you don’t.
Brooks turned 90 this year and has a one-man show running across the country (including Vegas) as he continues to make films and win awards.
Brooks recently did an HBO documentary “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast” with his friends Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke and Norman Lear. So the drive to be funny never really rests because the show itself is hilarious.
Mel Brooks has truly become a living legend.
Not bad for a poor Jew from Brooklyn, as Brooks would say.
Quote: “Immortality is a by-product of good work.”
If that’s true -
...then, Mr. Mel Brooks, you will live forever.