"Humor is just another
defense against the universe."
Though Blazing Saddles
(1974) and Young Frankenstein (1974) are often cited as his best and
most popular films as a director, his biggest video sales are
Spaceballs (1987) and Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993).
Brooks (born June 28th, 1926) is an American film director,
screenwriter, composer, lyricist, comedian, actor and producer. He is
best known as a creator of broad film farces and comic parodies. He
began his career as a stand-up comic and as a writer for the early TV
variety show Your Show of Shows. He became well known as part of the
comedy duo with Carl Reiner, The 2000 Year Old Man.
In middle age he became one
of the most successful film directors of the 1970s, with many of his
films being among the top ten money makers of the year that they were
released. His most well known films include The Producers, The Twelve
Chairs, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie, High
Anxiety, History of the World, Part I, Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men
in Tights. More recently he has had a smash hit on Broadway with the
musical adaptation of his first film, The Producers.
was married to the actress Anne Bancroft from 1964 until her death
from uterine cancer on June 6th, 2005. They met at a rehearsal for
the Perry Como Variety Show in 1961. Mel later paid a woman who
worked on the show to tell him which restaurant Bancroft was going to
eat at that night so he could "accidentally" bump into her
again and strike up a conversation. They married three years later,
at the Manhattan Marriage Bureau, where a passer-by served as their witness.
In 2010, Brooks credited
Bancroft as being the guiding force behind his involvement in
developing The Producers and Young Frankenstein for the musical
theater (called her his Obi-Wan Kenobi), citing an early meeting as
"From that day, until her death, we were glued together."
Their son, Max Brooks, was
born in 1972 and is a television and voice-over actor and author
whose novel, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, was made
into a film starring Brad Pitt. Brooks first wife was Florence Baum,
their marriage ended in divorce (1951 to 1961). Mel and Florence had
three children, Stephanie, Nicky, and Eddie.
Brooks is one of the few
artists who have received an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Now
popularly referred to as the EGOT, (but was originally known as the
Grand Slam) after Tina Fey made the acronym famous in a 2009 episode
of 30 Rock.
was awarded his first Grammy for Best Spoken Comedy Album in 1999
for his recording of The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000 with Carl
Reiner. His two other Grammys came in 2002 for Best Musical Show
Album for the soundtrack of The Producers and for Best Long Form
Music Video for the DVD "Recording the Producers - A Musical
Romp with Mel Brooks". He won his first of four Emmy awards in
1967 for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Variety for a Sid Caesar
special and went on to win three consecutive Emmys in 1997, 1998, and
1999 for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series for his role of
Uncle Phil on Mad About You. (Winning Emmys is a family affair,
Brooks' wife, Anne Bancroft and their son Max Brooks have also won
Emmys.) Mel won his three Tony awards in 2001 for his work on the
musical, The Producers for Best Musical, Best Original Musical Score,
and Best Book of a Musical. Additionally, he won a Hugo Award and a
Nebula Award for Young Frankenstein. In a 2005 poll to find The
Comedian's Comedian, he was voted #50 of the top 50 comedy acts ever
by fellow comedians and comedy insiders. Three of Brooks's films are
on the American Film Institute's list of funniest American films:
Blazing Saddles (#6), The Producers (#11), and Young Frankenstein (#13).
Brooks developed a
repertory company of sorts for his film work: performers with three
or more of Brooks's films to their credit include Gene Wilder, Dom
DeLuise, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Ron Carey,
Dick Van Patten and Andréas Voutsinas. Dom DeLuise appeared in
six of Brooks's 11 original films, the only person with more
appearances being Brooks himself.
Brooks and his wife Anne
Bancroft acted together in Silent Movie and To Be or Not to Be and
Bancroft also had a bit part in the 1995 film Dracula: Dead and
Loving It. Years later, the couple appeared as themselves in the
fourth season finale of Curb Your Enthusiasm, spoofing the finale of
The Producers. In interviews, Brooks has discussed the possibilities
of turning other of his past projects in musical productions,
including Blazing Saddles and Get Smart.
Brooks was born in
Brooklyn, a son of James Kaminsky and his wife, Kate (née
Brookman). His father's family were German Jews from the Baltic Sea
port of Danzig (modern Gdansk, Poland); his mother's family were
Ukrainian Jews from Kiev. He had three older brothers, Irving, Lenny,
and Bernie. His father died of kidney disease at 34 when Brooks was
two years old. Brooks has said of his father's death, 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 on anger
and hostility. Growing up in Williamsburg, I learned to clothe it in
comedy to spare myself problemslike a punch in the face."
A small, sickly boy who often was bullied and picked on by his
classmates, young Mel Brooks was taught by Buddy Rich (who had also
grown up in Williamsburg) how to play the drums and started earning
money at it when he was fourteen. After attending Abraham Lincoln
High School for a year, Brooks graduated from Eastern District High
School and then spent a year at Brooklyn College as a psychology
major before being drafted into the army. He attended the Army
Specialized Training Program conducted at the Virginia Military
Institute (although not actually as a VMI cadet), and served in the
United States Army as a corporal in the 1104 Engineer Combat
Battalion, 78th Infantry Division defusing land mines during World
After the war, Brooks
started working in various Borscht Belt resorts and nightclubs in the
Catskill Mountains as a drummer and pianist. Around this time he
changed his professional name to "Mel Brooks" ( Brooks is
from his mother's maiden name Brookman) after being confused with the
well-known Borscht Belt trumpet player Max Kaminsky. After a regular
comic at one of the nightclubs was too sick to perform one night,
Brooks started working as a stand-up comic, telling jokes and doing movie-star
impressions. He also began acting in summer stock in Red Bank, New
Jersey and did some radio work. He eventually worked his way up to
the comically aggressive job of Tummler (master entertainer) at
Grossinger's, one of the Borscht Belt's most famous resorts.
Brooks found more rewarding
work behind the scenes, becoming a comedy writer for television. In
1949 his friend Sid Caesar (above left) hired Brooks to write jokes
for the NBC series The Admiral Broadway Revue, paying him $50 a week.
In 1950, Caesar created the revolutionary variety comedy series Your
Show of Shows and hired Brooks as a writer along with Carl Reiner,
Neil Simon, Danny Simon, and head writer Mel Tolkin. The show was an
immediate hit and has been influential to all variety and
sketch-comedy TV shows since. Carl Reiner, as creator of The Dick Van
Dyke Show, based Morey Amsterdam's character Buddy Sorell on Brooks.
Likewise the 1982 film My Favorite Year is loosely based on Brooks's
experiences as a writer on the show and an encounter with aging
Hollywood actor Errol Flynn. Neil Simon's 1993 play Laughter on the
23rd Floor is also loosely based on the production of the show, and
the character Ira Stone is based on Brooks.
Your Show of Shows would
end in 1954 when performer Imogene Coca left to host her own show.
Caesar then created Caesar's Hour with most of the same cast and
writers (including Brooks and adding Larry Gelbart). Caesar's Hour
ran from 1954 until 1957 when Brooks would write the book for his
first Broadway musical Shinbone Alley.
Brooks and Your Show of
Shows co-writer Carl Reiner had become fast friends and began to
casually improvise comedy routines when they weren't working. Reiner
would play the straight man interviewer who would set Brooks up as
anything from a Tibetan Monk to an astronaut. As Reiner explained,
"In the evening we'd go to a party and I'd pick a character for
him to play. I never told him what it was going to be. " On one
of these occasions Reiner's suggestion was a 2000 Year Old Man who
had witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (who "came in the
store but never bought anything"), had been married several
hundred times and had "over forty-two thousand children, and not
one comes to visit me." At first Brooks and Reiner would only
perform the routine for friends, but by the late 1950s it had gained
a cult status in New York City. Kenneth Tynan saw the comedy duo
perform at a party in 1959 and wrote that Brooks "was the most
original comic improvisor I had ever seen."
In 1960, Brooks moved from
New York to Hollywood. He and Reiner began performing the 2000 Year
Old Man act on The Steve Allen Show. Their performances led to the
release of the comedy album 2000 Years with Carl Reiner and Mel
Brooks that sold over a million copies in 1961. They eventually
expanded their routine with two more albums in 1961 and 1962, a
revival in 1973, a 1975 animated TV special and a reunion album in 1998.
In 1962, Brooks wrote the
Broadway musical All American. Brooks wrote the play with lyrics by
Lee Adams, and music by Charles Strouse. The show starred Ray Bolger
as a southern science professor at a large university who uses the
principles of engineering on the college's football team and the team
begins to win games. The show was directed by Joshua Logan, whose
script doctored the second act and added a gay subtext to the plot.
The show ran for 80 performances and received two Tony Award nominations.
In 1963, Brooks was
involved in the animated short film The Critic, a satire of arty,
esoteric cinema, conceived by Brooks and directed by Ernest Pintoff.
Brooks supplied running commentary as the baffled moviegoer trying to
make sense of the obscure visuals. The short film won the Academy
Award for Animated Short Film.
In 1965, Brooks teamed up
with comedy writer Buck Henry to create a comedic TV show about a
bumbling James Bond inspired spy. Brooks explains, "I was sick
of looking at all those nice sensible situation comedies. They were
such distortions of life... I wanted to do a crazy, unreal
comic-strip kind of thing about something besides a family. No one
had ever done a show about an idiot before. I decided to be the
first." The show that Brooks and Henry created was Get Smart,
starring Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, Agent 86. This series ran from
1965 until 1970, although Brooks was not involved with its production
after the pilot episode. Get Smart was highly rated for most of its
production and won seven Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Comedy
Series in 1968 and 1969.
For several years Brooks
had been toying with a bizarre and unconventional idea about a
musical comedy of Adolf Hitler. Brooks explored the idea as a novel
and a play before finally writing a script. Eventually he was able to
find two producers to fund the show, Joseph E. Levine and Sidney
Glazier, and made his first feature film, The Producers, in 1968. The
film starred Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Kenneth Mars (above), Dick
Shawn, Christopher Hewett, Andréas Voutsinas and Lee Meredith
with music by John Morris.
The Producers was so brazen
in its satire that major studios would not touch it, nor would many
exhibitors. Brooks finally found an independent distributor who
released it as an art film, a specialized attraction. In 1968 Brooks
received an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for the film beating
such writers as Stanley Kubrick and John Cassavetes. The Producers
became a smash underground hit, first on the nationwide college
circuit, then in revivals and on home video. Brooks later turned it
into a musical, which became hugely successful on Broadway receiving
an unprecedented twelve Tony awards.
With the moderate financial
success of the film The Producers, Glazier financed Brooks's next
film in 1970, The Twelve Chairs. Loosely based on a Russian 1928
novel The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov about greedy materialism in post-Revolutionary
Russia, the film stars Ron Moody, Frank Langella and Dom DeLuise as
three men individually searching for a fortune in diamonds hidden in
a set of twelve antique chairs. Brooks himself makes a cameo
appearance as an alcoholic ex-serf who "yearns for the regular
beatings of yesteryear." The film was shot in Yugoslavia with a
budget of $1.5 million. The film received poor reviews and was not
then wrote an adaptation of Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to
Conquer, but was unable to sell the idea to any studio and believed
that his career was over. In 1972 Brooks met agent David Begelman who
helped him set up a deal with Warner Brothers to hire Brooks (as well
as Richard Pryor, Andrew Bergman, Norman Steinberg and Al Uger) as a
script doctor for an unproduced script called Tex-X. Eventually
Brooks was hired as director for what would become Blazing Saddles,
his third film.
Blazing Saddles starred
Cleavon Little (left), Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens,
Madeline Kahn, Alex Karras and Brooks himself with cameos by Dom
DeLuise and Count Basie. The film had music by Brooks and John Morris
and received a modest budget of $2.6 million. This film is a satire
on the Western film genre and references older films such as Destry
Rides Again, High Noon, Once Upon a Time in the West and The Treasure
of the Sierra Madre as well as a surreal scene towards the end of the
film referencing the extravagant musicals of Busby Berkeley.
its release, Blazing Saddles was the second highest US grossing film
of 1974, earning $119.5 million worldwide. Despite mixed reviews, the
film was a success with younger audiences. It was nominated for three
Academy Awards: Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Madeline Kahn,
Best Film Editing, and Best Music, Original Song. 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.
When Gene Wilder (right)
replaced Gig Young as the Waco Kid, he did so only if Brooks agreed
that his next film would be an idea that Wilder had been working on:
a spoof of the old Universal Frankenstein films. After the filming of
Blazing Saddles was completed, Wilder and Brooks began writing the
script for Young Frankenstein and shot the film in the spring of
1974. It starred Wilder, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr,
Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman and Kenneth Mars with Gene Hackman in
a memorable cameo role. Brooks likewise had a cameo role as the
father of the little girl who befriended the monster. Composer John
Morris again provided the music score and Universal Monsters film
special effects veteran Kenneth Strickfaden worked on the film.
Young Frankenstein was the
third highest grossing film domestically of 1974, just behind Blazing
Saddles. It earned $86 million worldwide and received two Academy
Award nominations: Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay and
Academy Award for Best Sound. It received some of the best reviews of
Brooks's career and even critic Pauline Kael liked the film, saying
that "Brooks makes a leap up as a director because, although the
comedy doesn't build, he carries the story through... Brooks even has
a satisfying windup, which makes this just about the only comedy of
recent years that doesn't collapse."
In 1975, at the height of
his movie career, Brooks tried TV again with When Things Were Rotten,
a Robin Hood parody that lasted only 13 episodes. Nearly twenty years
later, in response to the 1991 hit film Robin Hood: Prince of
Thieves, Brooks mounted another Robin Hood parody in 1993 with Robin
Hood: Men in Tights. Brooks's film resurrected several pieces of
dialogue from his TV series, as well as from earlier Brooks films.
In 1976, Brooks followed up
his two hit films with an audacious idea: the first feature-length
silent comedy in four decades. Silent Movie was written by Brooks and
Ron Clark, starring Brooks in his first leading role, Dom DeLuise,
Marty Feldman, Sid Caesar, Bernadette Peters and, in cameo roles
playing themselves: Paul Newman, Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Liza
Minnelli, Anne Bancroft and ironically, Marcel Marceau, who uttered
the film's only word of audible dialogue: "Non!"
Although not as successful
as his previous two films, Silent Movie was a hit and grossed $36
million. Later that year Brooks was named number 5 on a list of the
Top Ten Box Office Stars. In 1977, Brooks made a parody of the films
of Alfred Hitchcock in High Anxiety. The film was written by Brooks,
Ron Clark, Rudy De Luca and Barry Levinson and was the first movie
produced by Brooks himself. It starred Brooks, Madeline Kahn, Cloris
Leachman, Harvey Korman, Ron Carey, Howard Morris and Dick Van
Patten. The film satirizes such Hitchcock classic films as Vertigo,
Spellbound, Psycho, The Birds, North by Northwest, Dial M for Murder
Brooks stars as Professor
Richard H. (for Harpo) Thorndyke, a Nobel Prize winning psychologist
who also happens to suffer from "high anxiety". The film
was another modest hit for Brooks, earning $31 million and received
By 1980, Siskel and Ebert
called Mel Brooks and Woody Allen "the two most successful
comedy directors in the world today... America's two funniest
filmmakers." That year, Brooks produced the dramatic 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, starring
Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft, along with comedies, including
Richard Benjamin's My Favorite Year, which was partially based on Mel
Brooks's real life. Brooks sought to purchase the rights to 84
Charing Cross Road for his wife, Anne Bancroft for many years. He
successfully obtained the rights to the movie and presented them to
her as an anniversary gift.
In 1981, Brooks joked that
the only genres that he had not spoofed were historical epics and
Biblical spectacles. History of the World Part I was a
tongue-in-cheek look at human culture from the Dawn of Man to the
French Revolution. The film was written, produced and directed by
Brooks with narration by Orson Welles. It starred Brooks, Dom
DeLuise, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Ron Carey,
Gregory Hines, Mary-Margaret Humes, Pamela Stephenson, Spike
Milligan, Sid Caesar and John Hurt.
This film was another
modest financial hit, earning $31 million. It received mixed critical
reviews. Critic Pauline Kael, who for years had been critical of
Brooks, said "Either you get stuck thinking about the bad taste
or you let yourself laugh at the obscenity in the humor as you do
Bunuel's perverse dirty jokes. "
As part of the film's
soundtrack, Brooks, then aged 55, recorded a rap entitled "It's
Good to Be the King", a parody of Louis XVI and the French
Revolution co-written by Pete Wingfield. It was released as a single
and became a surprise dance hit in the United States.
1983 Brooks produced and starred in (but did not write or direct) a
remake of the classic 1942 Ernst Lubitsch film. To Be or Not to Be
was directed by Alan Johnson (choreographer) and starred Brooks, Anne
Bancroft, Charles Durning, Tim Matheson, Jose Ferrer and Christopher Lloyd.
The film was not a
financial success, earning only $13 million, but garnered
international publicity by featuring a controversial song on its
soundtrack - "To Be Or Not To Be" (The Hitler Rap) -
satirising German society in the 1940s with Brooks playing Hitler.
Borrowing heavily musically from "It's Good to Be the King,"
it was still an unlikely hit, peaking at #12 on the UK Singles Chart
in February 1984 and #3 on the Australian Singles Chart (Kent Music
Report) that same year.
The second movie Brooks
directed in the 80s came in 1987 in the form of Spaceballs, a parody
of science fiction films, mainly Star Wars as well as other sci-fi
franchises including Star Trek, Alien, and the Planet of the Apes
films. The film starred Bill Pullman, John Candy, Rick Moranis,
Daphne Zuniga, Dick Van Patten, Joan Rivers, Dom DeLuise and Brooks
himself. It was released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer on June 26th, 1987,
and was met with a mixed reception but has since become a cult
classic and one of Brooks's most popular films. When Brooks developed
Spaceballs, he wanted his parody to be as close to the original as
possible. Even though Yogurt mentioned merchandising during the
movie, Brooks's deal with George Lucas on parodying Star Wars was
that no Spaceballs action figures be made. According to Brooks,
"[Lucas] said, 'Your [action figures] are going to look like
mine.' I said OK." Brooks also had Lucas's company handle the
post-production, saying, "I was playing ball with the people who
could have said no." Lucas later sent Brooks a note saying how
much he loved Spaceballs and that he "was afraid [he] would bust
something from laughing".
In 1989, Brooks (with
co-executive producer Alan Spencer) made another attempt at
television success with the sitcom The Nutt House, which featured
Brooks regulars Harvey Korman and Cloris Leachman and was originally
broadcast on NBC. But the network only aired five of the eleven
episodes produced before cancelling the series.
the 1990s, Brooks directed Life Stinks (1991), Robin Hood: Men in
Tights (1993), and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995). People
Magazine suggested that "anyone in a mood for a hearty laugh
couldn't do better than Robin Hood: Men in Tights which gave fans a
classic parody of Robin Hood. Like Brooks's other films, the film is
filled with classic one-liners, and even the occasional breaking of
the fourth wall. Robin Hood: Men in Tights was Brooks's second time
exploring the life of the infamous Thief of Hearts, the first, as
mentioned above, having been with his 1975 TV show, When Things Were
Rotten. Life Stinks was a financial and critical failure, but is
notable as being the only film that Brooks directed that is neither a
parody nor a film about other films or theater.
Brooks also had a vocal
role in the 2005 animated film Robots. He then worked on an animated
series sequel to Spaceballs called Spaceballs: The Animated Series,
which premiered on September 21, 2008 on G4 TV. Brooks voiced Albert
Einstein in the 2014 animated film Mr. Peabody & Sherman.
On December 5th, 2009
Brooks was one of five recipients of the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors
at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington,
D. C. and on April 23rd, 2010 Brooks was awarded the 2,406th star on
the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In June 2013, The American Film Institute
presented Brooks with its highest tribute, the AFI Life Achievement Award.
The TCL Chinese Theatre in
Hollywood hosts hundreds of memorable handprints, footprints and
celebrity signatures in concrete, and on September 8th 2014 Brooks
left his mark in a creative way to make sure he'd always stand out in
that crowd. Rather than just leaving behind a standard 10-finger set
of handprints, the writer-director-actor decided to crank it up to
11, with the help of a prosthetic finger on his left hand. Brooks
didn't ditch the extra digit after the ceremony, which coincided with
the 40th anniversary of his comedy classic "Young
Frankenstein", wearing the extra finger as a guest on the Conan
O'Brian Show later that day.