Mel Brooks: The comic genius and legend of stage, film and TV, for whom it's still springtime

Mel Brooks is about to treat London to a one-man show like no other

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The Independent Online

It sounds like the set-up for a joke: what does Mel Brooks have in common with Audrey Hepburn, Whoopi Goldberg and Sir John Gielgud?

 But the punchline is deadly serious: they’re all among just a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status, single-handedly winning all four major American entertainment awards: an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony.

Brooks – actor, director, writer, producer, songwriter – is perhaps best known for the run of classic comedies he made between the 1960s and 1980s, from The Producers to Spaceballs. With his 1974 spoof Western, Blazing Saddles, he perfected the parody genre. The following year, Playboy magazine heralded a new boom in movie comedy, and described Brooks as “one of the very few movie-makers since Charlie Chaplin who is unarguably a comic genius”.

He has also produced several straight-faced features, including The Elephant Man, which was awarded the Bafta for Best Film in 1981. (Does that make him a “Begot”?) Yet he started his comedy career in stand-up, and now, at 88, it is the stage to which he has returned. On Sunday, at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London, Brooks will perform his first, and probably his last, UK one-man show, an “introspective retrospective” reflecting on his life and career, with jokes.

Theatre promoter Delfont Mackintosh has been criticised for charging more than £500 for stalls seats at Brooks’s show, the most expensive ticket ever for a West End performance. Several US stars, such as Al Pacino, Sylvester Stallone and John Travolta, have similarly waxed nostalgic on the British stage in recent years. But Brooks has a longer and more varied history than any of them, which is perhaps why he can command such a high price to hear it.

Mel-Brooks-Lauren-Crow.jpg
Portrait of Mel Brooks by Lauren Crow

The fourth son of Jewish immigrants James and Kate Kaminsky, Brooks was born in a Brooklyn tenement in 1926, and brought up in Williamsburg during the Depression. James died of tuberculosis of the kidney when Mel was two years old; he later traced his humour to that loss. “I’m sure a lot of my comedy is based on anger,” he said. “I learnt to clothe it in comedy to spare myself problems.”

By the age of 14, he was a “tummler” at the Jewish holiday resorts of the so-called “Borscht Belt” in the Catskill Mountains outside New York, entertaining guests around the swimming pool. “I wore a derby and an alpaca coat and I would carry two rock-laden cardboard suitcases and go to the edge of the diving board and say, ‘Business is no good!’ and jump off,” he later recalled. “My suitcases would take me right to the bottom, my derby would float on the surface... The blonde gentile lifeguard would have mercy, dive down and save me.”

Brooks enlisted at 17 and served as a corporal in the US army in the final months of the war in Europe, where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. One story goes that when the Germans blasted propaganda recordings across the battlefield, Brooks set up his own loudspeakers and sang songs by the Jewish entertainer Al Jolson right back at them. It would not be the last time he took musical revenge on the Nazis.

By 1950, he was writing for Sid Caesar’s seminal sketch comedy series Your Show of Shows, in a TV writers’ room that also contained playwright Neil Simon and Carl Reiner, with whom Brooks formed an enduring comedy duo. After the show was cancelled, Brooks and Reiner attracted a following for their act, The 2,000-Year-Old Man; Reiner played the straight man, interviewing Brooks as the title character. In 1961, their comedy LP sold one million copies; 37 years later, a 2,000-Year-Old Man comeback album would earn Brooks his first Grammy.

That year, 1961, was also when Brooks divorced his first wife, Florence Baum, with whom he had three children, and met the woman who would become his second. Brooks and Anne Bancroft both appeared on the same episode of The Perry Como Show, and after watching the actress perform the song “Married, I Could Always Get”, Brooks supposedly introduced himself by saying, “I’m Mel Brooks and I’m going to marry you.” He was a stocky 5ft 5in, she a slender, stunning 5ft 8in. Luckily for him, she owned his record, and was a fan. They were married from 1964 until 2005, when Bancroft succumbed to cancer. Their son, Max Brooks, is a bestselling author.

Brooks won his first handful of Emmys for Get Smart!, the sitcom about a hapless spy that he created with writer Buck Henry in 1965, and which ran for five years. But both men were itching to make movies. In 1967, Henry wrote The Graduate, which starred Bancroft in her most famous role as the predatory Mrs Robinson.

 

Meanwhile, Brooks had a script about two unscrupulous stage producers and their Nazi-themed musical, “Springtime for Hitler”. No studio was willing to back The Producers, he later told Playboy. “Finally, someone at Universal Pictures said, ‘You can direct, but it has to be called Springtime for Mussolini. Nazi movies are out.’ I said, ‘I think you missed the point.’” The film was given only a limited release, but it earned Brooks the 1968 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

His next film was a parody of the Western genre, as well as one of Hollywood’s most striking anti-racist statements of the 1970s. Blazing Saddles saw a black man appointed sheriff in the Old West. Brooks co-wrote the screenplay with the brilliant, controversial black comedian Richard Pryor. “Every time I said to Richard, ‘Can I use the n-word here?’ he said, ‘Yes,’” Brooks told one interviewer. “I said, ‘Richard, it’s a little dangerous here.’ He said, ‘Yes.’” Blazing Saddles was the highest grossing US release of 1974. Brooks’s next film, the horror parody Young Frankenstein, earned the year’s fourth highest gross. This, by the way, was also the year of Chinatown, The Towering Inferno and The Godfather Part II.

Brooks appears in most of his films, though not in such prominent roles as his near-contemporary Woody Allen. And while Allen’s output became less broadly comedic in the 1970s, Brooks disguised his move upmarket by founding the company Brooksfilms to produce the likes of The Elephant Man and My Favourite Year (1982), starring Peter O’Toole. The latter was a lightly fictionalised portrayal of a weekend Brooks spent chaperoning an incorrigible, drunk Errol Flynn  when he  had guest starred on Your Show of Shows.

With a new Star Wars film coming out later this year, Brooks recently suggested he might make a sequel to his 1987 spoof, Spaceballs, with the working title Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money. But the truth is that he has not directed a film since 1995’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Not long after that, producer David Geffen suggested a stage musical version of The Producers. Bancroft encouraged the idea, urging Brooks to write the score himself.

In a recent interview with Men’s Journal, Brooks said that when he made the movie in 1968, “The memory of being in concentration camps was still vivid for Jews. It was literally in bad taste. People like rabbis  would write to me and say, ‘This is execrable.’ ... I said to my friends, I may be a little ahead of the curve at this point and have to wait for some of the world to catch up with me.” By the time the stage version opened on Broadway in 2001, the world had caught up. The show won a record 12 Tonys – and an Egot was born.

A life in brief

Born: 28 June 1926, Brooklyn, New York City

Family: Parents were Jewish immigrants James and Kate Kaminsky. Married to Florence Baum (1953–1962) and Anne Bancroft (1964–2005). He has four children.

Education: Eastern District high school, Brooklyn.

Career: Two years in the army from 1944. After the war, was a resort entertainer before becoming a TV writer and then film writer/actor/producer. Has won one Oscar,  two Emmys, three Tonys, three Grammys and one Bafta.

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