Who Is Mel Brooks?
Filmmaker Mel Brooks has directed a number of classic film comedies including The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. A writer, producer, director and actor, Brooks has earned an Academy Award and multiple Emmy, Grammy and Tony Awards. He was married to Academy Award-winning actress Anne Bancroft for more than four decades.
Background and Early Career
Mel Brooks was born Melvin Kaminsky on June 28, 1926, in Brooklyn, New York to Kate Brookman and Max Kaminsky. The young Brooks worked as a comic in his neighborhood and learned how to play the drums as a teen from music legend Buddy Rich. He served in World War II and when he returned home he worked as an entertainer at resorts in the Catskills for a time.
'Get Smart' and 'The Producers'
Brooks had a television hit of his own as the co-creator with Buck Henry of Get Smart, a series starring Don Adams that debuted in 1965 and parodied the spy genre. After working on an animated short, The Critic, which won a 1964 Academy Award, Brooks made his feature-length film debut writing and directing The Producers in 1968. The screwball comedy starred Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as greedy Broadway producers who knowingly put on a play — Springtime for Hitler — that's in appallingly bad taste. While The Producers didn't fare well at the box office initially, it earned Brooks the 1969 Oscar for Best Screenplay, and it would be lauded as a classic in later years.
'Blazing Saddles' and 'Young Frankenstein'
In 1970, Brooks directed the film Twelve Chairs and worked on the screenplay for the animated adaptation of the musical Shinbone Alley before having two grand slams in 1974. Early that year he saw the release of Blazing Saddles, a parody of westerns co-written by Richard Pryor, among others, that starred Wilder, Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn and Cleavon Little as the first African American sheriff of a town. The film, which pushed the comic envelope with its satire, earned almost $120 million domestically.
Then in December, Brooks released another future classic and immediate hit, Young Frankenstein, for which Wilder developed the script and starred in. The film, also featuring Kahn, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman and Peter Boyle as Dr. Frankenstein's monster, offered among its gags a show-stopping reworking of the Irving Berlin tune "Puttin' on the Ritz."
Brooks continued writing and directing films over the next two decades, as seen with Silent Movie (1976), High Anxiety (1977), History of the World - Part 1 (1981), Spaceballs (1987), Life Stinks (1991), Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995).
In addition to appearing onscreen in his own projects, Brooks started his own production company, Brooksfilms, with the desire to push forth more serious fare. Brooksfilms has produced movies like The Elephant Man (1980), To Be or Not to Be (1983) — in which Brooks and his wife, actress Anne Bancroft, co-starred — and The Fly (1986).
Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner
In 1949, Brooks partnered with comedian Sid Caesar as a writer on The Admiral Broadway Revue and then, in 1950, on Your Show of Shows, where he collaborated with Carl Reiner. He later worked with Reiner to develop the "2000 Year Old Man" skit, which they released on a series of related albums. Their friendship has lasted ever since.
These days Brooks and Reiner, both in their 90s, continue to pass the time together riffing on entertainment and politics — and each other. "Well, we see each other almost every night. We watch movies and comment on the world every night . . . and now we have Trump to work with!" Reiner jokingly said jokingly in an interview with Vanity Fair in June 2017.
For Brooks, his friendship with Reiner continues to make him laugh hysterically.
"He’s 95. And his neck is bent a little, so he looks down all the time," Brooks told GQ in May 2017 about Reiner. "I’m always curious about his movies, and I ask him questions like 'Your early movie The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming—who was in the cast besides Alan Arkin?' But he said to me the other night, 'Don’t ask me all these godd*mn questions! Ask me about floors!' Because he’s always looking down. 'Ask me about floors!' That’s hysterical. I love him."
Brooks is one of only a handful of people to have won Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony awards. He won two Grammys for the Broadway version of The Producers and another for the comedy album The 2000 Year Old Man in The Year 2000. He also received a 1967 Emmy for his variety show writing and, decades later, won three additional statues over three consecutive years for his role as Uncle Phil on the sitcom Mad About You.
The new millennium has seen Brooks continue to enjoy success with the 2001 Broadway musical version of The Producers, which earned a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards and ran for six years, inspiring a 2005 film as well. He was also behind the 2007 musical version of Young Frankenstein.
Brooks was honored with the American Film Institute's 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award. He is also the subject of the PBS American Masters documentary Mel Brooks: Make a Noise, which aired the same year. In 2015, the iconic star appeared in the one-man show Mel Brooks Live at the Geffen, which aired on HBO at the end of January and went on to nab two Emmy nods. Brooks also received an Emmy nomination for Guest Actor in a Comedy (for The Comedians). Additional 2015 projects for Brooks include voicing the vampire Vlad in Hotel Transylvania 2 as well as being an interviewee in The Last Laugh, a documentary that looks at the ethical implications of using humor in connection to the Holocaust.
In September 2016, President Barack Obama presented Brooks with a National Medal of Arts. At the ceremony, President Obama said Brooks was being honored “for a lifetime of making the world laugh. As a writer, director, actor and musician, he pioneered the art of musical comedy. And his hilarious, thought-provoking work on film and in theater have earned him the rare distinction of winning Oscar, Emmy, Tony, and Grammy awards.”
Wife and Son
Brooks and actress Anne Bancroft were married for more than four decades, from 1964 until her death in 2005. The couple's son, Max Brooks, has become the author of The Zombie Survival Guide series and World War Z, with the latter book having been turned into a 2013 blockbuster film starring Brad Pitt.
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