June 28, 1926 – Mel Brooks
“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
Mel Brooks has given the world so many wonderful comedic things as a writer, director, actor and producer: Get Smart (1965-1971), Blazing Saddles (1974), High Anxiety (1978) The Producers (1967), The Twelve Chairs (1970); and one of my Top 10 Films, Young Frankenstein (1974).
In 1950, comic genius Sid Caesar created the revolutionary variety comedy series Your Show Of Shows and hired Brooks as a writer along with Carl Reiner and Neil Simon. The show was a huge hit and an influence on all future sketch-comedy television shows. Reiner, as creator of The Dick Van Dyke Show, based Morey Amsterdam‘s character Buddy Sorell on Brooks. The delightful film My Favorite Year (1982) is loosely based on Brooks’ experiences as a writer on the show and his encounter with Golden Age movie star Errol Flynn. Simon’s play Laughter On The 23rd Floor (1993) is also loosely based on the inner-workings of You Show Of Shows; the character Ira Stone is stand-in for Brooks.
Brooks and Reiner became best friends and they casually improvised comedy routines when they were not working for Caesar. Reiner would play the straight man to Brooks’ many characters. Reiner:
“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 occasion, Reiner suggested was a 2000-year-old man who had witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, had been married several hundred times, and had “over 42,000 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 showbiz circles.
In 1960, Brooks and Reiner began performing the “2000 Year Old Man” act on the Steve Allen Show, which led to the release of the comedy album 2000 Years With Carl Reiner And Mel Brooks that sold over a million copies in 1961. Everyone’s parents had a copy, including mine and I listened to it until I had it memorized. Two more hit albums followed in 1961 and 1962, then another in 1973, plus a 1975 television special, and a reunion album in 1998. At one point, sales from The 2000 Year Old Man records were Brooks’ number one source of income.
He was born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn, and he grew up in tenement housing in Williamsburg. Brooks was a small kid who often was bullied. When he was nine-years-old, Brooks went to see Anything Goes with Ethel Merman with his uncle. After the show, he told his uncle that he was not going to work in the garment district like everyone else in the family but was absolutely going into showbiz. He honed his early Borscht Belt shtick in the 1940s while competing with Henny Youngman, Shecky Greene, and Don Rickles for stage time.
By his middle years, Brooks was an Academy Award-winner and one of the most successful film directors of the 1970s.
In 2001, having previously won an Emmy Award and a Grammy Award, joining the rarified club of EGOT winners with his Tony Award for the musical version of The Producers. He received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2009, the 41st AFI Life Achievement Award in 2013, a National Medal Of Arts in 2016, and a BAFTA Fellowship in February 2017. Three of his films were included in the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 Comedy Films Of The past 100 Years (1900–2000): Blazing Saddles at Number Six, The Producers at Number 11, and Young Frankenstein at Number 13.
Brooks was married to Oscar, Emmy, and Tony-winning actor, Anne Bancroft, from 1964 until her death in 2005. Their son Max Brooks is a writer who worked for Saturday Night Live (2001-2003) and is best known for the novel World War Z (2006).
The Brooks/Bancroft romance was one of greatest in showbiz history. Somehow with all her success on screen and on stage, Bancroft agreed to an appearance on The Perry Como Show (1948-1967) in 1961. She was a gorgeous singer/dancer, and a great comic actor. Her naughty, throaty voice and laugh made her a genuine original. Yet, for all her accomplishments she recalled in an interview that men were intimidated by her and never approached her. During the rehearsals for the show, a voice called out to her from across the studio. Bancroft:
”This aggressive voice came out from the dark, and I thought it must be a combination of Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, Robert Redford. It turned out to be Mel Brooks, and he never left me from that moment on.”
Brooks followed her around for the next few weeks, to her agent’s office or wherever she was headed for lunch, he’d make sure to be going that way as well.
“He would say, ‘Where ya goin’?’ And I’d say,’‘To William Morris Agency’, and he’d say, ‘So am I’.’ He’d say, ‘Where ya goin’?’, ‘I’m goin’ to that delica-.’ ‘So am I’. ’Wherever I said I was going, he would say he’s going there. It just went on and on, the man never left me alone, thank God.”
Brooks and Bancroft didn’t seem like a likely pair. She was tall, lithe and elegant; he is short and goofy, but they shared a profound enjoyment of one another’s company. Bancroft said the day after she met Brooks, she told her analyst:
“Let’s speed this process up. I’ve met the right man. See, I’d never had so much pleasure being with another human being. I wanted him to enjoy me too. It was that simple.”
Bancroft claimed that despite Brooks’ apparent unyielding love for her and the stalking of her through New York City in the early days of their courtship, he never proposed. Instead, in early 1964, she asked to get married and they went to City Hall, wrangling a stranger they met in the clerk’s office to be the witness and in a hurry, they forgot about wedding rings. So, Bancroft removed one of her silver earrings and made do with that as they said their vows.
At the time, Brooks’ career had not really taken off and Bancroft supported them, a role reversal that seems unimportant in today’s culture, but then, they handled it with gratitude and good nature. Brooks has said that his wife would try to save his ego by slipping money for dinner under the table in a restaurant only to have her scold: “Don’t leave such a big tip! It’s my money!”
In 1966, Mike Nichols had a new film in the works and had considered Hollywood’s biggest female stars for the lead. But he wrote that he always envisioned Bancroft in role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. So, he sent the script along to her. Everyone in her life told her not to even consider it, except, oddly enough, her husband. Brooks liked the script and encouraged her to take it. She confidently played Mrs. Robinson and unwittingly became a legend in popular culture, and for many straight guys in the late 1960s, the ultimate sexual fantasy.
Over the next 30 years, both Brooks and Bancroft enjoyed steady work. Brooks was always supportive. Through the decades, he credited the success of their marriage to the simple fact that they loved one another and laughed a lot.
“Anne is simply terrific. She’s beautiful, she has great shoulders, and she makes me laugh.”
“Mel is sort of jaded about funny things, because he knows almost everything, but I guess I’m spontaneous. Things pop out and that makes him laugh. That’s why our marriage works so well. When you strip away who we are as Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, and you think of us as children, you can see we would have been in love as kids. We have the same values. We think alike about what’s important and what makes us happy. It’s the simple things, our son, my garden, making other people happy.”
“He’s funny, he’s fast, he talks a lot, but that’s a facade. Mel is much more private than I am. He’s enormously sensitive and he’s twenty times as funny in private and a thousand times more lovable.”
“We like each other. We like Chinese food. We like foreign films. We like the beach. We really appreciate each other. So, I mean, it’s been a great, great thing being married to Anne Bancroft.”
Brooks was readying the film version of his stage musical version of his 1966 film The Producers for Broadway when Bancroft was diagnosed with that damn cancer. They kept her illness private, though it kept Brooks away from rehearsals as he struggled to be at her side as her condition rapidly deteriorated.
Bancroft’s final credits rolled on June 6, 2005. She was 73-years-old.
Brooks said at her memorial:
“If any of you are grieving, keep it to yourself. I don’t want to hear it.”
In 2010, Brooks credited Bancroft with having been “the guiding force” behind his involvement in developing The Producers and Young Frankenstein for the musical theater, saying of their meeting at The Perry Como Show:
“From that day, until her death…we were glued together.”
Brooks says political correctness is killing comedy and that his movies would never get made today. Especially Blazing Saddles which satirized racism in Hollywood:
“We have become stupidly politically correct, which is the death of comedy. Comedy has to walk a thin line, take risks. Comedy is the lecherous little elf whispering into the king’s ear, always telling the truth about human behavior.”
Reiner lost his wife, singer Estelle Lebost in 2008. They had been married for 64 years. Brooks and Reiner live near each other in Beverly Hills and see each other almost every day. Brooks says that they have dinner together and watch a lot of movies, but only movies that contain the phrase “secure the perimeter”.