The Kennedy Center

Mel Brooks


(Writer, director, composer, actor and producer; born June 28, 1926 in Brooklyn, New York)

He simply will not take himself seriously, and he has kept the world laughing for decades. However, this is serious fun. "Humor is just another defense against the universe," Mel Brooks once said. "Look at Jewish history: Unrelieved lamenting would be intolerable. So, for every ten Jews beating their breast, God designated one to be crazy and amuse the breast-beaters. By the time I was five I knew I was that one."

He still is. And by now "it's no news that that Mr. Brooks is one of our national treasures," Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times. Brooks also is an eminent member of the exclusive club of artists who are no strangers to the Tony(r), Oscar(r), Emmy and Grammy(r). From the ever-renewing masterpieces The Producers and Young Frankenstein to such precious gems as The Twelve Chairs, Silent Movie, High Anxiety, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Brooks is a magical alchemist consistently creating comic gold from such disparate ingredients as Catskills shtick and Broadway pizzazz, New World insouciance and Old World resonance, laughter, tears and then more and more laughter. With the Hollywood studio system long dead and theater companies precious and few, Brooks managed to create what amounts to a loyal repertory company that over the decades consistently inspired the best work in its actors: from Gene Wilder (who was nominated for an Oscar(r) for The Producers) and Madeline Kahn (another Oscar(r) nominee, for Blazing Saddles), Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman and Dom DeLuise, right through most recently the hilarious Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Roger Bart and Andrea Martin. Brooks's humor never fails to surprise. His sensibility, which had an enormous impact on American television, can be felt everywhere from "Saturday Night Live" to "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Well before John Waters, Brooks was proudly proclaiming, "My movies rise below vulgarity." He was an unlikely hip hop chart-buster with the dance hit "It's Good to Be the King" from the motion picture History of the World: Part I, which then followed with the outrageous "Hitler Rap" from To Be or Not to Be, the exquisite war comedy he made with his wife, Anne Bancroft. The taboo-busting "Springtime for Hitler" number from The Producers inspired U2's Achtung Baby. "I'm the only Jew who ever made a buck off Hitler," Brooks joked. But his influence on American comedy is no joke.

"I saw Blazing Saddles when it first came out, and I though it was the funniest movie I had ever seen in my life," said Bryan Grazer, speaking for a new generation of filmmakers. "It really had an amazing impact on my life and on the kind of movies I've made."

"It was the birth of a certain type of comedy that I call shock comedy," Grazer told the New York Times in his assessment of Brooks's impact on today's comic films. "The comedies that preceded it were more gentle and earnest. This one was aggressive and in your face, and dealing in a very smart and startling way with the most intense social issues, from racial bigotry to sexuality. It was really shocking, and it did everything to wow you or stir you up or mix you up, to take you off balance, every single moment. It subverted all your expectations. Anyone who has been making comedies over the last 20 years--I know Blazing Saddles has got to be someplace in their heads."

Melvin Kaminsky was born in 1926 Brooklyn, the son of first-generation Russian-Jewish parents Maximilian Kaminsky and Kate "Kittie" Brookman. Max died when Mel was only two years old, but Kitty worked hard and made a happy home for her children. "Though it was the depths of the Depression," Mel Brooks once recalled, "there was music in the air." His uncle Joe, a cab driver, took the nine-year-old Mel to his first Broadway show: Cole Porter's Anything Goes starring Ethel Merman. The boy was hooked. "I fell in love forever with Broadway musical comedy that afternoon," Brooks said. At 14, Brooks made what he has called his "debut in show business" as part of the social staff at the Butler Lodge in the Catskills. After ad-libbing a line in the lodge's weekly play, Brooks was a hit, earning the first of many laughs he would receive throughout his career.

As soon as he graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1944, Brooks enlisted in the army, receiving basic training at the Virginia Military Institute and soon serving as a forward observer in the artillery. He served in the 1104th Combat Engineers, was promoted to corporal, was "shot at by Germans in Belgium and the Rhineland"--as he recalled later--and after Germany's surrender he continued to serve, this time in charge of entertainment in the Special Services. The G.I. comedian would amuse the troops by singing Cole Porter parodies such as "When we beguine/To clean the latrine."

He came home to New York. His 1951 marriage to Florence Baum ended in divorce, but in 1964 Brooks married the woman with whom he would spend most of his life, Anne Bancroft. Until her death in 2005, they were by the estimate of most of their contemporaries, an unlikely yet perfect couple on and off screen.

Brooks became a stand-up comic after the war, but he soon moved behind the scenes as a comedy writer and was Sid Caesar's protégé in television. His journey on the small screen took him from "Your Show of Shows" opposite Caesar and fellow genius Carl Reiner, right through the 1960 birth of his unforgettable "2000-Year-Old Man." Then came the creation of what became not only a hit weekly series in 1965, but also a national craze: "Get Smart," which Brooks wrote in collaboration with Buck Henry. With these and other minor miracles, Mel Brooks changed the face of television.

Moving into motion pictures, Brooks made a short animated satire of art film called The Critic in 1963. It won an Academy Award(r). Next came his first feature film, a 1968 black comedy about unscrupulous showmen, little old ladies, Nazis and Broadway stars. The Producers won the Academy Award(r) for best original screenplay, the beginning of a lucky streak that only continued right through the movie's transformation into a bona fide Broadway hit. It was none other than Jerry Herman, a fan of "Springtime for Hitler," that encouraged Brooks to take the plunge and compose a whole Broadway score. In 2001, Brooks' musical version of The Producers won an unprecedented dozen Tony Awards(r), breaking a record previously held for 37 years by Hello Dolly! with a mere ten Tonys(r). That triumph was followed on Broadway by the new musical version of Young Frankenstein. In between, in addition to the many comic triumphs on screen, Brooks also showed his more serious side. Suspecting that no one would take a drama seriously with his name attached to it, he produced The Elephant Man with Anne Bancroft without taking the credit on screen. His Brooksfilms went on to produce several other motion pictures, including the acclaimed 84 Charing Cross Road (teaming Bancroft with Anthony Hopkins), Frances, The Fly, and Richard Benjamin's My Favorite Year.

"We have much to do, and less time to do it in," Brooks has said. What more can he give us? Stay tuned--Mel Brooks, not for the first time, will surprise us all.

September 9,2009
Mel Brooks