Mel Brooks (born 1926) transformed traditional burlesque and Jewish humor into a hit-and-miss career writing and directing film parodies of traditional Hollywood genres. His biggest success came late in his career when he adapted his first film, The Producers, into a smash Broadway musical.
From Catskills to Television
Mel Brooks was born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn, New York, on June 28, 1926. He was a short and often sickly child, and his peers often ridiculed him. Reacting to this treatment, he learned how to strike back with stinging forms of abusive and satirical humor.
After serving in the U.S. Army in World War II in Europe as a combat engineer, Brooks took his talent for insults and pratfalls to the Catskills resorts, then famous for nurturing Jewish comics. For several years he performed the role of a "toomler," a kind of court jester who would stage impromptu monologues or pretend to insult the resort staff and the customers. The roots of Brooks's comedy were in vaudeville and burlesque, two dying forms of entertainment that emphasized physical humor, insults, sight gags, and outrageous lampooning. Among his many gags was leaping into the swimming pool fully clothed with a suit and tie.
Brooks's style of humor was perfectly suited to early television. In 1950, desperate to get a job writing gags and skits for pioneering TV comedian Sid Caesar, Brooks auditioned by falling to his knees before Caesar and singing a comic song about himself. Caesar hired the young comic to concoct jokes for his hit series Your Show of Shows. Among the writers Brooks worked with in Caesar's stable were Woody Allen, playwright Neil Simon, and Carl Reiner. It was during these years that Brooks honed his gift for sharp, sometimes mean satire and rapid-fire wordplay. By the time Brooks parted ways with Caesar in the mid-1950s, he was earning $2,500 per show, a substantial amount in those days.
Brooks remained in television, though without regular income, as a gag writer and script doctor. He also worked on dialogue and scripts for radio and theater and occasionally appeared as a comic on television variety shows, such as 1962's Timex All-Star Comedy Show. One of his frequent skit partners was Reiner, with whom he developed a sketch called "The 2,000-Year-Old Man," in which Brooks played a smart-alecky Jewish curmudgeon who has seen it all and has comments on everything in history. With variations and elaboration, this routine developed into a staple on television shows and the two comics eventually had a hit record album on their hands. "The 2,000-Year-Old Man" was Brooks's first big success.
In 1964 Brooks married actress Anne Bancroft, with whom he would have four children. That same year he did the voice-over on a cartoon film titled The Critic, playing the equivalent of the 2000-Year-Old Man commenting on modern art. The film won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Subject. In 1965 Brooks and writer Buck Henry developed the hit television show Get Smart, a comic spoof of the spy genre. Starring Don Adams as the bumbling secret agent Maxwell Smart, Get Smart became one of the most popular shows of the late 1960s. After television audiences began to turn away from comedy and variety shows in favor of drama in the next decade, and as his radio work dried up, Brooks would see his income plummet.
Springtime for Hitler
Buoyed by the success of Get Smart, Brooks wrote and directed the low-budget movie The Producers, which was released in 1968. Starring Zero Mostel and including a role for Brooks, The Producers is a tall tale about a down-and-out theatrical producer named Max Bialystock (Mostel) who is persuaded by corrupt accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) to deliberately stage a money-losing play and abscond with the excess cash finagled from their naive, elderly investors. The two hire a neo-Nazi director and a drug-crazed hippie star (Dick Shawn) to stage a musical comedy called Springtime for Hitler, a light-hearted romp featuring the German Chancellor who waged war on Europe and exterminated six million Jews. When the show turns out to be a success, Bloom and Bialystock find themselves in trouble.
The Producers was an outrageous and risky venture that depended on audiences laughing at the idea of a Hitlerian musical little more than two decades after the end of the war, during a time when many older adults with firsthand experience of World War II and the Holocaust were still living. In fact, the film is the epitome of Brooks's satirical attitude, and his belief that show business knows no bounds. Despite its low budget, The Producers was hailed as something of a minor comic masterpiece. Unfortunately, it flopped at the box office and was unable to buoy Brooks's sinking income.
After getting an acting role in the black comedy Putney Swope in 1969, Brooks wrote and directed The Twelve Chairs, an adaptation of a 1928 Russian novel about a former aristocrat who has hidden his fortune in a dozen chairs. Less a satire than a straight comedy and complete with chase scenes and comic suspense—and another role for Brooks— The Twelve Chairs was also a flop, both commercially and critically.
In 1974, after several dry years, Brooks signed on with Warner Brothers to do a film based on a satirical Western story called "Tex X." "Richard Zanuck and David Brown had it and didn't know what to do with it," Brooks told an interviewer for Entertainment Weekly years later. "They asked me to direct. I said, I don't do things I don't write. So write it, they said. I didn't really want to. But I was broke. My wife, Anne Bancroft, was pregnant. And frankly, 'Tex X' was a really good idea." Tasteless, politically incorrect—in the film Brooks plays an Indian chief—and retitled Blazing Saddles, the film became Brooks's first big hit.
With the blockbuster success of Blazing Saddles, Brooks was off and running. Brooks was nominated for a 1974 Oscar award for Best Song for his penning of the title tune from Blazing Saddles. By the end of the same year Brooks had released a second hit, Young Frankenstein, starring Wilder. Following Brooks's formula, Young Frankenstein, shot in black and white, lampoons the granddaddy of all monster/horror movies by imagining Wilder as the great scientist's grandson who creates his own monster. Full of scatological humor, plot twists, silliness, and loving bows to monster movies of the past, Young Frankenstein managed to appeal both to critics and audiences, and it was nominated for Academy Awards for best adapted screenplay and for best sound.
Brooks cast himself in the lead role of his next film, Silent Movie, as a director who wants to return to the silent-movie era. His old boss, Sid Caesar, played the producer who approves the project. Among the stars appearing in the film was Bancroft. A very chancy project, the entire movie had no dialogue other than a single word—spoken, ironically, by famous mime Marcel Marceau. Full of sight gags yet nostalgic and sweeter than most Brooks films, Silent Movie was not a big box-office hit.
In 1977 Brooks took a detour from sarcasm by directing a little-known, little-seen, schmaltzy family film titled Poco Little Dog Lost. He also released his next big project, High Anxiety, a parody of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers. Vulgar and often repetitive, High Anxiety again starred Brooks in the lead role opposite Cloris Leachman. Brooks's efforts resulted in success when he was nominated for Golden Globe awards for best musical or comedy as well as for best actor in a musical or comedy.
In 1980 Brooks tried something new. Purchasing the rights to The Elephant Man, a screenplay about the abuse suffered by a grotesquely deformed man in Victorian England, he hired virtual unknown David Lynch to direct the drama. Although Brooks produced the film he had his name removed from all publicity so audiences not confuse the film as a satirical comedy. With little fanfare, Brooks went on to produce several other serious films in the 1980s and the early 1990s, including Frances and 84 Charing Cross Road.
Winter for Mel
Brooks's style of humor had become less popular by the 1980s, and he began using some of his favorite gags repeatedly. No joke was too tawdry and no target too sacrosanct. His 1981 film The History of the World, Part I was such a box-office disaster that Part II was never attempted. Beginning with this film, during the decade his scattershot humor ranged widely to create a series of comic vignettes ranging from the Stone Age to the French Revolution and including parodies of Hollywood Biblical epics and more recent films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. He extended the parody of George Lucas's blockbuster sci-fi adventure in the 1987 release Spaceballs. In between, he filmed a remake of Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be, a story about a Polish theater troupe during the early years of the Nazi occupation. Brooks and Bancroft star as the leading duo in the troupe.
Also in the 1980s, Brooks produced and contributed his vocal talent to an animated version of The 2000-Year-Old Man and acted in and produced several more films. In 1990 he did the voice-over of the character Mr. Toilet Man in Look Who's Talking, Too. Later in the decade he released three more feature films, playing his customary roles as writer-director-producer-actor in Life Stinks, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and Dracula: Dead and Loving It, the last film in 1995. He also produced 1992's The Vagrant and acted in The Little Rascals, The Silence of the Hams (a little-seen satire), Screw Loose, and two episodes of the television hit sitcom Mad about You.
Well into his 70s by 2000, Brooks appeared to be at the conclusion of a successful if spotty career as a leading practitioner of crude and sometimes inspired satire. He was considered almost a relic of a bygone era, one of the last American comics to take the traditions of burlesque and Catskills humor into the 1960s and beyond by blending his gift for satire and insult with a knack for parodying the tradition of Hollywood. Nobody would have predicted that he was about to achieve a new pinnacle of success.
The Producers on Broadway
In the years after it first appeared, Brooks's The Producers achieved increasing popularity and appreciation. Many critics began to refer to it as a comedy classic, and it became a cult favorite. At the urging of Dream Works studio executive David Geffen and Bancroft, Brooks penned a musical version of The Producers designed for the stage. Opening on April 19, 2001, and starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, the show became a mega-hit on Broadway. In fact, within a year, it had broken all Broadway box-office records, and it received a record 12 Tony awards, one for every nomination, and two of them going to Brooks as author of the show's music and lyrics. In his acceptance speeches, as quoted in Back Stage, Brooks thanked his wife "for sticking with me through thin" and added: "I'd like to thank Hitler for being such a funny guy onstage."
In the opinion of some critics, The Producers reflects an earlier era when shows were not as afraid of lampooning sensitive subjects. A contributor to Time called it "one of the best translations of a beloved movie to the stage ever… . The show delivers such a wealth of vaudeville exuberance that the few quibbles (a rather lumpy second act) are likely to fade away." Explaining the appeal of the show in the same article, Brooks said: "You can't compete with a despot on a soapbox. The best thing is to make him ludicrous."
Despite its popularity, the musical also had its detractors, some of whom took issue with the way The Producers mocks gays, Jews, and Germans. Brooks reacted by defending his approach. "There are always holier-than-thou guys," he told Nancy Shute of U.S. News & World Report. "There isn't a subject that's taboo."
Late in 2002 a touring version of the play began making the rounds of U.S. theaters, with plans for a London production in 2004. Buoyed by the astonishing success of his stage remake, Brooks was laying plans for revamping Young Frankenstein as a musical. Meanwhile, 2002 found him busy on his memoir. "I have always been a huge admirer of my own work," Brooks told John F. Baker of Publishers Weekly, adding: "I'm one of the funniest and most entertaining writers I know. And I just can't wait to read my book."
Sarris, Andrew, St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
Back Stage, June 8, 2001.
Daily Variety, June 19, 2002; August 15, 2002.
Entertainment Weekly, March 1, 2000; May 25, 2001; December 6, 2002.
People, December 31, 2001
Publishers Weekly, January 20, 2003.
Time, April 16, 2001.
U.S. News & World Report, August 20, 2001.
Variety, September 10, 2001.
"Mel Brooks," All Movie Guide, http://www.allmovie.com (February 7, 2003).