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The Instant Expert's Guide to: Mel Brooks

All mentioned films in article
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As Blazing Saddles (1974) approaches its 50th anniversary, Cinema Paradiso salutes the enduring genius behind it and several other comic classics, the peerless Mel Brooks.

A still from Blazing Saddles: 30th Anniversary Special Edition (1974)
A still from Blazing Saddles: 30th Anniversary Special Edition (1974)

With pop culture caught between carte blanche and cancel culture, this is a tricky time for the legacy of Mel Brooks. Having come through several personal traumas before even taking his first steps in show business, he adopted a fearless approach to comedy that meant he often trod a fine line between confronting and offending.

Shrugging if those not in on the joke failed to laugh, Brooks carefully cultivated a public persona based on quick wit and madcap gregariousness. But, according to Patrick McGilligan's Funny Man: Mel Brooks (2019), this front masked an insecurity and volatility that could make Brooks a difficult collaborator in a writers' room or on a film set.

Coming from underprivileged backgrounds, many great comedians have been aggressive go-getters who have craved approval and bristled at criticism. Brooks certainly had tough times in his early career, when the strain of being funny for money (and not much of it at that) to television's tight weekly deadlines took its toll on his relationships and mental health. But failure isn't a word in the Brooks lexicon. He just shrugs and irrepressibly carries on trying to raise a laugh, right up to the age of 97.

The Kid From Brooklyn

Melvin James Kaminsky was born on the kitchen table of a tenement apartment in Brownsville, Brooklyn on 28 June 1926. Following Irving, Lenny, and Bernie, he was the fourth son of Max Kaminsky and Kate Brookman. His father's family were German Jews from Danzig (which is now the Polish city of Gdansk), while his mother's roots were in Kyiv, which formed part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union before becoming the capital of the independent Ukraine.

When Melvin was two, his 34 year-old father died of tuberculosis of the kidney and Kate raised the family alone. When asked years later if the loss had impacted upon his comedy, Brooks replied: 'There's an outrage there. I may be angry at God, or at the world, for that. And I'm sure a lot of my comedy is based on anger and hostility. Growing up in Williamsburg, I learned to clothe it in comedy to spare myself problems - like a punch in the face.'

Kate doted on her youngest and frequently sang him the Bing Crosby hit, 'You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby'. When he repeated it to a teacher, she made him perform it before the whole school and Brooks remembered the thrill of the reception: 'I loved it - their applause and their whistles. I was only five, but I knew what I had to be, to do that strange thing of getting up in front of a bunch of people and make them applaud and laugh.'

As a small, often sickly boy, Melvin was bullied at school and learned to use his wit to defuse situations. Reflecting on its source, he explained, 'everybody thinks my humor is Jewish humour, and it's not true. It's New York humour. It's a pounding, restless, driving beat. The intensity of New York, that's my comedy.' He also picked things up from his siblings, with Irving (who was eight years older) being his guiding light. 'He was the guy in my life,' Brooks confided. 'He explained math to me, which was just a jungle of insanity. To this day, I don't know why we need it.'

Another key influence was Joe Brookman, a taxi driver who used to ferry Broadway doormen back to Brooklyn in exchange for tickets to the shows. When his nephew was nine, Uncle Joe took him to see William Gaxton, Ethel Merman, and Victor Moore in Anything Goes, which was written by Cole Porter, Guy Bolton, and P.G. Wodehouse. Bing Crosby starred with Merman in Lewis Milestone's 1936 film version before teaming with Donald O'Connor for Robert Lewis's 1956 remake.

Following the performance, Melvin told Uncle Joe that he was not going to go into garment trade like everyone else in the neighbourhood, as he was going to be a star. His ambition was further fuelled that same year when he saw Groucho, Chico, and Harpo in their first MGM comedy, Sam Wood's A Night At the Opera (1935). He later compared the experience to 'somebody yelling, "Land ho" after being at sea. When I saw A Night At the Opera, I thought, "That's it, that's my country." Freedom, fun, madness.' The Marx Brothers remained firm favourites. But Melvin also liked W.C. Fields, Mae West, Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, The Three Stooges, and The Ritz Brothers.

As Brooks told the Directors Guild of America website: 'There were three different brothers who formed my sense of comedy timing. There were the Marx Brothers, and the Ritz Brothers, and then there were the Three Stooges. Those groups of men formed my sense of how many seconds it took from set-up to explosion, from straight line to punch line. They were all perfect at what they did.'

A still from Children of Paradise (1945)
A still from Children of Paradise (1945)

The young Brooks also liked Errol Flynn in swashbucklers like Michael Curtiz's Captain Blood (1935) and Curtiz and William Keighley's The Adventures of Robin Hood (1937). 'When people say to me, "What's your favorite movie?"' Brooks once divulged, 'I don't immediately say Les Enfants du Paradis, which sounds good to say; or La Strada sounds great; Battleship Potemkin sounds even better. "Wow, this guy must be an intellectual. Look at the movies." But my favourite movies have always been either Frankenstein or Fred Astaire.'

On another occasion, he revealed, 'I think the best director who ever lived was Alfred Hitchcock, for his timing. That's my vote. And right on his heels, I'd have to say Preston Sturges, for his freedom. He gave me freedom to go crazy. The Palm Beach Story is an underrated, incredible movie. And then I would jump to some classic foreign directors, like Marcel Carné. Then there's Jean Renoir and The Rules of the Game. These are incredible directors. Their balance. Ernst Lubitsch…I like them all. I love George Stevens. Knows his business, takes his time. Shane was a great movie, but he also did Swing Time. The best Fred Astaire picture from a serious director, right?'

To discover these directors or renew acquaintance with them, simply type their names into the Cinema Paradiso searchline and start renting. Perhaps you can experience the magic that Mel Brooks felt as a boy: 'Big silver screen in a movie house, eating a salmon sandwich, because you went in on Saturday morning at 10 and didn't come out until 5:00. You saw things over and over. My older brothers had to come and grab me by my hair to drag me home. Life was wonderful as long as I could go to the movies and see that kind of unfettered, insane, free-for-all comedy.'

Determined to find his way into a spotlight, the 14 year-old Melvin landed a job as a poolside tummler at the Butler Lodge, a cheap-and-cheerful hotel in the Catskill Mountains, which was home to so many resorts popular with Eastern European migrants that it became known as 'the Borscht Belt'. One of his bits was to dress in a large alpaca overcoat and derby hat and wander out on to the diving board carrying two suitcases full of rocks. Then, in a broad Yiddish accent, he would declare, 'Business is terrible! I can't go on!', before jumping into the pool. He had to be rescued by the lifeguards to uproarious laughter.

At the hotel, Melvin met an ambitious 18 year-old comedian named Sid Caesar. He also took drumming lessons from his Williamsburg neighbour, Buddy Rich, and started earning money playing in local bands. Brooks always believed that drumming improved his comic timing, 'because some punch lines should be on the offbeat; they shouldn't be right on the beat because they'll get sour. There's a thing called syncopation, in which you feature the offbeat instead of the beat itself. The offbeat is the after-beat. And you wait, and hit it on the after-beat. So I was a real big fan of syncopation and it carried on into my movies - into my writing and my direction.'

Around this time, Melvin Brooks was born, in order to avoid confusion with trumpeter Max Kaminsky. One night, when the emcee was off sick, the 16 year-old Brooks got to fill in for him and crack a few jokes. But, on graduating from Eastern District High School in Williamsburg, his plans to keep performing while studying psychology at Brooklyn College were thwarted when Uncle Sam came calling.

Mine Your Own Business

In January 1944, when Brooks was in his senior year at high school, he scored well on the Army General Classification Test. He was offered the chance to further his education as part of the Army Specialised Training Programme at the Virginia Military Institute, where he would learn electrical engineering, as well as sabre fighting and horse riding. On his 18th birthday, he was officially drafted and dispatched to Fort Dix, New Jersey for induction. A few weeks later, he found himself at the Field Artillery Replacement Training Centre at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he underwent basic training with a view to becoming a radio operator.

All four brothers signed up to serve, with Lenny bailing out of his plane and winding up in a POW camp, where he had to pretend he wasn't Jewish. Any hopes Brooks had of operating radios were soon dashed, as he told Judd Apatow in an interview for The Atlantic: 'They said, "You're in the combat engineers. We need a lot of combat engineers to build bridges and to defuse mines and booby traps. And you're going to love it."'

A still from Battle of the Bulge: Winter War (2020)
A still from Battle of the Bulge: Winter War (2020)

Bound for Europe, Brooks left the Brooklyn Navy Yard aboard SS Sea Owl. Having landed in France in November 1944, he was sent to Belgium, where he served as a forward artillery observer with the 78th Infantry Division. In early 1945, he was transferred to the 1104th Engineer Combat Battalion and participated in the Battle of the Bulge. In addition to four documentaries about this pivotal campaign in the Ardennes, Cinema Paradiso can also offer Ken Annakin's Battle of the Bulge (1965), featuring Henry Fonda, Robert Ryan, and Robert Shaw, and Luke Schuetlze's Battle of the Bulge (2018) and Steven Luke's Battle of the Bulge: The Winter War (2020), which both star Tom Berenger.

The shock of the battleground left a deep impression. 'Along the roadside,' Brooks later recalled. 'You'd see bodies wrapped up in mattress covers and stacked in a ditch, and those would be Americans, that could be me. I sang all the time...I never wanted to think about it...Death is the enemy of everyone, and even though you hate Nazis, death is more of an enemy than a German soldier.'

Occasionally, Brooks would also have to contend with the barbs of his own comrades, once spending time in a military prison for using his kitbag to bean someone who had subjected him to anti-Semitic abuse. Advancing into Germany, his unit built the first Bailey bridge over the Roer River and later constructed makeshift bridges over the Rhine. But, even though his combat career ended with reconnaissance missions in the Harz Mountains in April 1945, Brooks was unable to return home when peace was declared.

Instead, he was stationed in Saarbrücken and Baumholder as part of a unit detailed to defuse land mines and clear booby-trapped buildings. The perils involved in this work are central to Martin Zandvliet's Land of Mine (2015), in which a band of German prisoners are sent to de-mine part of the Danish coastline. On one occasion, Brooks was so enraged by Germans blasting nationalist songs over a loudspeakers that he grabbed a bullhorn and belted out 'Toot, Toot, Tootsie', which had been a huge hit for Jewish star Al Jolson, who had performed it in Alan Crosland's groundbreaking talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927). Getting his own back on the Nazis would become something of a speciality. For the moment, however, Corporal Brooks was happy to have been transferred to Wiesbaden, where he was placed in charge of entertainment. He toured US bases doing stand-up before heading Stateside for discharge in June 1946 and a reunion with his brothers, who had also made it through the war unscathed.

Hail, Caesar!

Had Mel Brooks taken the clerking job his mother found for him at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he might have been on hand to watch the filming of the bookending scenes in Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's musical gem, On the Town (1949). But he had other ideas and hi-tailed it to the Catskills, where he began playing drums and piano at various hotels and nightclubs. Occasionally, he stood in for the comedians and started doing film star impressions. He also made his radio debut and spent a summer with a stock company in Red Bank, New Jersey.

Eventually, Brooks was hired as a tummler at the famous Grossinger's resort, although he admitted that the going occasionally got tough: 'fighting in World War II was better than facing a tough Jewish audience in the mountains'. But the experience taught Brooks to think on his feet and he was soon improvising shtick to keep the laughs coming. It wasn't always subtle, as puns collided with parodies and banter became burlesque. But the Borscht Belt honed the skills that Brooks hoped would get him noticed in New York.

His hero was Sid Caesar and Brooks tailed him around the city to pitch gags for his NBC series, The Admiral Broadway Revue (1949). Recognising his persistence and talent, Caesar slipped Brooks $50 a week off-the-books. However, he became a key part of the writing team after Caesar (who had turned down the lead in Harry Levin's The Jolson Story, 1946) became a household name after teaming with Imogene Coca on the variety showcase, Your Show of Shows (1950-54). Cinema Paradiso users can see Caesar in action in several volumes of the 2005 compilation series, The Golden Age of Comedy: Clubhouse Comedy, Slowly I Turn; The Secret World Is Jack; Bob Loves Lucy; and A Really Big Show. It's just a shame that no one has thought to release Ten From Your Show of Shows (1973) on disc in this country, as it gathers some of the most celebrated sketches and will have you howling.

Brooks also crops up in this 2005 collection, often alongside Carl Reiner, whom he joined with Mel Tolkin, Lucille Kallen, Selma Diamond, and Neil Simon in the writing room for America's favourite show. Although sometimes fractious, this collaboration has been immortalised in three fabled works. In creating The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-65), Reiner based Buddy Sorell (Morey Amsterdam) on Brooks, while Sally (Rose Marie) was an amalgam of Kallen and Diamond, who were pioneering female writers in the first golden age of American television. Produced by Brooks's own company, Richard Benjamin's My Favorite Year (1982) is loosely based on Brooks's recollections of chaperoning Errol Flynn on the show, while Brooks proved the model for Ira Stone in Neil Simon's wonderful play, Laughter on the 23rd Floor (1993), which was filmed by Benjamin in 2001, with Nathan Lane as the Caesaresque Max Prince and Saul Rubinek as the credit-hogging, hypochondriacal Ira.

In 1954, the sublime Coca left to headline her own show and Brooks and Reiner moved on to Caesar's Hour (1954-57). Two new writers joined the staff, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart. Cinema Paradiso users won't need any introduction to the former, but Gelbart went on to co-create M*A*S*H (1972-82). His filmography isn't bad, either. Type his name into the searchline and start ordering.

When not writing for the small screen, Brooks was also striving to make his mark on Broadway. Having contributed material to New Faces of 1952, he co-wrote Shinbone Alley (1957), which charted the unusual romance between a street cat and a philosophising cockroach. In 1971, John Wilson and David Detiege directed an animated adaptation, with Carol Channing voicing Mehitabel and Eddie Bracken playing Archy. But Brooks's other early attempts to make it on the Great White Way, Nowhere to Go and All American (both 1962), have rather slipped from view, even though the latter was directed by Joshua Logan and earned two Tony nominations in telling the story of a scientist (Ray Bolger) who applies his theories to winning games for his college's American football team.

Undaunted, Brooks became a recording star. While laid low with gout in the late 1950s, he created the character of the 2000 Year Old Man and started performing improvised bits at showbiz parties with Reiner. However, Mel Tolkin was the stooge when iconic critic Kenneth Tynan saw a rendition at a launch for playwright Moss Hart's autobiography, Act One (which would be filmed by Dore Schary in 1963, with George Hamilton in the lead). He declared Brooks 'the most original comic improvisor I had ever seen' and the rest of America agreed after Brooks and Reiner performed the skit on The Steve Allen Show. Another variation found its way on to the 1960 album, 2000 Years With Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, which sold over a million copies. Four more discs and an animated TV special followed between 1961-97, with the royalties being Brooks's main source of income during a sticky patch in the early 1960s.

A still from Ladies Man (1961)
A still from Ladies Man (1961)

It was during this period that Brooks ventured to Hollywood for the first time. However, his collaboration with Jerry Lewis on The Ladies Man (1961) proved difficult and he wound up without an on-screen credit. He had more luck when he voiced the title character in Ernest Pintoff's inspired animated short, The Critic (1963), which bombards a bemused elderly Russian man with an array of abstract images. Originally shown with the Boulting-directed Peter Sellers comedy, Heavens Above!, this hilarious assault on avant-garde culture won an Academy Award and really should have been an extra on the Optimum DVD release.

Getting Smarter

Despite being ensconced in Sid Caesar's writing room for much of the 1950s, Brooks managed to meet and marry Broadway dancer Florence Baum in 1953. They had three children, Stefanie, Nicholas, and Edward and lived comfortably while he was making $5000 a week. When Caesar fell out with the network, however, Brooks struggled as a freelancer, returning from his unsuccessful sojourn in Los Angeles to discover that Baum had filed for divorce. He channelled his bitterness into Marriage Is a Dirty Rotten Fraud, an autobiographical script that never got filmed.

He wasn't alone for long, however. Accounts differ as to whether Brooks met Anne Bancroft at the Actors Studio or on The Perry Como Show, where he had supposedly been so bowled over by her rendition of 'Married, I Could Always Get' that he had introduced himself with the words, 'I'm Mel Brooks and I'm going to marry you.'

A still from Agnes of God (1985)
A still from Agnes of God (1985)

Bancroft was much better known than Brooks in February 1961. Born Anna Maria Louisa Italiano in the Bronx in 1931, she had been renamed by 20th Century-Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck and made her screen debut alongside Marilyn Monroe in Roy Ward Baker's Don't Bother to Knock (1952). Having won a Tony Award on her Broadway debut in Two For the Seesaw (1957), she lost the part in Robert Wise's 1962 film version to Shirley MacLaine. But Bancroft received a second Tony for The Miracle Worker (1958), with her performance as Annie Sullivan earning her the Oscar for Best Actress in Arthur Penn's 1962 film adaptation. Further nominations would follow for Jack Clayton's The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Hertbert Ross's The Turning Point (1977), Mike Nichols's The Graduate (1967), and Norman Jewison's Agnes of God (1985).

Brooks has joked that he 'bothered her every day, every night until she finally married me to shut me up!' But Bancroft didn't need much convincing, as she owned a copy of his hit LP, and they married on 5 August 1964, at the Manhattan Marriage Bureau. Their son, Max, was born in 1972 and has gone on to be a successful author in his own right after following in his father's footsteps by starting out penning gags for Saturday Night Live (1975-).

Brooks considered Bancroft to be his 'guiding force' and his fortunes certainly started to improve after they met. He and Buck Henry were asked by NBC to produce a spoof on the popular James Bond and Inspector Clouseau films and the result was Get Smart (1965-70), which starred Don Adams as Maxwell Smart. As Brooks later remarked, 'No one had ever done a show about an idiot before. I decided to be the first.' Agent 86's bungled efforts to confound KAOS were mitigated by Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon) and the Chief of CONTROL (Edward Platt). But Brooks was only actively involved in the first season, although the show went on to win seven Emmys. Moreover, Adams and Feldon reprised their characters in Clive Donner's The Nude Bomb (1980) and Gary Nelson's Get Smart, Again! (1989), as well as a single season reboot in 1995. Subsequently, the roles were taken by Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway in Peter Segal's Get Smart (2008), but a rumoured sequel has yet to emerge.

Where Did I Go Right?

While promoting the 1962 Broadway show, All American, Brooks had been asked what his next project would be. He had joked, 'Springtime For Hitler'. But the idea lodged in his mind and he tried to make it work as a novel and a stage play before deciding to write it for the screen. Inspired by the antics of Broadway producer Benjamin Kutcher, who had financed plays by sleeping with elderly rich women, Brooks hit upon the idea of focussing on 'two schnooks on Broadway who set out to produce a flop and swindle the backers'.

A still from The Producers (1967)
A still from The Producers (1967)

Many of the producers Brooks approached were appalled by the notion of mocking Adolf Hitler, with one even suggesting that he could cope with 'Springtime For Mussolini'. But Brooks stuck to his guns and producer Sidney Glazier agreed to back him to the tune of $1 million. Philanthropist Louis Wolfson and distributor Joseph E. Levine also came aboard, although the latter insisted that the title was changed to The Producers (1967). Brooks agreed, on the proviso that he could direct.

In spite of the misgivings of his wife, Zero Mostel agreed to play Max Bialystock, the shyster who allies with accountant Leo Bloom to stage Springtime For Hitler in order to cash in on the insurance claim he had taken out against the play going belly up. Peter Sellers had agreed to play Bloom, but couldn't be contacted when the time came. So, Brooks cast Gene Wilder, who had recently appeared in a play with Bancroft. Ironically, the casting of Dustin Hoffman opposite Bancroft in the Buck Henry-scripted sex comedy, The Graduate, cost him the part of playwright Franz Liebkind, which went to Kenneth Mars.

Apparently, Brooks was so nervous when shooting commenced on 22 May 1967 that he shouted 'Cut!' instead of 'Action!' However, he made it through the first week, even though Levine had hissed after viewing the rushes, 'I'll give you another $35,000 or $40,000 to get another actor. This guy Gene Wilder stinks.' Abetted by assistant Michael Hertzberg, Brooks brought the picture in under budget, in spite of frequent rows with Mostel, cinematographer Joseph Coffey, and editor Ralph Rosenblum. But harder battles lay ahead.

Embassy Pictures were so dismayed by The Producers that it refused to handle it and Brooks had to find an independent distributor following the premiere in Pittsburgh on 22 November 1967. The lack of a promotional budget was further hampered by a damning review by Renata Adler in The New York Times, who called the film 'a violently mixed bag. Some of it is shoddy and gross and cruel; the rest is funny in an entirely unexpected way.' However, Peter Sellers was so impressed that he bought full-page adverts in The New York Times and Variety. Moreover, the picture became such a hit on the college circuit that it was nominated for Best Original Screenplay and the debuting Brooks beat Stanley Kubrick ( 2001: A Space Odyssey ), John Cassavetes ( Faces ), Peter Ustinov (Hot Millions), and Gillo Pontecorvo ( The Battle of Algiers ) to the Academy Award.

Brooks would later say that ever since the war, 'I've tried to get even with Hitler by taking the Mickey out of him, making fun, but it's difficult.' However, he delighted in becoming 'the first Jew in history to make a buck out of Hitler'. The controversy didn't go away, however. Critic Roger Ebert recalled Brooks being berated by a woman in a lift. 'I have to tell you, Mr. Brooks,' she said, 'that your movie is vulgar.' Brooks shrugged and replied, 'Lady, it rose below vulgarity.' He would later deflect complaints by averring: 'Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.'

Asked in later life to name the authors who had influenced him, Brooks cited Thomas Hardy, Henry Fielding, Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo, Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Fedor Dostoyevsky, Molière 'and a hundred others'. However, he insisted that he had learnt more about wit and precision from lyricists such as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Yip Harburg, Ira Gershwin, Irving Mills, Irving Caesar, Alan Jay Lerner, and Oscar Hammerstein II.

He also thanked Mel Tolkin (who hailed from Russia and spoke with a thick accent) for taking him to one side at Your Show of Shows and saying: 'Mel, you're an animal from Brooklyn, but I think you have the beginnings of something called a mind.' He also presented him with a copy of Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls (1842). As Brooks reflected, 'It was a revelation. I'd never read anything like it. It was hysterically funny and incredibly moving at the same time...It was a life-changing gift, and I still read it once a year to remind myself of what great comic writing can be.'

A still from The Twelve Chairs (1970)
A still from The Twelve Chairs (1970)

Another Russian novel given as a gift prompted Brooks's second feature. This time the benefactor was Julius Green, who belonged to the Chinatown Gourmet Club, along with Brooks, Mostel, Speed Vogel, Joseph Heller, and Mario Puzo (the latter pair of whom were respectively responsible for Catch-22 and The Godfather ). Published in 1928, Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov's The Twelve Chairs (1970) tells the story of Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody), an impoverished post-Revolutionary aristocrat who enlists the help of con artist Ostap Bender (Frank Langella) to help him find the antique chairs in which his mother-in-law had stashed a fortune in jewels. Also searching is the local Orthodox priest, Father Fyodor, who was played by Dom DeLuise, who would become a key member of Brooks's stock company. However, his dream casting would have been Alastair Sim, Albert Finney, and Peter Sellers.

Just as he had in The Producers - in which he had voiced the immortal song line, 'Don't be stupid, be a smartie/ Come and join the Nazi Party' - Brooks contented himself with a cameo, as a serf who yearns 'for the regular beatings of yesteryear'. Filming at the Kosutnjak Studios in Belgrade, the production was hampered by language difficulties. Moreover, when Brooks threw his director's chair into the Adriatic, the crew walked out because they claimed he had disrespected communally owned property.

Once again, the reviews were mixed and the picture struggled to recoup its $1.5 million outlay. Brooks was fond of the film, however, and planned to adapt another literary classic, Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, as his next project. But no one was interested and he resorted to voicing Blond-Haired Cartoon Man in the animated PBS series, The Electric Company (1971-77). He also played a curious little boy on Marlo Thomas's cult album, Free to Be...You & Me (1972), and guested in its spin-off TV special in 1974.

With no one being interested in his movie ideas, Brooks took a job for hire at Warner Bros, where Andrew Bergman was floundering with a comic Western called Tex-X. This had gone into turnaround after plans to shoot with James Earl Jones as a Black sheriff in the Wild West and Alan Arkin as a drunken gunslinger had fallen through. Brooks decided to take an aggressive approach with the material and brought in Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg, and Alan Uger to punch up a screenplay in a collaboration that often got so heated that Bergman called their office the 'rioter's room'.

At the Peak of His Powers

In casting his spoof Western, Brooks offered the role of the Waco Kid to John Wayne. He demurred, but promised to see the picture. Dan Dailey also turned the project down and Gene Wilder was only hired after Gig Young collapsed on the first day of shooting. With the studio refusing to insure Richard Pryor, Cleavon Little was cast as Sheriff Bart, alongside Madeline Kahn as German chanteuse Lili von Shtupp, Brooks as Governor William J. Le Petomane, and Harvey Korman as the scheming Hedley Lamarr (after chat show host Johnny Carson declined).

After opting against Black Bart and Purple Sage as titles, Brooks settled on Blazing Saddles (1974), which seemed apt given the famously flatulent campfire scene. While writing the screenplay, Brooks had consulted Pryor about the use of the n-word to mock the bigots using it in 1874 without offending anyone in the audience. He also checked with Little to ensure he was comfortable with the dialogue, as he lampooned such frontier classics as George Marshall's Destry Rides Again (1939), John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (1952), and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). A surreal interlude featuring Dom DeLuise also paid cod homage to the musicals of Busby Berkeley.

Brooks wanted to make 'a Jewish Western with a Black hero' because he felt this was the story of a broken heart being mended. 'It just got everything out of me,' he told one reporter. 'All of my furore, my frenzy, my insanity, my love of life and hatred of death.' But critic Pauline Kael, who was never much of a fan, slammed Brooks because 'he wants to offend, and he also wants to be loved for being offensive'. She wasn't alone in complaining and Brooks later joked: 'In my career, I always get a good review, one review later. With the film of The Producers, right at the start, a few critics got it but I was mainly damned. Then I did The Twelve Chairs, which was a good little movie. A lot of them said: "What happened to the genius who gave us The Producers? Why is he so sad?" Then I did Blazing Saddles and they said: "This is bad taste insanity. What happened to the Mel Brooks who gave us The Twelve Chairs?"'

However, even the studio suits thought they had a disaster on their hands. Brooks recalled one executive saying after a special screening in which no one had laughed: 'I've worked here a long time, and I've never told the studio that a picture was so bad we should eat it. But this picture is very embarrassing, and I don't think I can sell it.' Luckily, John Calley decided to show it to lower-ranking staff later that night and the riotous reception persuaded him to open in three cities. The rest is screen history.

Costing $2.6 million, the film raked in $119.5 million at the box office, as young audiences flocked to see it. No one seems to know if Duke Wayne kept his promise to be first in line to buy a ticket, but he was at the 47th Academy Awards (presenting an honorary Oscar to Howard Hawks), as Blazing Saddles was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Best Editing, and Best Song. It also won the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen.

One of the conditions that Gene Wilder had stipulated on replacing Gig Young was that Brooks would collaborate with him on a spoof of Universal horror movies. The director had seen James Whale's Frankenstein as a six year-old 'and it scared the hell out of me'. So, he was more than keen to come aboard and even arranged to use some of the laboratory sets and props that had been designed by Kenneth Strickfaden for the 1931 take on Mary Shelley's 1818 novel. Brooks and cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld also decided to shoot in black and white, while editor John C. Howard was encouraged to employ old-style scene transitions like iris shots, wipes, and fades to black in order to reinforce the stylistic pastiche.

Wilder cast himself as Dr Frederick Frankenstein, alongside Madeline Kahn as his fiancée, Elizabeth; Cloris Leachman as housekeeper, Frau Blücher; Marty Feldman as Igor; and Teri Garr as his assistant, Inga. Peter Boyle essayed the monster, who excels in the 'Puttin' on the Ritz' routine that Wilder had to fight Brooks to include. Wilder also insisted that Brooks remained off screen, although he can still be heard as Victor Frankenstein, a cat that gets accidentally hit with a dart, and as a howling werewolf.

In addition to Oscar nominations for its screenplay and sound, Young Frankenstein also earned Brooks and Wilder a Writers Guild award and Golden Globes for Kahn and Leachmn. In amassing $86 million, the film earned 30 times its production cost and finished the year in fourth place on the box-office charts behind Tom Laughlin's The Trial of Billy Jack, John Guillermin's The Towering Inferno, and Blazing Saddles. Despite the Monthly Film Bulletin grumbling about it descending into Carry On smut, the critics were largely positive. Even Pauline Kael felt that Brooks was improving as a director, as this was 'just about the only comedy of recent years that doesn't collapse'.

Emboldened, Brooks pitched the idea of making the first silent slapstick comedy in Hollywood since Charlie Chaplin's City Lights (1931). In fact, the use of music and sound effects makes Silent Movie (1976) more akin to Modern Times (1936). But Brooks and co-scenarist Ron Clark also paid homage to such other slapstick stalwarts as Mack Sennett, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, as Mel Funn (Brooks) seeks to persuade the head of Big Picture Studios (Sid Caesar) to let him and sidekicks Marty Eggs (Marty Feldman) and Dom Bell (Dom DeLuise) recreate the pre-talkie era.

A still from Silent Movie (1976)
A still from Silent Movie (1976)

Paul Newman, Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Liza Minnelli, and Anne Bancroft all cameo'd as themselves, while legendary mime Marcel Marceau got to speak the film's only word: 'Non!' While its $36 million gross was modest, the reviews were warmer than usual, with Roger Ebert noting that 'the thing about Brooks's inside jokes is that their outsides are funny, too'. In his first acting lead Brooks was joined by Feldman and Bernadette Peters in landing Golden Globe nominations. But they all missed out and Best Picture - Comedy or Musical went to Frank Pierson's A Star Is Born, with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson taking the acting awards.

Brooks ended his golden decade with High Anxiety (1977), which he co-wrote with Ron Clark, Rudy De Luca, and Barry Levinson. The dual target for the satire was psychoanalysis and the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, with scenes being inspired by Suspicion (1941), Spellbound (1945), Dial M For Murder (1954), Vertigo (1958), North By Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963). Cinema Paradiso users will also spot the references to Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941) and Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up (1966) - which are all available to rent on high quality DVD and Blu-ray.

Brooks stars as Professor Richard Harpo Thorndyke, a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist whose arrival at the Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous coincides with a spate of murders. Dependables Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and Harvey Korman return, alongside Howard Morris from Your Show of Shows. But the gross slipped to $31.1 million, while the reviews veered between praising the coherence of the storyline to criticising the sophistication of the humour. Kael was again chief naysayer, opining: 'Brooks seems to be under the impression that he's adding a satirical point of view, but it's a child's idea of satire; imitation, with a funny hat and a leer.'

One person who disagreed with her was Hitchcock himself. He met with Brooks to discuss ideas and even pitched a gag for a dockside scene (which proved too expensive to stage). But Hitch was so please with the result that he sent Brooks an expensive bottle of wine with an attached note reading, 'A small token of my pleasure, have no anxiety about this.'

Sideshow Mel

Although his name had become synonymous with comedy, Brooks longed to prove he could tackle weightier fare. 'I was always afraid that part of my baggage would be, "Oh, crazy Mel Brooks, funny Mel Brooks."' he confided in one interview. 'It cost me being a George Stevens or Billy Wilder,' he continued. 'It cost me being a serious director.'

However, he figured he could still produce non-comic pictures and launched Brooksfilms with David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980), which received eight Oscar nominations in retelling the story of John Merrick (John Hurt), who was exhibited in a Victorian freak show before being rescued by Dr Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins). Further Academy recognition came for Graeme Clifford's Frances (1982), which starred Jessica Lange in a biopic of the troubled Hollywood actress, Frances Farmer.

A still from To Be or Not to Be (1942)
A still from To Be or Not to Be (1942)

Brooks was also able to help Anne Bancroft make her directorial debut with Fatso (1980) and presented her with one of her finest roles, author Helen Hanff, in David Jones's 84 Charing Cross Road (1987). Brooks and Bancroft even took on the Jack Benny and Carole Lombard roles in Alan Johnson's To Be or Not to Be (1983), which revisited the classic 1942 Ernst Lubitsch comedy, which is the subject of one of Cinema Paradiso's What to Watch Next items.

Elsewhere, Bill Murray cropped up in Ira Miller's Loose Shoes, while Brooks dabbled in post-apocalyptic roller-skating sci-fi in Alan Johnson's Solarbabies (1986) and horror in Freddie Francis's The Doctor and the Devils (1985) and Chris Walas's The Vagrant (1992). More successful was David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986), a remake of Kurt Neumann's 1958 B movie of the same name that earned Chris Walas and Stephan Dupus an Oscar for their make-up effects. Walas was entrusted with The Fly II (1989), but it made less impact and Brooks decided to focus on his own features.

Not that his activities were limited to his own outings, however. We should point out, though, that the Mel Brooks in Robert Downey, Sr.'s landmark blaxploitation film, Putney Swope (1969), is not the artist previously known as Melvin Kaminsky. But that is Brooks providing the uncredited voice of Bruner in Gene Wilder's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975) and he does cameo as Professor Max Krassman in James Frawley's The Muppet Movie (1979). He even got to play Hitler in the 1978 small-screen comedy special, Peeping Times.

A still from Ballerina (2016)
A still from Ballerina (2016)

Brooks can also be seen as the movie director in the Disney short, Mickey's Audition (1992); the checkout guest in Ezio Greggio's The Silence of the Hams; Mr Welling in Penelope Spheeris's The Little Rascals (both 1994); Jake Gordon in Greggio's Screw Loose (1999); the stressed old man in Richard Holm's Sex, Lies and Video Violence; and the man at the train station in Philip Haas's Up At the Villa (both 2000). Among his voiceover contributions are Mr Toilet Man in Amy Heckerling's Look Who's Talking, Too! (1991); Joe Snow in Kirk R. Thatcher's It's a Very Muppet Christmas Movie (2002); Big Weld in Chris Wedge's Robots (2005); Ace's manager in Juan José Campanella's The Unbeatables (2013); Albert Einstein in Rob Minkoff's Mr Peabody & Sherman (2014); Dracula's father, Vlad, in Genndy Tartakovsky's Hotel Transylvania 2 (2015) and Hotel Transylvania 3 (2018); Rogman in Gary Wang and Paulette Victor Lifton's The Guardian Brothers; Luteau in Eric Summer and Eric Warin's Ballerina (both 2016); Melephant Brooks in Josh Cooley's Toy Story 4 (2019); and the Shogun in Rob Minkoff, Chris Bailey, and Mark Koetsier's Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank (2022), which was produced by Brooksfilms.

The Parody's Gone By

According to Brooks, he got the idea for History of the World Part I (1981) when someone in the 20th Century-Fox car park asked what his next picture was going to be. Dotted with vignettes (including a Hitler on Ice segment), the action centres on the Stone Age, the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition, and the French Revolution. Several old friends guested, although Richard Pryor and John Cleese proved unavailable. Orson Welles, however, provided the narration, while Brooks amused in the roles of Moses, Comicus the stand-up philosopher, Tomás de Torquemada, and Louis XVI.

A still from History of the World: Part 1 (1981)
A still from History of the World: Part 1 (1981)

Inspired in places, but patchy in others, the scattershot nature of the comedy frustrated the critics and the box office tapered off at $31.7 million. While Brooks may have been disappointed, he made it on to the Billboard charts with 'It's Good to Be the King', the hip-hop number from the Versailles sequence. He also wrote 'To Be or Not to Be (The Hitler Rap) ' for his Lubitsch remake, but not everyone saw the funny side.

A decade after George Lucas's Star Wars (1977) had changed the Hollywood landscape, Brooks took a pop at the first trilogy in Spaceballs (1987). However, sci-fi fans will also note the lampoons of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek (1966-69) and its spin-off movies, 'The Planet of the Ape's franchise (1968-73), and Ridley Scott's Alien (1979). In addition to playing the Yoda parody, Yogurt ('May the Schwarz be with you'), Brooks also revelled in the role of the villainous President Skroob, whose attempt to abduct Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) of Druidia is thwarted by Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) and his alien sidekick, Barf (John Candy). Attempts to land Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks for the lead came to nought. But Joan Rivers voiced the android, Dot Matrix, alongside guests like Dom DeLuise, who voiced Pizza the Hutt, and Rick Moranis, who doubled up as Pannakin Crybaby and Lord Dark Helmet.

Amusingly, Brooks talked Lucas into handling the post-production, as the budget rose to $22.7 million. However, the lukewarm reviews contributed to the picture only taking $38.1 million at the box office. Jokes were cracked about sequels with the titles, Spaceballs III: The Search For Spaceballs II and Spaceballs 2: The Search For More Money. But the only spin-off was the short-lived Spaceballs: The Animated Series (2008), which saw Brooks, Rivers, and Zuniga reprise their roles.

A still from Life Stinks (1991)
A still from Life Stinks (1991)

Struggling to relive his big screen glory days, Brooks took another tilt at television by co-executive producing The Nutt House (1989), a sitcom starring Harvey Korman and Cloris Leachman. However, only five of the 11 episodes were aired and Brooks sought to bounce back with Life Stinks (1991). Eschewing parody, this was a social satire in which tycoon Goddard Bolt (Brooks) seeks to swing a business deal by betting rival Vance Crasswell (Jeffrey Tambor) that he can sleep rough for 30 days.

Premiering out of competition at Cannes, the film was panned by the critics and took $4.1 million on its $13 million budget. Never one to hide away, Brooks harked back to his 13-episode TV series, When Times Were Rotten (1975), to dust down some Sherwood Forest gags to lampoon Kevin Reynolds's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) in Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). Cary Elwes took the title role, while Richard Lewis and Roger Rees proved sportingly hissable as Prince John and the Sheriff of Rottingham. Brooks cropped up as Rabbi Tuckman, while Dave Chappelle made his feature debut as Ahchoo. As always, the reviews were mixed, with some critics pining for Brooks's zany irreverence. But the picture made $72 million on its $20 million budget and suggested that the 67 year-old still knew how to hit America's funny bone.

Unfortunately, Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) took such easy potshots at Tod Browning's Dracula (1931), Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), and Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) that not even Leslie Nielsen, the ever-willing star of the 'Naked Gun' comedies (1988, 1991 and 1994) spun-off from Police Squad! (1982), could raise a laugh. Brooks mugged gamely as Professor Van Helsing, while Anne Bancroft chipped in with a droll Madame Ouspenskaya. But it took only $10.7 million on the back of reviews that felt more like laments for Brooks's lost bite than savage gorings. Such is the reputation of the director's last cinematic feature that it's not available on disc in the UK. It was a sad way for an era to end. But Mel Brooks was far from finished.

Pricking Phoney-Baloney Balloons

Although he wasn't making movies, Brooks remained busy. He became a regular on the chat show circuit and racked up a hat-trick of Best Guest Emmys as Uncle Phil in the last three seasons of the Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt sitcom, Mad About You (1992-99). He also voiced Wiley the Sheep in 48 episodes of Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks (2003-07), which was set on Raloo Farm near the Irish town of Tara in the 1950s. Cinema Paradiso users can discover the characters in Jakers! Spooky Storytellers (2004) and Jakers! Piggley Gets into Trouble (2005).

Having earned a Grammy with Carl Reiner for The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000 (1999), Brooks completed his EGOT set when he teamed with Thomas Meehan in 2001 to rework The Producers as a Broadway musical. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick inherited the roles of Max and Leo, as excited theatregoers purchased $3.5 million worth of tickets in a single day. The critics were ecstatic, as 'Springtime For Hitler' finally became an on-stage production number.

The show so outraged one elderly patron during a preview in Chicago, however, that he strode towards the stage. As Brooks recalled in an interview, 'Some big guy kept storming up the aisle and saying, "How dare you have Hitler, how dare you have the swastika? I was in World War II risking my life and you do this on a stage?" I said, "I was in World War II and I didn't see you there."'

In scooping 12 Tonys, The Producers broke Hello, Dolly!'s 37-year record for the most wins at the American theatre's most prestigious awards. Brooks also received a couple of Grammys for the cast album and the production video, Recording The Producers - A Musical Romp With Mel Brooks (2002). Moreover, the show earned him a four-episode slot on Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-24), after Larry David landed a role in the Los Angeles production.

Anne Bancroft also guested, although it was to prove her final appearance with her husband, as she died of uterine cancer on 6 June 2005. Remembering their first meeting, Brooks said, 'From that day, until her death...we were glued together.' When asked about whether he would date again, he replied, 'Once you are married to Anne Bancroft, others don't seem to be appealing.'

The release of Susan Stroman's 2005 film version of The Producers provided a welcome distraction. Lane and Broderick reprised their roles alongside Will Ferrell as Franz Liebkind and Uma Thurman as Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden Swanson. Most critics felt it fell short of the standards set by the screen original and the stage version and it failed to make back its $45 million budget.

Determined to keep working, Brooks moved into his eighties by composing songs for a musical version of Young Frankenstein. Following tryouts in Seattle, it opened on Broadway on 11 October 2007. The notices were less enthusiastic than with its predecessor, although most noted that Brooks hinted in the closing number at a musicalisation of Blazing Saddles. This has failed to materialise (thus far). But his career was chronicled in the PBS American Masters entry, Mel Brooks: Make a Noise (2013), while he yukked up his hand- and footprint ceremony outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles in 2014 by wearing a prosthetic sixth finger on his left hand.

For several years, Brooks had watched the TV quiz show, Jeopardy, while dining with old friend Carl Reiner. He deeply felt his loss on 29 June 2020, but the 95 year-old trouper put on a brave face when he published his autobiography, All About Me!, the following year. Much to everyone's surprise, he also announced that he would be producing and writing sketches for History of the World, Part II, a Hulu series that earned Brooks a Primetime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Character Voice-Over Performance, as the series narrator.

In 2009, Brooks had joined Robert De Niro and Bruce Springsteen in receiving a Kennedy Center Honor. Four years later, he was presented with the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award, with the BFI following suit in March 2015. But there was more to come, as Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane handed over an Honorary Academy Award in January 2024. 'This is beautiful,' Brooks quipped at the ceremony. 'I gotta tell you this means a lot to me. It really means a lot. I feel so bad about the Oscar I got for Best Original Screenplay for The Producers. I never should have sold it.'

A still from The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
A still from The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

Film parodies have been popular since the 1900s and Brooks was not alone in lampooning movie genres. Take the Carry Ons, for example. But his hot streak blazed a trail for the likes of Airplane! (1980), The Man With Two Brains (1983), Hot Shots! (1991), Scary Movie (2000), Team America: World Police (2004), and The Lego Batman Movie (2017), among many, many others. The likes of the Farrelly Brothers, Judd Apatow, and Sacha Baron Cohen owe much to his fearlessness.

Not that Brooks is particularly impressed by their efforts. 'They're not brave enough or imaginative enough,' he told one reporter. 'Sexuality is not comedy - they think they are being daring with sexy stuff, but comedy is really sticking a pin into cliché, bursting the balloons of politically correct behaviour. I love to stick the pins in and explode those phoney-baloney balloons.'

He told Judd Apatow, 'Nobody ever said, "You crossed the line," because I didn't know where the lines were...We are the jesters; that's our job. We aren't the kings. It is our duty to whisper in the king's ear what is going on. The king doesn't want to hear bad things, so we make it funny. But we tell the truth. Comedy in the last 10 to 20 years has gotten a little too politically correct. We're watching our step, and we shouldn't. We should just blast everything we think should be brought to the king's attention.' Wise words in a world in which the need for truth to be spoken to power grows greater by the maddening day.

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