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Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks

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."

Books

Sarris, Andrew, St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, Visible Ink Press, 1998.

Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Periodicals

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.

Online

"Mel Brooks," All Movie Guide,http://www.allmovie.com (February 7, 2003). □

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Brooks, Mel

BROOKS, Mel



Nationality: American. Born: Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn, New York, 28 June 1926. Education: Attended Virginia Military Institute, 1944. Family: Married 1) Florence Baum (divorced), two sons, one daughter; 2) actress Anne Bancroft, one son. Military Service: Combat engineer, U.S. Army, 1944–46. Career: Jazz drummer, stand-up comedian, and social director at Grossinger's resort; writer for Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows," 1954–57; conceived, wrote, and narrated cartoon short The Critic, 1963; co-creator (with Buck Henry) of Get Smart TV show, 1965; directed first feature, The Producers, 1968; founder, Brooksfilms, 1981. Awards: Academy Award for Best Short Subject, for The Critic, 1964; Academy Award for Best Story and Screenplay, and Writers Guild Award for Best Written Screenplay, for The Producers, 1968; Academy Award nomination, Best Song, for Blazing Saddles, 1974; Academy Award nomination, Best Screenplay, for Young Frankenstein, 1975; American Comedy Awards Lifetime Achievement Award, 1987. Address: Brooksfilms, Ltd., Culver Studios, 9336 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City, CA 90212, U.S.A.


Films as Director:

1963

The Critic (cartoon) (+ sc, narration)

1968

The Producers (+ sc, voice)

1970

The Twelve Chairs (+ co-sc, role)

1974

Blazing Saddles (+ co-sc, mus, role); Young Frankenstein (+ co-sc)

1976

Silent Movie (+ co-sc, role)

1977

High Anxiety (+ pr, co-sc, mus, role)

1981

The History of the World, Part I (+ pr, co-sc, mus, role)

1983

To Be or Not to Be (+ pr, co-sc, role)

1987

Spaceballs (+ pr, co-sc, role)

1991

Life Stinks! (+ co-sc, role)

1993

Robin Hood: Men in Tights (+ co-sc, role)

1995

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (co-sc, role, pr)



Films as Executive Producer:

1980

The Elephant Man (Lynch)

1985

The Doctor and the Devils (Francis)

1986

The Fly (Cronenberg); Solarbabies (Johnson)

1987

84 Charing Cross Road (Jones)

1992

The Vagrant (Walas)



Other Films:

1979

The Muppet Movie (Frawley) (role)

1991

Look Who's Talking, Too! (Heckerling) (voice, role)

1994

Il silenzio dei prosciutti (The Silence of the Hams) (Greggio) (role); The Little Rascals (Spheeris) (role)

1997

I Am Your Child (for TV) (as himself)

1998

The Prince of Egypt (Chapman, Hickner) (role)

1999

Svitati (Greggio) (co-sc, ro)



Publications


By BROOKS: books—

Silent Movie, New York, 1976.

The History of the World, Part I, New York, 1981.

The 2,000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000, The Book: Including Howto Not Die and Other Good Tips, with Carl Reiner, HarperPerennial Library, 1998.


By BROOKS: articles—

"Confessions of an Auteur," in Action (Los Angeles), November/December 1971.

Interview with James Atlas, in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1975.

"Fond Salutes and Naked Hate," interview with Gordon Gow, in Films and Filming (London), July 1975.

Interview with A. Remond, in Ecran (Paris), November 1976.

"Comedy Directors: Interview with Mel Brooks," with R. Rivlin, in Millimeter (New York), October and December 1977.

Interview with Alan Yentob, in Listener (London), 8 October 1981.

Interview in Time Out (London), 16 February 1984.

Interview in Screen International, 3 March 1984.

Interview in Hollywood Reporter, 27 October 1986.

"The Playboy Interview," interview with L. Stegel in Playboy (Chicago), January 1989.

"Mel Brooks: Of Woody, the Great Caesar, Flop Sweat and Cigar Smoke," People Weekly (New York), Summer 1989 (special issue).


On BROOKS: books—

Adler, Bill, and Jeffrey Fineman, Mel Brooks: The IrreverentFunnyman, Chicago, 1976.

Bendazzi, G., Mel Brooks: l'ultima follia di Hollywood, Milan, 1977.

Holtzman, William, Seesaw: A Dual Biography of Anne Bancroft andMel Brooks, New York, 1979.

Allen, Steve, Funny People, New York, 1981.

Yacowar, Maurice, Method in Madness: The Comic Art of MelBrooks, New York, 1981.

Smurthwaite, Nick, and Paul Gelder, Mel Brooks and the SpoofMovie, London, 1982.

Squire, Jason, E., The Movie Business Book, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1983.


On BROOKS: articles—

"Two Thousand Year Old Man," in Newsweek (New York), 4 October 1965.

Diehl, D., "Mel Brooks," in Action (Los Angeles), January/February 1975.

Lees, G., "The Mel Brooks Memos," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), October 1977.

Carcassonne, P., "Dossier: Hollywood 79: Mel Brooks," in Cinématographe (Paris), March 1979.

Karoubi, N., "Mel Brooks Follies," in Cinéma (Paris), February 1982.

"Mel Brooks," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 26: American Screenwriters, Detroit, 1984.

Erens, Patricia, "You Could Die Laughing: Jewish Humor and Film," in East-West Film Journal (Honolulu), no. 1, 1987.

Carter, E.G., "The Cosmos according to Mel Brooks," in Vogue (New York), June 1987.

Dougherty, M., "May the Farce Be with Him: Spaceballs Rockets Mel Brooks Back into the Lunatic Orbit," in People Weekly (New York), 20 July 1987.

Frank, A., "Mel's Crazy Movie World," in Photoplay Movies &Video (London), January 1988.

Goldstein, T., "A History of Mel Brooks: Part I," in Video (New York), March 1988.

Stauth, C., "Mel and Me," in American Film (Los Angeles), April 1990.

Radio Times, 4 April 1992.

Segnocinema (Vicenza), March-April 1994.

Greene, R., "Funny You Should Ask," in Boxoffice (Chicago), December 1995.


* * *

Mel Brooks's central concern (with High Anxiety and To Be or Not to Be as possible exceptions) is the pragmatic, absurd union of two males, starting with the more experienced member trying to take advantage of the other, and ending in a strong friendship and paternal relationship. The dominant member of the duo, confident but illfated, is Zero Mostel in The Producers, Frank Langella in The Twelve Chairs, and Gene Wilder in Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. The second member of the duo, usually physically weak and openly neurotic, represents the victim who wins, who learns from his experience and finds friendship to sustain him. These "Jewish weakling" characters include Wilder in The Producers, Ron Moody, and Cleavon Little. Though this character, as in the case of Little, need not literally be Jewish, he displays the stereotypical characteristics.

Women in Brooks's films are grotesque figures, sex objects ridiculed and rejected. They are either very old or sexually gross and simple. The love of a friend is obviously worth more than such an object. The secondary male characters, befitting the intentional infantilism of the films, are men-babies given to crying easily. They are set up as examples of what the weak protagonist might become without the paternal care of his reluctant friend. In particular, Brooks sees people who hide behind costumes—cowboy suits, Nazi uniforms, clerical garb, homosexual affectations—as silly children to be made fun of.

The plots of Brooks's films deal with the experienced and inexperienced men searching for a way to triumph in society. They seek a generic solution or are pushed into one. Yet there is no escape into generic fantasy in the Brooks films, since the films take place totally within the fantasy. There is no regard, as in Woody Allen's films, for the pathetic nature of the protagonist in reality. In fact, the Brooks films reverse the Allen films' endings as the protagonists move into a comic fantasy of friendship. (A further contrast with Allen is in the nature of the jokes and gags. Allen's humor is basically adult embarrassment; Brooks's is infantile taboo-breaking.)

In The Producers the partners try to manipulate show business and wind up in jail, planning another scheme because they enjoy it. In The Twelve Chairs they try to cheat the government; at the end Langella and Moody continue working together though they no longer have the quest for the chairs in common. In Blazing Saddles Little and Wilder try to take a town; it ends with the actors supposedly playing themselves, getting into a studio car and going off together as pals into the sunset. In these films it is two men alone against a corrupt and childish society. Though their schemes fall apart—or are literally exploded as in The Producers and The Twelve Chairs—they still have each other.

Young Frankenstein departs from the pattern with each of the partners, monster and doctor, sexually committed to women. While the basic pattern of male buddies continued when Brooks began to act in his own films, he also winds up with the woman when he is the hero star (High Anxiety, Silent Movie, The History of the World, To Be or Not to Be). It is interesting that Brooks always tries to distance himself from the homosexual implications of his central theme by including scenes in which overtly homosexual characters are ridiculed. It is particularly striking that these characters are, in The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and The Twelve Chairs, stage or film directors.

Brooks's late-career films have been collectively disappointing. Upon its release, Spaceballs already was embarrassingly dated. It is meant to be a spoof of Star Wars, yet it came to movie screens a decade after the sci-fi epic. Comic timing used to be Brooks's strong point, yet the story has no momentum and the film's funniest line—"May the Schwartz be with you"—is repeated so often that the joke quickly becomes stale.

The bad-taste scenes in Brooks's earlier films, most memorably Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, used to be considered provocative. Now that young filmmakers and television writers have stretched comedy to the extreme limits, Brooks has lost his ability to astound and appall the audience. His most recent feature, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, a parody of Errol Flynn-style swashbuckling adventures, is sorely lacking in laughs. The sole exception: Dom DeLuise's hilarious (but all too brief) Godfather spoof.

Life Stinks! is the most serious of all of Brooks's films. Rather than being a string of quick gags, it offers a slower-paced, more conventional narrative. As with To Be or Not to Be (which is set in Poland at the beginning of World War II), he treats a sobering theme in a comic manner as he comments on the plight of the homeless. But while To Be or Not to Be is as deeply moving as it is funny, Life Stinks! stinks. It is episodic and all too often flat, with its satire much too broad and all too rarely funny.

—Stuart M. Kaminsky, updated by Audrey E. Kupferberg

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"Brooks, Mel." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Encyclopedia.com. 29 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Brooks, Mel." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Retrieved May 29, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/brooks-mel

Brooks, Mel

BROOKS, Mel



Nationality: American. Born: Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn, New York, 28 June 1926. Education: Attended Virginia Military Institute, 1944, and Brooklyn College. Family: Married 1) Florence Baum (divorced), one son, two daughters; 2) the actress Anne Bancroft, one son. Career: 1944–46—combat engineer, U.S. Army; late 1940s—jazz drummer, stand-up comedian, and social director, Grossinger's resorts; 1950–58—writer and occasional performer for Sid Caesar's TV show; 1963—conceived, wrote, and narrated cartoon short The Critic; 1965—co-creator (with Buck Henry) of Get Smart TV show (ran 1965–69); 1968—directed first feature, The Producers; 1975—creator and producer of TV series When Things Were Rotten; 1980—founder, Brooksfilms. Awards: Academy Award for Best Short Subject, for The Critic, 1963; Academy Award for Best Story and Screenplay, and Writers Guild Award for Best Written Screenplay, for The Producers, 1969; American Comedy Awards Lifetime Achievement Award, 1987. Address: 2301 La Mesa, Santa Monica, CA 90405, U.S.A.


Films as Actor:

1969

Putney Swope (Downey) (as Mr. Forget It)

1979

The Muppet Movie (Frawley) (as Professor Max Krassman)

1983

To Be or Not to Be (Alan Johnson) (as Frederick Bronski, + pr, co-sc)

1990

Look Who's Talking, Too! (Heckerling) (as voice of Mr. Toilet Man)

1994

Il silenzio dei prosciutti (The Silence of the Hams) (Greggio); The Little Rascals (Spheeris) (as Mr. Welling)

1997

I Am Your Child (Rob Reiner—for TV) (as himself)

1998

The Prince of Egypt (Chapman, Hickner) (as voice)



Films as Actor, Director, and Scriptwriter:

1963

The Critic (animated) (as narrator)

1968

The Producers (as narrator)

1970

The Twelve Chairs (as Tikon, + mus)

1974

Blazing Saddles (as Governor Lepetomane/Indian Chief, co-sc, + mus); Young Frankenstein (Frankenstein Jr.) (co-sc)

1976

Silent Movie (as Mel Funn, co-sc)

1977

High Anxiety (as Dr. Richard Thorndyke, co-sc, + pr, mus)

1981

History of the World, Part I (as Moses/Comicus/Torquemada/ Jacques/King Louis XVI, co-sc, + pr, mus)

1987

Spaceballs (as President Skroob/Yogurt, co-sc, + pr)

1991

Life Stinks! (as Goddard Bolt, co-sc, + pr)

1993

Robin Hood: Men in Tights (as Rabbi Tuckman, co-sc, + pr)

1995

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (as Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, co-sc, + pr)

1999

Svitati (Greggio) (as Jake Gordon, co-sc)




Films as Executive Producer:

1980

The Elephant Man (David Lynch)

1985

The Doctor and the Devils (Francis)

1986

The Fly (Cronenberg); Solarbabies (Johnson)

1987

84 Charing Cross Road (David Jones)

1992

The Vagrant (Walas)

Publications


By BROOKS: books—

Silent Movie, New York, 1976.

History of the World, Part I, New York, 1981.

The 2000 Year Old Man, with Carl Reiner, New York, 1981.

The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000, New York, 1998.


By BROOKS: articles—

"Confessions of an Auteur," in Action (Los Angeles), November/December 1971.

Interview with James Atlas, in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1975.

"Fond Salutes and Naked Hate," interview with Gordon Gow, in Films and Filming (London), July 1975.

Interview with A. Remond, in Ecran (Paris), November 1976.

"Comedy Directors: Interview with Mel Brooks," interview with R. Rivlin, in Millimeter (New York), October and December 1977.

Interview with Alan Yentob, in Listener (London), 8 October 1981.

Interview in Time Out (London), 16 February 1984.

Interview in Screen International, 3 March 1984.

Interview in Hollywood Reporter, 27 October 1986.

Interview with L. Stegel, in Playboy (Chicago), January 1989.

"Mel Brooks: Of Woody, the Great Caesar, Flop Sweat and Cigar Smoke," in People Weekly (New York), Summer 1989 (special issue).


On BROOKS: books—

Adler, Bill, and Jeffrey Fineman, Mel Brooks: The Irreverent Funnyman, Chicago, 1976.

Bendazzi, G., Mel Brooks: l'ultima follia di Hollywood, Milan, 1977.

Holtzman, William, Seesaw: A Dual Biography of Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks, New York, 1979.

Allen, Steve, Funny People, New York, 1981.

Yacowar, Maurice, Method in Madness: The Comic Art of Mel Brooks, New York, 1981.

Smurthwaite, Nick, and Paul Gelder, Mel Brooks and the Spoof Movie, London, 1982.

Squire, Jason E., The Movie Business Book, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1983.


On BROOKS: articles—

"Two Thousand Year Old Man," in Newsweek (New York), 4 October 1965.

Current Biography 1974, New York, 1974.

Diehl, D., "Mel Brooks," in Action (Los Angeles), January/February 1975.

Lees, G., "The Mel Brooks Memos," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), October 1977.

Carcassonne, P., "Dossier: Hollywood 79: Mel Brooks," in Cinématographe (Paris), March 1979.

Karoubi, N., "Mel Brooks Follies," in Cinéma (Paris), February 1982.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 26: American Screenwriters, Detroit, 1984.

Erens, Patricia, "You Could Die Laughing: Jewish Humor and Film," in East-West Film Journal (Honolulu), no.1, 1987.

Frank, A., "Mel's Crazy Movie World," in Photoplay Movies & Video (London), January 1988.

Goldstein, T., "A History of Mel Brooks: Part I," in Video (New York), March 1988.

Stauth, C., "Mel and Me," in American Film (Los Angeles), April 1990.

Radio Times (London), 4 April 1992.


* * *

Mel Brooks has said that the funniest man in the world is Harry Ritz of The Ritz Brothers, the successful sibling comic act of the 1930s and 1940s. Harry and his brothers had a Catskill Mountain style of Jewish humor, the basis of which is snappy patter, quick and graceful moves, funny faces, and meticulous comic timing. For the past 25 years, Brooks has been trying to fit Harry Ritz's comedy style into his own film acting roles. As a young man in the 1940s he worked as a stand-up comic in the Borscht Belt, and it was there that he finetuned his comic delivery.

Brooks's first major film role came in his production of the Russian story The Twelve Chairs. He plays Tikon, an elderly janitor at an old-age home which used to be the wealthy mansion of a nobleman for whom he was manservant. Tikon appears only at the start of the film, and is on screen for a relatively short time. But Tikon becomes a star turn for Brooks, as he is given the chance to play a wildly funny drunk.

Brooks's next acting job came in Blazing Saddles, in which he cast himself in two roles: Governor Lepetomane and an Indian Chief, both of which are parodies rather than full-fledged characterizations. One of the biggest laughs in a film crammed with belly laughs comes when the Chief suddenly starts talking Yiddish. It is not so much Brooks's acting ability as it is his comic timing and the surprise gag that leave audiences teary-eyed with delight. In later endeavors, perhaps because many in his audience did not understand the source of the humor, Brooks stopped emphasizing comedy that relies on a Jewish ethnic identity and pursued more mainstream themes.

In Silent Movie he plays a has-been director. Since the movie actually is almost completely without dialog, Brooks gives a more physically expressive performance than usual, but the part is more silly than artful. High Anxiety, a spoof of Alfred Hitchcock's thrillers, saw him as a Harvard professor/psychiatrist, suffering from a fear of heights, who is invited to be Director of The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. As in his previous roles, Brooks presents a skillful, polished—though at times manic—comic performance.

Two performances stand out for Brooks, the screen actor. The first is his starring part as famed Polish stage star Frederick Bronski in his remake of Ernst Lubitsch's black comedy To Be or Not To Be. In this satire about a group of Warsaw thespians facing Nazi extermination at the beginning of World War II, Brooks plays the first full-bodied role of his career. Bronski first appears singing and dancing a hilarious Polish-language version of "Sweet Georgia Brown" with Anne Bancroft, playing his wife and partner Anna Bronski. The duet is a milestone in movie comedy, the sort of clip one might choose to take to a desert island. But the character of Bronski does more than sing and dance. Brooks is called upon to show Bronski as a man who tries to be brave and funny while in danger of losing his house, his theater, the lives of his colleagues and wife, and his own life. Brooks also spends much of the film as Bronski posing as other characters, particularly a bearded Nazi-scientist who has an eye for his wife. Brooks has scenes where he expresses fear and sadness very convincingly, although the script is structured so that each of these emotional moments is followed by a comical line. A final note about Brooks in To Be or Not to Be: He is the first and only comedy actor to play Hamlet and Hitler in the same film!

The second fully developed Brooks character appears in Life Stinks!, an otherwise disappointing attempt at a comedy involving the lives of homeless people. In what might be deemed Brooks's least funny film, he gives his most serious, naturalistic performance to date. He is Goddard Bolt, a heartless billionaire who agrees to live without money (or wig) for 30 days in a Los Angeles slum area in order to win a lucrative bet. On the streets for a couple of days, lacking food and shelter, he adopts more humane values and concerns. The film is slower-paced than his previous works, allowing Brooks to offer a more thoughtful and sensitive portrayal.

Many comedians—Jerry Lewis, Charlie Chaplin, Milton Berle, Bert Lahr, and Danny Kaye are just a few—have given outstanding dramatic performances on stage, screen and television. Now that Mel Brooks, master of comedy, has disclosed a talent for portraying man's serious side, perhaps he will execute a straight dramatic characterization in the future.

—Audrey E. Kupferberg

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Brooks, Mel

Mel Brooks, 1927–, American film director, writer, actor, and producer, b. New York City as Melvin Kaminsky. His earliest work was in television, notably as a gag writer for Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" (1950–54). He also scored a hit with a 1964 comedy recording, in which he played an irascible, Yiddish-accented 2,000-year-old man. Turning to film, he wrote and directed The Producers (1968), a comic masterpiece of uproarious bad taste. His other hit comedies are usually wild parodies that mix satire with slapstick; they include Blazing Saddles (1974), a spoof of Western movies; Young Frankenstein (1975), a Brooksian take on the horror genre, and High Anxiety (1977), a comic version of Alfred Hitchcock's spine-tinglers. Among his later movies, which have been less successful with the public, are To Be or Not To Be (1983), Life Stinks (1991), and Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). Brooks turned to the stage in 2001, adapting his first film hit, The Producers, into a smash hit, Tony-winning Broadway musical (film, 2005).

See biography by J. R. Parish (2007); N. Smurthwaite and P. Gelder, Mel Brooks and the Spoof Movie (1982); M. Yakowar, In Method Madness: The Comic Art of Mel Brooks (1982); N. Sinyard, The Films of Mel Brooks (1987).

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