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A true legend in the entertainment industry, Mel Brooks was an Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe and Tony-winning creator and performer of some of the biggest comedy hits on television, in film, and on Broadway. He got his start penning gags for Sid Caesar on the legendary "Your Show of Shows" (NBC, 1950-54) before developing his own series, "Get Smart" (NBC/CBS, 1965-1970). He soon graduated to directing films and turned out a string of uproarious and bawdy parodies of Hollywood genres, including "Young Frankenstein" (1974), "Blazing Saddles" (1974), and "High Anxiety" (1977) - all considered classics by anyone's standards. His first theatrical feature, "The Producers" (1968), later served as the basis for a hit Broadway musical, which earned Brooks and his cast and crew a record 12 Tony Awards in 2001. With the success of the big screen adaptation of "Get Smart" (2008), more than 40 years after the premiere of the original series, it was clear that the mad mind of Mel Brooks still packed a timeless comedic punch.Born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn, New York on June 28, 1926, Brooks discovered his ability to make others laugh in the same manner as so many other comedians - by performing for his parents,...
A true legend in the entertainment industry, Mel Brooks was an Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe and Tony-winning creator and performer of some of the biggest comedy hits on television, in film, and on Broadway. He got his start penning gags for Sid Caesar on the legendary "Your Show of Shows" (NBC, 1950-54) before developing his own series, "Get Smart" (NBC/CBS, 1965-1970). He soon graduated to directing films and turned out a string of uproarious and bawdy parodies of Hollywood genres, including "Young Frankenstein" (1974), "Blazing Saddles" (1974), and "High Anxiety" (1977) - all considered classics by anyone's standards. His first theatrical feature, "The Producers" (1968), later served as the basis for a hit Broadway musical, which earned Brooks and his cast and crew a record 12 Tony Awards in 2001. With the success of the big screen adaptation of "Get Smart" (2008), more than 40 years after the premiere of the original series, it was clear that the mad mind of Mel Brooks still packed a timeless comedic punch.
Born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn, New York on June 28, 1926, Brooks discovered his ability to make others laugh in the same manner as so many other comedians - by performing for his parents, Maximilian and Kate, and his brothers Leonard, Irving and Bernard. After serving as a combat engineer in Europe and North Africa with the Army during World War II, Brooks sharpened his chops as an emcee and musician at the Catskills resort Grossinger's, where he also changed his name to Brooks (a variant on his mother's maiden name, Brookman) to avoid confusion with trumpeter Max Kaminsky. The experience helped to solidify some of the recurring themes and elements in Brooks' comedy - broad humor with a distinctly Jewish flavor, driven by larger-than-life portrayals, absurd wordplay, parodies of well-known celebrities and popular culture; all of it shot through with a vein of burlesque-style shtick. In 1951, Brooks married Florence Baum, with whom he had three children. The couple split in 1961.
Brooks' career as a writer began with "The Admiral Broadway Revue" (NBC/Dumont, 1949), a Broadway-style variety program that brought together the formidable comedy team of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Brooks followed the duo to their next variety series, "Your Show of Shows" (NBC, 1950-54), where he joined such budding comic talents as Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin, and Carl Reiner, and its follow-up, "Caesar's Hour" (NBC, 1954-57), where he was joined by a young Woody Allen. Brooks also contributed sketch material to the revue "New Faces of 1952," which ran on Broadway in that year. He also displayed a talent for penning musical theater - Brooks co-wrote the book for "Shinbone Alley" (1957), based on the New York Tribune columns by Don Marquis about a lovelorn cat and a philosophical cockroach (an animated film based on the musical was released in 1971), and contributed most of the book for the 1962 musical "All American." During this period, Brooks also met and wooed actress Ann Bancroft, who was the toast of Broadway at the time for her performance in the Broadway play "The Miracle Worker." The couple married in 1964 and had one son, Max, who later achieved fame as a writer for "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) and several horror-related fiction and non-fiction books.
While exploring these venues, Brooks also developed a comic character called "The 2,000 Year Old Man," which grew out of a painful bout of gout that left Brooks feeling not unlike his ancient character. Brooks and Carl Reiner improvised and recorded an "interview" with the character at a party, which lead to several TV appearances and helped establish Brooks' reputation as one of the quickest wits in American comedy. Brooks' first foray into film won an Academy Award - "The Critic" (1963), an animated short written by Brooks and directed by Ernest Pintoff, spoofed the unfathomable nature of certain experimental films by showing a stream of abstract images, under which the voice of an elderly audience member (Brooks) can be heard complaining. He then returned to television to create "Get Smart" with Buck Henry. The series, which revolved around the misadventures of bumbling secret agent Maxwell Smart (Don Adams), offered both a refreshing alternative to the glut of spy entertainment in the mid-60s and a hilarious showcase for Brooks' humor.
Brooks made his debut as a writer-director with "The Producers" (1968), a broad farce about two failed Broadway producers (Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder) who deliberately set out to make the worst production possible in order to take advantage of a bookkeeping loophole. Unfortunately, the result, a pro-Nazi musical called "Springtime for Hitler," becomes a smash hit. The film received numerous negative reviews upon its release, and was virtually abandoned by Embassy Pictures until Peter Sellers placed a full-page ad in Variety that sang the film's praises. His support was echoed by the Academy and Writers Guild voters, who awarded Brooks an Oscar and WGA Award for Best Original Screenplay.
He returned two years later with "The Twelve Chairs" (1970), a slapstick adaptation of a 1928 Russian novel about a nobleman (Ron Moody) and a con man (Frank Langella) who embark on a slapstick search for the twelve chairs that hide a family fortune. The film was perhaps best noted for the first collaboration between Brooks and comic actor Dom DeLuise, who appeared in six of Brooks' 12 features. A four year break - during which Brooks lent his voice to an animated character on "The Electric Company" (PBS, 1971-77) and voiced a curious infant boy on Marlo Thomas' groundbreaking 1972 Free To Be You and Me LP (he also appeared in the 1974 TV special of the same name) - preceded his first blockbuster, "Blazing Saddles" (1974), which simultaneously tweaked the Western genre and trod thoroughly on pre-conceived notions of cinematic good taste. Andrew Bergman (1979) and Richard Pryor were among the writers tapped by Brooks to work on the script; Pryor was also originally considered for the role of heroic sheriff Black Bart, but studio concern over his reputation and drug habits forced Brooks to cast Cleavon Little in his stead. Critics were again split over the film during its release, with many negative reviews focusing on the rampant racial jokes and explosive bodily function humor. But audiences turned out in droves, and the film received three Oscar nominations (Best Supporting Actress for Madeline Kahn as the Marlene Dietrich-esque Lili Shtupp, Best Film Editing, and Best Song for the title song, sung with gusto by Frankie Laine) as well as a Writers Guild Award for Best Comedy. In 2006, it was selected by the National Film Registry for preservation.
That same year, Brooks turned his satiric eye on the Universal horror films of the 1930s with "Young Frankenstein" (1974), which told the story of Frankenstein relative Frederich (Gene Wilder, who also co-wrote the script), who returns to his grandfather's castle to bring another monster (Peter Boyle) to life with the assistance of hunchback Igor (pronounced "Eye-gor," and played by Marty Feldman). Shot in black-and-white and featuring numerous period camera effects and props from the 1931 "Frankenstein," the film was perhaps Brooks' most successful blend of raunch and absurdism, and featured one of the most indelible comic moments of the late 20th century - the sight of Dr. Frankenstein displaying his monster's abilities by leading him in a tone-deaf version of "Puttin' On the Ritz." Another audience favorite, the film took home two Golden Globes (for Madeline Kahn as Frederich's fiancée, who falls for the monster's prowess; and Cloris Leachman as castle keeper Frau Blucher, whose name inspires audible terror in horses), a Writers Guild Award for Brooks and Wilder, and two Academy Award nominations.
Brooks himself took the lead in his next film, the ambitious "Silent Movie" (1976), which paid tribute to Golden Age comedies by featuring just one audible line (spoken, ironically enough, by mime Marcel Marceau), and sending Brooks (as movie director Marty Funn) and his cohorts (Feldman and DeLuise) on a slapstick romp to complete the first silent film in decades. Top '70s stars Burt Reynolds, Paul Newman, James Caan, Liza Minelli, and Anne Bancroft got to exhibit their silly sides with cameos in the film, but the picture did not fare as well as its predecessors. Brooks - who was named the 6th most popular film actor in a Hollywood exhibitors' poll, despite having starred in only two films - returned briefly to television with "When Things Were Rotten" (ABC, 1975), a comic spoof on the Robin Hood legend with "Get Smart" vets Dick Gautier and Bernie Kopell as Robin and Alan-a-Dale, respectively. The show was rife with Brooks' rapid fire, culture-skewering humor, but failed to find an audience, and disappeared after only half a season. Brooks would later revive the idea for his 1993 comedy, "Robin Hood: Men in Tights."
Brooks and his comic troupe reconvened in 1977 for "High Anxiety," a spot-on spoof and tribute to the films of Alfred Hitchcock (who reportedly loved the film). Brooks was top-billed as a psychologist (who suffers from the title malady) who must clear his name when a series of murders takes place after he takes control of the Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. Film buffs enjoyed Brooks' numerous references to classic scenes from Hitchcock films - which, in true Brooks' fashion, were often turned upside down for comic relief; most notably the jungle gym attack from "The Birds," 1963, which ends with Brooks covered in fake guano - but the picture was another middling success.
In 1980, Brooks began Brooksfilms, a production company he launched to finance David Lynch's film version of "The Elephant Man" (1980). The film was a huge success and netted several Oscar nominations and other film awards, and Brooksfilms soon oversaw the production of several eclectic dramas, including "Frances" (1982), "84 Charing Cross Road" (1987) and David Cronenberg's remake of "The Fly" (1986), as well as Brooks' own comedies in the '80s and '90s and Richard Benjamin's "My Favorite Year" (1982), which paid tribute to "Your Show of Shows." Brooks returned to spoofs in 1981 with "History of the World, Part I," an all-out assault on good taste that also managed to wreak havoc on civilization from prehistoric times to the French Revolution. The film was a moderate success and featured several inspired moments - most notably a musical number set during the Spanish Inquisition and a faux trailer for the sci-fi epic "Jews in Space" - but suffered from too much crassness and too few moments of genuine humor. Incredibly, Brooks scored a Top 100 Billboard hit with a hip-hop song inspired by the film's oft-quoted catch phrase, "It's Good to Be the King."
Brooks co-wrote, produced and starred with Bancroft as Polish actors who must impersonate Nazis in order to flee the country in "To Be or Not to Be" (1983), a remake of the 1942 Ernst Lubitsch comedy (perversely, this film also yielded a chart hit, "To Be Or Not To Be (Hitler Rap)," which reached #12 in 1984). He then returned to parody terrain for "Spaceballs" (1987), a moderately amusing poke at "Star Wars" (1977) and other science fiction epics. It too underperformed during its theatrical run, but enjoyed a decent second life as a cult favorite on home video and cable. In 2005, Brooks announced that the film would serve as the basis for an animated series; the show was eventually slated for broadcast in 2007, with Brooks serving as writer and vocal talent.
After lending his distinct voice to a talking toilet in "Look Who's Talking Too" (1990), Brooks wrote, directed and starred in "Life Stinks" (1991), his first abject flop. It was followed by two more underperformers, "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" (1993) and "Dracula: Dead and Loving It" (1995), which made most viewers long for "Young Frankenstein." Brooks stepped away from filmmaking for a few years to make frequent guest appearances in movies and television shows. He won three consecutive Emmys for his turn as Uncle Phil on "Mad About You" (NBC, 1992-99) between 1997 and 1999. He was also a welcome guest on numerous talk shows, where he proved that in person, his comic timing and knack for outrageousness had not dimmed over the decades. In 2001, Brooks unveiled a Broadway musical based on his first feature, "The Producers;" the show, which starred Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, was a colossal hit that broke box office records ($3.5 million in ticket sales on a single day) and earned 12 Tony Awards - the most for any Broadway show since "Hello, Dolly!" Brooks also took home two Grammys for the show's album and for a long form video, "Recording The Producers - A Musical Romp with Mel Brooks," both in 2002.
A feature based on the Broadway play and starring Lane and Broderick was released in 2005, but the presence of the original stars and Will Ferrell as the mad Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind could not summon the same sort of audience response. "The Producers" also served as a major story line for the fourth season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (HBO, 2000- ) when the series' star, Larry David, was cast in a Los Angeles production of the play. Brooks and Bancroft appeared in the season finale, which would serve as her final screen appearance; she passed away from uterine cancer in 2005. After "The Producers," Brooks showed no signs of slowing down. A second musical based on one of his films - this time, "Young Frankenstein" - opened to rave reviews in the fall of 2007, as well as a big screen version of "Get Smart" with Steve Carell as Maxwell Smart in the summer of 2008. In late 2009, Brooks, along with Bruce Springsteen and Robert De Niro, was the recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor from The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
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