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,
Putney Swope (Downey) (as Mr. Forget It)
The Muppet Movie (Frawley) (as Professor Max Krassman)
To Be or Not to Be (Alan Johnson) (as Frederick Bronski, + pr, co-sc)
Look Who's Talking, Too! (Heckerling) (as voice of Mr. Toilet Man)
Il silenzio dei prosciutti ( The Silence of the Hams ) (Greggio); The Little Rascals (Spheeris) (as Mr. Welling)
I Am Your Child (Rob Reiner—for TV) (as himself)
The Prince of Egypt (Chapman, Hickner) (as voice)
The Critic (animated) (as narrator)
The Producers (as narrator)
The Twelve Chairs (as Tikon, + mus)
Blazing Saddles (as Governor Lepetomane/Indian Chief, co-sc, + mus); Young Frankenstein ( Frankenstein Jr. ) (co-sc)
Silent Movie (as Mel Funn, co-sc)
High Anxiety (as Dr. Richard Thorndyke, co-sc, + pr, mus)
History of the World, Part I (as Moses/Comicus/Torquemada/ Jacques/King Louis XVI, co-sc, + pr, mus)
Spaceballs (as President Skroob/Yogurt, co-sc, + pr)
Life Stinks! (as Goddard Bolt, co-sc, + pr)
Robin Hood: Men in Tights (as Rabbi Tuckman, co-sc, + pr)
Dracula: Dead and Loving It (as Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, co-sc, + pr)
Svitati (Greggio) (as Jake Gordon, co-sc)
The Elephant Man (David Lynch)
The Doctor and the Devils (Francis)
The Fly (Cronenberg); Solarbabies (Johnson)
84 Charing Cross Road (David Jones)
The Vagrant (Walas)
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.
"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).
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.
"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
Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: