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Mel Brooks (born Melvin Kaminsky; June 28, 1926)[1] is an American director, writer, composer, lyricist, comedian, actor and producer best known as a creator of broad film farces and comedy parodies. Brooks is a member of the short list of entertainers with the distinction of having won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award.

Biography

Early life

Brooks was born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Kate (née Brookman), a garment worker, and Max Kaminsky, a process server.[2] Brooks's family was Jewish; his mother's parents emigrated from outside Kiev and his paternal family from Austria.[3] His father died of kidney disease at age 34.

As a child, Brooks was a small and sickly boy. He was bullied and picked on by his peers. By taking on the comically aggressive job of Tummler in various Catskills resorts, he overcame his childhood of bullying and name calling.[4]

He went to school in New York. For elementary, he went to Public School 19 (Williamsburg). For middle school, he went to Francis Scott Key Junior High (Williamsburg). Brooks went to Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. In June 1944, Brooks enlisted in the Army.[5] He had basic training at Virginia Military Institute and finished up at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. He was shipped off to war in February of 1945 where he initially served as forward observer for the artillery. Shortly thereafter, Brooks was reassigned to the 1104th Combat Engineers Group. Several months later, Germany had surrendered and Brooks was promoted to corporal. He continued to serve in Germany for another four months in charge of Special Services (entertainment). Brooks completed his service at Fort Dix in New Jersey.

Early career

Brooks started out in show business as a stand-up comic, telling jokes and doing movie-star impressions. He found more rewarding work behind the scenes, becoming a comedy writer for television. He joined the hit comedy series Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner. In 1960, an attack of gout (and the aftermath of the surgery done to relieve it) left him allegedly feeling like a 2000-year-old man.

This became the persona of The 2000 Year Old Man, the focus of ad-libbed comedy routines and comedy records, with Carl Reiner as his straight man. Reiner, as creator of The Dick Van Dyke Show, based Morey Amsterdam's character Buddy Sorell on Brooks.

Brooks later moved into film, working as an actor, director, writer, and producer. Brooks' first film was The Critic (1963), an animated satire of arty, esoteric cinema, conceived by Brooks and directed by Ernest Pintoff. Brooks supplied running commentary as the baffled moviegoer trying to make sense of the obscure visuals. The short film won an Academy Award. With Buck Henry, Brooks created the successful TV series Get Smart, starring Don Adams as a bumbling secret agent. This series added to Brooks' reputation as a clever satirist.

Brooks' first feature film, The Producers, was a dark comedy about two theatrical partners who deliberately contrive the worst possible Broadway show. The film was so brazen in its satire (its big production number was "Springtime for Hitler") that the major studios wouldn't touch it, nor would many exhibitors. Brooks finally found an independent distributor, which released it like an art film, as a specialized attraction. The film received an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The film became a smash underground hit, first on the nationwide college circuit, then in revivals and on home video. Brooks later turned it into a musical, which became one of the most popular Broadway shows.

His two most financially successful films were released in 1974: Blazing Saddles (co-written with Richard Pryor, Andrew Bergman, Norman Steinberg and Alan Uger), and Young Frankenstein (co-written with Gene Wilder). He followed these up with an audacious idea: the first feature-length silent comedy in four decades. Silent Movie (1976) featured Brooks in his first leading role, with Dom DeLuise and Marty Feldman as his sidekicks. The following year he released his Hitchcock parody High Anxiety, which was the first movie produced by Brooks himself.

Brooks developed a repertory company of sorts for his film work: performers with three or more Brooks films to their credit include Gene Wilder, Dom DeLuise, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Ron Carey and Andréas Voutsinas. Dom DeLuise has appeared in six of Brooks' 12 films, the only person with more appearances being Brooks himself. In 1975, at the height of his movie career, Brooks tried TV again with When Things Were Rotten, a Robin Hood parody that lasted only 13 episodes. Nearly 20 years later, Brooks mounted another Robin Hood parody with Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

Later career

In 1980, Brooks became interested in producing the dramatic film The Elephant Man (directed by David Lynch). Knowing that anyone seeing a poster reading "Mel Brooks presents The Elephant Man' would expect a comedy, he set up the company Brooksfilms. Brooksfilms has since produced a number of non-comedy films, including David Cronenberg's The Fly, Frances, and 84 Charing Cross Road, starring Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft, as well as comedies, including Richard Benjamin's My Favorite Year.

The 1980s saw Brooks produce and direct only two films, the first being History of the World Part I in 1981, a tongue-in-cheek look at human culture from the Dawn of Man to the French Revolution. As part of the film's soundtrack, Brooks, then aged 55, recorded a rap entitled "It's Good to Be the King", sending up Louis XVI and the French Revolution; it was released as a single, and became an unlikely US disco hit. His second movie release of the decade came in 1987 in the form of Spaceballs, a parody of Star Wars. Both films featured him in multiple roles. He also starred in the 1983 remake To Be or Not to Be.

Brooks' most recent success has been a transfer of his film The Producers to the Broadway stage. Brooks also had a vocal role in the 2005 animated film Robots. He is currently working on an animated series sequel to Spaceballs. Spaceballs: The TV Series was expected to premiere June 1, 2008 on G4 TV.

Brooks is one of the few artists who have received an Oscar, Emmy, Tony, and Grammy. He was awarded his first Grammy award for Best Spoken Comedy Album in 1999 for his recording of The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000 with Carl Reiner. His two other Grammys came in 2002 for Best Musical Show Album, for the soundtrack to The Producers, and for Best Long Form Music Video for the DVD "Recording the Producers - A Musical Romp with Mel Brooks". He won his first of four Emmy awards in 1967 for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Variety for a Sid Caesar special. He went on to win three consecutive Emmys in 1997, 1998, and 1999 for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series for his role of Uncle Phil on Mad About You. He won his three Tony awards in 2001 for his work on the musical, The Producers. He won Tonys for Best Musical, Best Original Musical Score, and Best Book of a Musical. Additionally, he won a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award for Young Frankenstein. In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, he was voted #50 of the top 50 comedy acts ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders. Three of Brooks' films are on the American Film Institute's list of funniest American films: Blazing Saddles (#6), The Producers (#11), and Young Frankenstein (#13).

Brooks and his wife Anne Bancroft acted together in Silent Movie and To Be or Not to Be, and Bancroft also had a bit part in the 1995 film Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Years later, the Brooks' appeared as themselves in the fourth season finale of Curb Your Enthusiasm, spoofing the finale of The Producers. It is reported that Bancroft encouraged Brooks (after an idea suggested by David Geffen) to take The Producers to Broadway where it became an enormous success, as the show broke the Tony record with 12 wins, a record that had previously been held for 37 years by Hello, Dolly! at 10 wins. Such success has translated to a big-screen version of the Broadway adaptation/remake with actors Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane reprising their stage roles, in addition to new cast members Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell. As of early April 2006, Brooks had begun composing the score to a Broadway musical adaptation of Young Frankenstein, which he says is "perhaps the best movie [he] ever made." The world premiere was performed at Seattle's most historic theatre (originally built as a movie palace), The Paramount Theatre, between August 7, 2007, and September 1, 2007 after which it opened on Broadway at the Hilton Theatre, New York, on October 11, 2007.

In interviews broadcast on WABC radio, Brooks has discussed with NYC radio personality Mark Simone the possibilities of turning other works from his creative oeuvre (such as the movie Blazing Saddles) into future musical productions. Specifically, in a conversation airing March 1, 2008, he and Simone speculated on what show tunes might be incorporated into a theatrical adaptation of the Get Smart property.

Personal life

Brooks was married to Florence Baum from 1951 to 1961. Their marriage ended in divorce. Mel and Florence had three children, Stephanie, Nicky, and Eddie. More famously, he was married to the actress Anne Bancroft from 1964 until her death from uterine cancer on June 6, 2005. They met on rehearsal for the Perry Como Variety Show in 1961 and married three years later, August 5th. They had one son, Maximillian, in 1972.

Work

Writer/director

  • The Producers (1968) (Academy Award, best original screenplay)
  • The Twelve Chairs (1970) (also actor)
  • Blazing Saddles (1974) (also actor)
  • Young Frankenstein (1974)
  • Silent Movie (1976) (also actor)
  • High Anxiety (1977) (also actor)
  • History of the World, Part I (1981) (also actor/producer)
  • Spaceballs (1987) (also actor/producer)
  • Life Stinks (1991) (also actor/producer)
  • Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) (also actor/producer)
  • Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) (also actor/producer)

Theater

  • Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 1952 (1952) (sketches for a revue)
  • Shinbone Alley (1957) (co-book-writer)
  • All-American (1962) (book-writer)
  • The Producers (2001) (composer, lyricist, co-book-writer, producer; Tony Award for Best Musical, Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical,Tony Award for Best Original Score)
  • Young Frankenstein (2007) (composer, lyricist, co-book-writer, producer)

Other works

  • Your Show of Shows (TV) (1950-1954) (writer)
  • The Critic (short film, Academy Award winner for Short Subjects (Cartoons)) (1963) (created and narrated)
  • Get Smart (TV) (1965-1970) (co-creator, writer)
  • When Things Were Rotten (1975) (co-created, writer)
  • The Electric Company (TV) (1971-1977) (voice of recurring little cartoon man who asks: "Who's the dummy writing this show?!")
  • The Elephant Man (1980) (uncredited executive producer)
  • To Be or Not to Be (1983) (actor, producer)
  • The Fly (1986) (uncredited producer)
  • The Fly II (1989) (uncredited producer)
  • The Tracy Ullman Show (1990) (actor-Buzz Schlanger)
  • Look Who's Talking Too (voice of Mr. Toilet Man)
  • Frasier (1993) (voice of Tom)
  • The Little Rascals (1994) (actor-Mr. Welling)
  • Silence of the Hams (1994) (actor-Checkout Guest)
  • The Prince of Egypt (1998) (uncredited, additional voices)
  • Svitati (AKA Screw Loose) (1999) (actor-Jake Gordon)
  • Mad About You (TV) (1996-1999) (actor-Uncle Phil)
  • Sex, lögner & videovåld (2000) (video) (actor-Stressed Old Man)
  • It's a Very Muppet Christmas Movie (TV) (2002) (voice of Joe Snow)
  • The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius: Season 2 (voice of Santa Claus)
  • Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks (2003-present) (voice of Wiley the Sheep)
  • Curb Your Enthusiasm: Season 4 (actor)
  • Robots (2005) (voice of Bigweld)
  • The Producers (2005) (writer, producer)
  • Spaceballs: The Animated Series (2007) (writer, producer, voice)

See also

  • List of persons who have won Academy, Emmy, Grammy, and Tony Awards

Further reading

  • Jeff Rovin. Cat Angels, Harper Paperbacks, ISBN 0-06-100972-5
  • Parish, James Robert. It's Good to Be the King: The Seriously Funny Life of Mel Brooks (2007) Wiley ISBN 0471752673

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