Inside the charmed world of Mel Brooks

Inside the charmed world of Mel Brooks

For the JC December 2021

Twenty-one things we learn about Mel Brooks from his memoir, All About Me

1. At 95, Melvin Kaminsky has the soul of a nine-year-old boy. His descriptions of his early Brooklyn Depression-era childhood — brought up by his widowed mother and his three older brothers, Irving, Lenny and Bernie — record every single street game ever played and every delicious egg cream (neither egg nor cream, it’s a chocolate drink) he ever slurped at Feingold’s candy store counter.

2. His mum, Katie Kaminsky, once went out with comedian Eddie Cantor. Her single name, Brookman, was the origin of Mel Brooks’s professional name; he began to play drums and was going to put “Mel Brookman” on the front of his kit, but ran out of space.

3. His paternal grandfather, Abraham Kaminsky, was in the herring business in Gdansk and continued in that trade in America. Brooks says his Uncle Lee was one of his comedy inspirations; one of 10 siblings, Lee Kaminsky used to entertain all the younger cousins at the family sedarim.

4. The family were not very observant, he says, and were “too poor to afford tickets for High Holiday services, so we hardly ever attended temple”. But he did have a barmitzvah — and he once admitted to the JC that his daughter, Stefanie, had become religious.

5. Brooks married twice, though you would never know from this book as he doesn’t even record the name of his first wife. She was in fact actress Florence Baum, the mother of his first three children, Stefanie, Nicky and Eddie. His youngest son, Max, named after Brooks’ own father, who died when he was two, is his child with the actress Anne Bancroft.

6. He entered the US army in the last year of the Second World War, serving as a combat engineer and a rather successful sniper. As an engineer he had to build makeshift bridges for oncoming American troops. One night he heard Germans singing, on the other side of the river where he was assembling one of these bridges. They were out of tune and Brooks “decided to teach them what real singing sounded like” by picking up a bullhorn and serenading the enemy with his rendition of “Toot Toot Tootsie”. Applause and shouts of “Sehr Gut!” — very good — from the Germans. By that time, presumably, they knew they’d lost the war.

7. Before he joined up, he got a different kind of basic training, working in the Catskill Mountains, famously known as the Borscht Belt, as a drummer and wannabe comic. This was the place where Jewish families would relocate from the heat of New York in the summer months, and where entertainment was regularly provided by a string of Jewish comics, many of whom became household names in America in the early days of television. He was, as a scrawny teenager, a “pool tummler” — the one who “wakes up the Jews when they fall asleep around the pool after lunch”. He also had a (very bad) song to introduce himself: “Here I am, I’m Melvin Brooks, I’ve come to stop the show…”

8. The Inspiration for The Producers, his runaway film and stage success, came as a result of his first proper job in show business, as a production assistant for a man called Benjamin Kutcher, whose many eccentricities Brooks later gave voice to in the person of Max Bialystock. Kutcher, like Bialystock later, “raised most of his money from a bevy of backers consisting of elderly women that he would flatter to pieces”.

9. It was meeting comic Sid Caesar and becoming his writer, first for his stage show and then for his wildly successful TV programme, Your Show of Shows, that propelled Brooks into the public eye. And working with him was a bevy of other Jewish talents: apart from Caesar himself, there was Carl Reiner, who became one of Brooks’ dearest friends, the future playwright Neil Simon and his brother Danny, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, and the head comedy writer, Mel Tolkin, born Shmuel Tolchinsky. Together, these young Jews helped craft American comedy for a decade. Brooks pays tribute fair and square: “If there was no Sid Caesar, there would never have been a Mel Brooks”.

10. Brooks credits Carl Reiner for saving the next stage in his career. He even brings in Christ: “Christ said, On this rock I will found my church. On this Jew from the Bronx, Carl Reiner, I founded my church”. When Your Show of Shows folded, Brooks was unemployed. Reiner began doing mock interviews with him, mini-sketches which became the legendary 2000 Year Old Man. At first the skits were for their own, private, amusement, performed at parties. But then in 1961 Reiner and Brooks made an album featuring the 2000 Year Old Man, and it was a huge comedy hit. Brooks confesses: “Part of my motive for doing the 2000 Year Old Man was to preserve the Yiddish dialect and the sounds that I grew up with. I was doing my grandparents — my father’s father and mother, and my mother’s father, and their friends. I loved them. Hearing those voice always made me feel safe”.

11. And it was the 2000 Year Old Man which was his calling-card when he first met Anne Bancroft. He’d turned up with a writer friend at a rehearsal of a show she was appearing in, and was so struck by her that he burst into applause and shouted “Anne Bancroft! I love you!” She shouted back, “Who the hell are you?” and he told her his name and said she would never have heard of him. “Wrong!” said Bancroft. “I’ve got your 2000 Year Old Man record with Carl Reiner. It’s great”. That was the beginning of a rapturous love affair and 41 years of marriage, ending with her death in 2005.

12. It took Brooks three years, from meeting Bancroft in 1961, to make enough money to marry her in 1964. He worked on a lot of collaborative writing projects and then struck lucky with a TV show about a hapless secret agent, Maxwell Smart, called Get Smart! Its success led him to write his breakthrough show, The Producers, whose central idea was that you can make more money with a flop than a hit.

13. He had no directing experience before The Producers. He was urged to take any kind of directing job at all, just to get the general idea. This is how Brooks ended up directing two TV commercials for potato crisps, earning him $1400 and a huge free box of crisps.

14. The original choice for the crazed, Hitler-loving German Franz Liebkind in the film was — a not-yet famous Dustin Hoffman. But before filming started Hoffman got the part of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, starring opposite Brooks’ wife, Anne Bancroft.

15. Brooks’s Oscar for The Producers, like all his awards, ended up in his mother’s flat in Florida. Anne Bancroft’s trophies adorned her mother’s TV set in Yonkers.

16. His parody Western, Blazing Saddles, was written by him and a group of writers, comics, and a former lawyer and dentist. None of them knew anything about the West, or cowboys. They were undeterred and Brooks was confident that “we will all be in jail for making this movie.” He was happily wrong. The film led to the creation of a floating company of actors whom he cast in many other movies, including Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn.

17. Young Frankenstein, ambitiously made in black-and-white, was not Brooks’ s original idea but Gene Wilder’s. It was written and plotted during the filming of Blazing Saddles and included the showstopping number, “Puttin’ on the Riiiiitz”.

18. Brooks not only got permission but his blessing for his homage film, High Anxiety, a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock. Hitch sat next to Brooks at the premiere in 1977 and Brooks was indeed anxious about the Master’s response. Not to worry. He loved it.

19. Brooks set up Brooksfilms, a production company, so that he could confound expectations that every film was going to be a comedy. It produced serious films such as The Elephant Man, 84 Charing Cross Road, and light comedies without Brooks such as My Favourite Year, starring Peter O’Toole.

20. In 2009 President Barack Obama honoured Brooks at the Kennedy Centre Honours awards. Brooks took his entire family: his daughter, Stefanie, his daughter-in-law MIchelle (Max’s wife) and their son, Henry; his son Nicholas, his son Eddie and wife Sarah, with their daughter Samantha. Brooks mused. “I never realised how short my whole family is until we took pictures next to the Obamas. They were like redwood trees next to us!”

21. He has won all four major entertainment awards — Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony — making him a rare EGOT winner. And he was only persuaded to write this book by the literary super-agent, Britain’s own Jonny Geller.

  • 15 December, 2021