Mel Brooks

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Brooks, Mel (1926- ), American film and television writer, director, producer, and actor, perhaps best known for his clever but highly irreverent comic style. Melvin Kaminsky was born on June 28, 1926, in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Max and Kitty Kaminsky. The elder Kaminsky, a process server, died when his youngest son was three years old, prompting his widow to find employment as a garment worker.

Melvin, a rather tiny child—his height as an adult reached only 5 feet 6 inches (1.7 meters)—discovered humor as a shield at a very early age as well as a love for words. He also loved movies, which nurtured in him a fascination with show business, on which he was finally able to act when, at the age of 14, he found a summer job as a busboy at a resort in the Catskill Mountains. Aspiring also to a career as a drummer—Buddy Rich was his first teacher—he developed little sketches that delighted audiences with their benevolent outrageousness. At 16 he landed his first professional job, playing drums and telling jokes at another Catskills resort. Two years later he adopted Mel Brooks as his stage name, Brooks being a shortened version of his mother's maiden name, Brookman.

Brooks served in the army during World War II, but his first serious breaks came afterward, when he was put in charge of a Special Services unit designed to entertain the occupying troops in Europe. That experience enabled him, after a brief stint at Brooklyn College and another working in a clothing factory, to return to the Catskills as an entertainer. At Grossinger's resort in the late 1940s, Brooks crossed paths with Sid Caesar, another comic, and in 1949 Caesar hired Brooks as a writer for his first television show, The Admiral Broadway Revue. Although the show lasted only six months, it served as a springboard for Your Show of Shows (1950–1954), for which Brooks (and a host of other then-unknowns, among them Neil Simon and Woody Allen) was hired as a writer. The show ran for four years, after which Caesar kept Brooks on as a writer for another series of less successful shows, ending in 1958. He also wrote a short-lived Broadway comedy, Shinbone Alley (1957), based on the writing of humorist Don Marquis. For the next two years Brooks wrote sketches for TV specials.

Another break arrived in 1960, when Brooks and his Your Show of Shows colleague Carl Reiner expanded a sketch the two had created during a party, wherein Reiner played a reporter interviewing a 2,000-year-old man, played by Brooks. The recording was so successful that it was followed by two sequels and in five years had sold more than 2 million copies. In 1963 Brooks ventured into film with an animated short, The Critic, which won an Academy Award. Also in that decade he made his own foray into television, creating, in collaboration with Buck Henry, Get Smart. The series, starring Don Adams as a bumbling secret agent, made its debut in 1965 and ran for five years.

On the strength of his success on the small screen, Brooks was finally able to venture into feature films. His first effort, The Producers (1968), a bizarre comedy about an unethical showman's attempts to stage the worst musical in Broadway history, won Brooks an Academy Award for best original screenplay. Brooks then adapted the 1929 Russian comic novel The Twelve Chairs (1970), a gentle satire about the search for a stash of jewels that was largely overlooked by U.S. audiences. Four years later, however, he released his two most successful films to date, the bawdy Western spoof Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, a blissfully funny and visually meticulous homage to the horror movies released by Universal in the early 1930s. Both were enormous hits and are considered, along with The Producers, Brooks's best works.

A string of lesser efforts followed: Silent Movie (1976), High Anxiety (1977), History of the World: Part I (1981), To Be or Not to Be (1983), Spaceballs (1987), Life Stinks (1991), Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995). None of those films reached the critical or box-office level of his work from the mid-1970s (when Brooks also created the short-lived 1975 TV series When Things Were Rotten).

Brooks continued to make guest appearances in other filmmakers' pictures, to do voiceover work, and to carve out an impressive career as a producer of excellent independent films. Among these were the Academy Award–winning The Elephant Man (1980), directed by David Lynch, and 84 Charing Cross Road (1986), costarring Anne Bancroft, Brooks's second wife, and Anthony Hopkins.

In the 21st century Brooks and his old cohort, Carl Reiner, published The 2,000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000: The Book, "as told to each other." The next year Brooks's first film took on a rousing new life on stage—The Producers, with a book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan and music and lyrics by Brooks. The musical, directed by Susan Stroman and starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, opened on Broadway in April 2001 and subsequently won a record 12 Tony Awards, 3 of them (for best musical, book, and original musical score) for Brooks. The wildly successful hit began a national tour in 2002, and in 2005 a film version, also directed by Stroman and starring Lane and Broderick, was released. "We're going to die anyway," Brooks told the critic and journalist Kenneth Tynan in 1978. "And because of that, let's have a merry journey, and shout about how light is good and dark is not."


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