2009 Kennedy Center Honors Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks laughs his way to Kennedy Center honor

The 83-year-old writer, composer, director, actor and producer becomes a Kennedy Center Honoree.
By Scott Vogel
Sunday, December 6, 2009

There are moments when it hits you: Mel Brooks means more to American comedy now than ever. Whenever a character in a movie audibly passes gas, for instance. Or when you're on a long flight to Los Angeles, watching "Young Frankenstein" on a laptop in Seat 8C, chuckling at the monster tap-dancing his way through "Puttin' on the Ritz," at which point you notice that the woman in 8B is also chuckling, as is the man back in 9D, as is a flight attendant delivering coffee to 9C. Amid all this high-altitude merriment, who could blame you for revealing to 9D that you happen to be flying to Los Angeles to interview the film's director in advance of a little award he's getting?

"Tell him, thanks for the laughs. It couldn't happen to a better guy," says the man.

The guy whom no one's better than occupies a simple office off a nondescript corridor on the second floor of Building B at Culver Studios in Culver City. The old lot has seen happier days, as has the town itself, whose brownish lawns and empty storefronts are a sobering counterpoint to Southern California's cloudless November days and palm trees wrapped in Christmas lights. But Culver Studios' white pillared main building still gleams as brightly as the day it doubled for Tara in the credits for "Gone With the Wind." And still it was no match for the 83-year-old Brooks -- a vision in white polo, chinos and Velcro-fastened tennis shoes -- who greeted his visitor excitedly before immediately settling down to the business of selling himself, something he's done since before he can remember.

"I agree 100 percent," said Brooks of the decision to include him among those receiving the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors. At that point, a noise was heard in another room -- the photographer arriving -- and Brooks sprang to life again, quickly pulling on a navy blazer with a red pocket square. "I am a national treasure, I should be celebrated. And I hope against hope that you won't find my award on eBay, because you never know," he said, adjusting the pocket square. "You run out of cash and wherewithal . . ."

With that, Brooks's voice trailed off. The no doubt very wealthy writer-director-actor was apparently seriously concerned that he might still lose it all. The "national treasure" stuff was vintage Brooks chutzpah, of course, but the fear of the abyss was, in its own way, vintage Brooks, too.

Like Max Bialystock, the washed-up impresario at the heart of "The Producers," Brooks is intimately acquainted with the bottomless depths of showbiz hell. Like the Cleavon Little character in "Blazing Saddles," a black sheriff in an all-white town, he knows what it's like to have all the cards stacked against you. And like his recession-battered country in its prolonged season of pain, he can't help but laugh at the epic ridiculousness of our present predicament.

Which, of course, is the biggest reason Mel Brooks means more to American comedy now than ever.

"You want to talk about poverty?" asks Max Brooks, Mel's 37-year-old son, who seems to have made peace with his father's career. He asserted that Mel has "really made up for lost time" and that "in my dad's day, as long as you didn't get drunk and smack the wife around -- and brought home a check -- you're father of the year." The two have grown very close, he said, since the death of Anne Bancroft, Max's mother and Mel's second wife, in 2005. In the poor but proud Jewish enclaves of 1930s New York, Mel would tell Max, neighbors would grind up chalk and put it in glass bottles filled with water "so people thought you got your milk delivered." It was a time when a dentist could diagnose cavities in four of Mel's teeth and then pull all four, because fillings cost a dollar but extractions just 50 cents. ("For the rest of his life he's had tooth problems because of that.")

The Kaminsky spirit

The boy, then known as Melvin Kaminsky, lost his father at the age of 2, thereafter living with his mother and three older brothers in a two-room apartment in a five-story walk-up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The Kaminskys, Brooks recalled, lived in the back of the building -- for a time at least.

"I remember I was about 8 or 9 and there was a family meeting," said Brooks. "My mother said, 'I don't want to live in the back anymore.' She says, 'All I see are clothes on the lines and all I hear are cats howling, while real life is going on across the hall.' As if that was the Rialto over there, something sophisticated and wonderful. As if there was a Cole Porter show happening on South Third Street. But anyway, that's what she wanted."

Brooks still remembers his brother Irving's line -- "We can do it" -- which became the Kaminsky family rallying cry, and much later the title of a song Brooks would write for the musical version of "The Producers." The brothers worked "so Mom could move from the back to where the action was," an achievement "I never forgot because it said, Where there's a will, there's a way."

Carl Reiner, phoning in a few days later, endorsed the never-say-die story line, calling Brooks "dogged, that's for sure," a "don't-give-up" type, a man of "very strong tastes" and someone who can't stand it when Reiner eats onions "because he doesn't like onions and he judges everything on how it affects him."

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