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Mel Brooks: 'I am a national treasure'

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."

None of these quirks has put a dent in Reiner's 50-plus-year friendship with Brooks; it began when both were part of the legendary writers' room that created sketches for Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows," which debuted in 1950. Back then, "there was nothing on but Uncle Miltie [Milton Berle] and wrestling," said Brooks, who was infamous for being late ("He had a sugar problem," Reiner recalled. "He couldn't get out of bed without his orange juice"), as well as for arriving at the office just in time to deliver the one joke that Caesar had been looking for. The lunacy of the writers' room was nonstop, the assemblage of talent unprecedented, and for a brief period Brooks found himself a television pioneer. Then it ended.

"For a long time after 'Your Show of Shows' he was out of a job," Reiner said. "It was a fallow period in his life." What turned things around was his partnership with Reiner on "the 2000-year-old man," a party skit turned landmark comedy album that sold more than a million records in the early '60s, bringing Brooks his first recognition as a performer. The conceit -- Brooks as a Borscht Belt Methuselah and unreliable eyewitness to all of history ("Paul Revere was anti-Semitic! Yelling all through the night, the Yiddish are coming!") and Reiner as the interviewer -- spawned enduringly popular sequels. (A new box set of the remastered albums has just been released.)

Reiner, 87, still spends most evenings with Brooks, although the atmosphere is rather subdued of late -- the pair typically watch movies on TV and do crosswords. "It's a quiet night. We're both widowers," said Reiner, although a farting sketch on a recent episode of Saturday Night Live occasioned some lively debate.

"I said, 'Mel, you have opened up farts to the world of entertainment. Ever since the campfire scene [in "Blazing Saddles"], everyone's using farts.' Mel sometimes doesn't like dirty jokes on television. But I said, 'Mel, you started it!' "

Back in Brooks's office, as the day wore on and the afternoon sun cast ever-lengthening shadows across his desk, you had to feel a little sorry for the man. The chaos of the writers' room is where Brooks always felt most at home; after all, that crucible of mugging and cigar smoking and can-you-top-this?-ing gave birth to television comedy almost single-handedly, which is one reason he created his own writers' room of sorts when working on "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein" and his other '70s comedies. Now Brooks is surrounded by Emmys and Tonys and framed posters of his films, as well as a keyboard on which he's been plinking out songs for a possible "Blazing Saddles" musical. But no people.

"It's lonely," he said. "You have to create characters and they talk to you and you live with them."

The loneliness only deepened after the loss of Bancroft, to whom he was married for 40 years. Without her, not even Brooks would have had the chutzpah to adapt "The Producers" into a Broadway musical. True, the 1968 film already possessed a jaw-dropping production number, "Springtime for Hitler," in which the F├╝hrer is depicted as a Broadway baby, singing and dancing his way into the audience's heart ("We're marching to a faster pace. Look out, here comes the master race!"). But though it had brought him an Oscar for Best Screenplay, "The Producers" had remained largely a cult sensation.

But his wife, Brooks says, always believed that he was "the best lyricist she knew," as well as "a wonderful songwriter," and finally demanded that he go up to the attic and write. "That day, I came down with almost a whole song."

Tony, Tony, Tony

The "Producers" musical, which Brooks completed in his 75th year, opened at New York's St. James Theatre in 2001, quickly becoming a blockbuster beyond even the grandiose imaginings of Max Bialystock. To date, the show has grossed over $1 billion, playing to packed houses from London to Tel Aviv to Seoul to, last spring, Berlin's Admiralspalast theater, where Hitler himself once enjoyed taking in the occasional operetta. The original Broadway production, which starred Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, won more Tony Awards than any other musical before or since, including one for Lane.

"I think God said, 'You know what? Mel Brooks has had his ups and downs, but now I'm going to give him the perfect experience,' " Lane said. "It was a miraculous thing, and people went crazy."

To hear Lane tell it, Brooks "has literally shaped our entire comic viewpoint at different times, for different generations. And then he's just an adorable Jewish man that I love very much. It couldn't happen to a better guy."

The guy whom no one's better than is an octogenarian tennis player ("I just dink it"), a World War II vet ("Most of the time I was ducking so they wouldn't get a clear shot of me"), the author of a second musical ("Young Frankenstein") and a devoted grandfather whose Hitler impressions leave Max's 4-year-old, Henry, in stitches.

"He's taking the comb, putting it under his nose, saying 'Heil Hitler.' And Henry thinks it's hysterical," said Max, admitting that his wife eventually put a stop to Mel's shtick after Henry saw the real Hitler on the History Channel, ran to the TV and screamed "Grandpa!"

These days, Mel likes to stop by Max's place in Venice on the way home to Santa Monica. Brooks's latest passion is teaching little Henry ancient tunes from the American Songbook, with the consequence that Henry may be the only preschooler alive who knows all the lyrics to "Swanee" ("I changed 'Mammy' to 'Mommy' ") and "Shine On, Harvest Moon."

"This is what we're learning tonight," said Brooks with a proud smile, pulling out a sheet of lyrics for "By the Beautiful Sea," a song from 1914. "I'll just sing a little bit for you."

And then -- in a voice a bit raspy but with perfect pitch -- he did.

By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea!

You and me, you and me, oh how happy we'll be!

When each wave comes a-rolling in

We will duck or swim,

And we'll float and fool around the water.

Over and under, and then up for air,

Pa is rich, Ma is rich, so now what do we care? . . .

Young Frankenstein

A touring production of Brooks's musical begins performances on Dec. 15 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW. Call 202-467-4600 or visit http://www.kennedy-center.org.

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