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Our Jewish Hollywood: 5 facts about Mel Brooks, alive and loving it

The master of parodies and farce who became famous thanks to Hitler, wrote rap lyrics and left a six-finger handprint on the Walk of Fame

The Hollywood actor, director and scriptwriter Mel Brooks, whose real name was Melvin James Kaminski, was born in New York in 1926. His parents were Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe – his father from Gdansk, his mother from Kiev – who moved to the States shortly before the future film star was born. Mel’s father died of kidney disease at the age of 34, when the boy was just two years old. Later, when he was a star, Mel spoke about his father’s death: “It was just an outrage. I’m angry with God and the world for this. And I’m sure that most of my comedies are based on anger and hostility. I spent my childhood in the Williamsburg district, and I learned to use humor to avoid problems – for example, a fist in my face.”

Brooks’ first language was Yiddish, not English, and he did not even receive a basic cinematographic education – in fact, Mel studied psychology for a year at Brooklyn College, and then joined the army (during WWII), and rose to the rank of corporal, serving in the engineering troops. But a person who is destined to become a film star will eventually become one.

Brooks worked in the most diverse fields – from writing scripts for Broadway shows and the “Muppets” to writing songs for films (including in the rap genre) and producing horror movies. For this diversity, his colleagues even called him a “one man orchestra”. Mel, who is now 89 years old, is one of the few people to have won Emmy, Oscar, Grammy and Tony awards.

Mel Brooks made interesting films, and lived an interesting life. Read unusual stories from his biography in the new chapter of “Our Jewish Hollywood. 5 facts about…”

1. Brooks started out as a drummer and pianist

Mel was a sickly and weak boy, and at school he was often picked on. Some people take up sport to raise their self-esteem and get stronger, but Melvin took an interest in the drums – he was inspired by the legendary drummer Buddy Rich, his neighbor, who was nine years old than Mel. Incidentally, he couldn’t have found a better teacher – Rich’s talent was subsequently appreciated by such stars as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, who worked with him intensively.

Playing the drums wasn’t just a hobby – at the age of 14 Mel was already collecting his first paychecks. After the war he got a job as a janitor in the Borscht Belt, a chain of resort hotels in the Catskill Mountains, State of New York, and then as a musician, playing the drums and piano. To avoid being confused with the trumpeter Max Kaminski who played there, Mel took a pseudonym – Brookman (which he later shortened to Brooks), his mother’s surname. Over time, Brooks’ passion for making sarcastic jokes was noticed by a hotel manager – he was invited to perform as a stand-up comedian. And his career took off.

2. “Springtime for Hitler” was a triumph for Brooks

After working at hotels, Brooks gradually moved to television – but as a scriptwriter rather than an actor. His amazing sense of humor with elements of irony and sarcasm, a somewhat aggressive style and love of experimenting brought to into a team of scriptwriters for several TV projects. In 1960 he finally moved to Hollywood from New York – and then a new stage in his career began.

Together with his friend, the son of Jewish emigrants and scriptwriter Carl Reiner, Brooks created the TV show “The 2000-year-old Man”. He played an ancient man who had witnessed the crucifixion of Christ, been married several hundred times, had over 42,000 children and spoke with a Yiddish accent. At the same time Mel wrote scripts for Broadway shows and directed his first animated film, “The Critic”, which won an Oscar. But his greatest success lay ahead.

In 1968 Mel Brooks made the comedy film “The Producers” (1968), also known as “Springtime for Hitler”, about conmen who try to put on a show that is bound to flop, and write off all the money received from their elderly fans as expenses. They do everything to make sure their project – a tragic musical about Hitler – is a failure, but quite unpredictably their absurd production becomes a success. In the end, they pay for exploiting the trust and money of old ladies. The film, which was later adapted for Broadway and turned into a musical, won an Oscar in the category of “Best original screenplay”, which was also written by Brooks.

“I’m probably the craziest veteran of WWII. I fought in the rank of corporal in North Africa, and 20 years later I made the comedy “Springtime for Hitler”, Brooks recalled. “I still get bewildered letters from Jewish grannies: do you think Hitler singing is funny? My mother was Jewish, and all those jokes didn’t bother her at all. What’s more incredible is that my production of “The Producers”, with the same plot, was performed in Israel to great acclaim for two months. That really made my head spin: my Hitler spoke Hebrew!”

3. Mel Brooks made a film about Ostap Bender

In 1970, Brooks was the director and scriptwriter of an American adaptation of the legendary novel “12 Chairs” by Ilf and Petrov, but the project was a failure. Perhaps because Mel’s version lacked Madame Gritsatsueva, the poet Lyapis-Trubetskoy, Ellochka Shchukina and her husband. They were all taken out, and the plot was simplified – in the script, the main characters Bender and Vorobyaninov find the first five chairs immediately, and the rest of them are taken away by the “Columbus” Theater, without the famous auction.

“Joseph Heller – the guy who wrote ‘Catch 22’ – loved Ilf and Petrov and made me read ‘The Golden Calf’”, Brooks recalled. “I thought it was great. I asked him if they’d written anything else. Then Heller gave me ’12 Chairs’. I fell in love. Ostap Bender is me. A scoundrel. A lover of women. No morals or character. Ostap Bender is the animal that is in every one of us.”

Although the film received several prizes, audiences were unenthusiastic, and Brooks (who played a janitor in the film) decided not to film the classics ever again. But they continued to attract him, and he found a solution – he began making parodies of films and genres which were already legendary.

4. Brooks specialized in farce and parodies

For four years Brooks kept away from films, but in 1974 he released the comedy “Blazing Saddles”, a parody of the Hollywood classic, the western “High Noon”. The film, in which Mel played two roles – the governor and the chief of a tribe of Indians who spoke Yiddish – won three Oscars (for best supporting female role (Madeline Kahn), best editing and best song). Among other things, the film mocked racism – the sheriff, the main character of the comedy, was black. Incidentally, the American Film Institute included this film on the list of best comedies in the history of Hollywood.

Although Brooks worked with a huge number of actors, many of whom were also wonderful people and conversationalists, he had a strict rule: never to eat with actors of a film he was directing. However, he once made an exception. He liked the company of Cleavon Little in “Blazing Saddles” so much that he implored the actor to eat with him at the same table.

After this film, Brooks made a whole series of parodies: “Young Frankenstein” (1975), “Silent Movie” (1976) – he considered this to be the best film of his career – “High Anxiety” (1977) (a spoof of Hitchcock thrillers), “Space Balls” (1987) (George Lucas’ “Star Wars”, Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek”, and “Alien”), “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” (1993) (“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”), and “Dracula: Dead and Loving It” (1995) (movies about Count Dracula and Bram Stoker’s novel).

In almost every film Brooks played an unusual part.

But Brooks did not limit himself to the parody genre. For example, he produced a remake of the old war film with comedy elements, “To Be or Not To Be” (in which he appeared in the lead role with his wife’s favorite actress Ann Bancroft, the famous Mrs. Robinson from “The Graduate”), the horror movies “The Fly” and “The Fly 2”, and at his studio David Lynch’s famous drama “The Elephant Man” was made.

Brooks also showed his talent in voiceover work and animated films. His latest work in this field is the role of Vlad in “Hotel Transylvania 2” in 2015.

5. Mel Brooks had 6 fingers

This only happened once in his life, when by tradition he left his hand and foot prints opposite the Chinese Theater at the ceremony for receiving a star on the Hollywood “Walk of Fame” on 8 September 2014. Before he went there he put an artificial sixth finger on his left hand. “That was so someone from Des Moines, Iowa would say ‘Harry! Harry! Look, Mel Brooks has six fingers on his left hand!” the director explained.


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