Vintage comedian deserves the accolades of his many peers
“There’s no one like Mel,” says a gushing admirer in reference to Mel Brooks, the standup comedian, screenwriter, film director and Broadway producer. “He’s one of a kind.”
Brooks, in fact, is not unique. But after 60 years in show business, he is indisputably one of its most talented figures.
Having earned a slew of major awards, he’s one of only 14 entertainers who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. So Brooks, who always craved attention and recognition, richly deserves the accolades of his peers.
He gets it in Susan Lacy’s PBS biopic, Mel Brooks: Make a Noise, which will be broadcast on May 20 at 9 p.m. It covers just about all the bases, but comes up short in dealing with his childhood and early career.
There is precious little about his youth in Brooklyn, where he was born and where he was known as Melvin Kaminsky, the son of European immigrants. There is even less about his halcyon Borscht Belt days, when he refined his craft in front of Jewish vacationers in upstate New York resorts.
Nonetheless, Mel Brooks is fairly satisfying as biopics go.
Brooks, sitting in an empty room and prompted by the interviewer, recalls his entry into the business, his modus operandi as a comedian, his involvement in a myriad of projects from Blazing Saddles to The Producers, and his 40-year marriage to the Italian-American actress Anne Bancroft.
He speaks rapidly and funnily and, in some instances, he resorts to self-deprecating humour to describe himself as “arrogant” and “obnoxious.”
Brooks says he was destined to be an entertainer when, at the age of nine, he attended a Broadway show, starring the irrepressible Ethel Merman, and loved it.
He discloses he learned the art of comedy writing on Your Show of Shows, which starred Sid Caesar. He specialized in “life sketches” and focused on both the bizarre and the commonplace, he notes.
After his first marriage broke up, he adds, he cried incessantly and considered suicide.
In an aside, Brooks says he feels “terribly Jewish” and likes being Jewish, but offers no elaboration.
He also makes a point of saying he writes for himself, not others.
In discussing Blazing Saddles, Brooks agrees it shattered Western movie conventions. In reflecting on Young Frankenstein, he says he insisted on filming it in black and white to achieve a greater degree of authenticity.
He debunks his skills as an actor, but calls himself a “smart comedian,” a description that is bang on.
He says he parodied Adolf Hitler in The Producers out of a desire to ridicule the Nazi dictator. Nathan Lane, the star of that mega Broadway hit, says it succeeded because it was that “rare” production when “all the right people come together at the same time.”
Lacy throws in scraps of information from his boyhood. Brooks grew up in “real poverty” after his father died and his mother had to scrounge around for a living. “I loved my mother,” he says softly.
The late Bancroft, in an archival clip, speaks fondly of their courtship (“the man never left me alone, thank God”) and sweetly says that Brooks looked like her father and acted like her mother.
In closing, he gratefully acknowledges having received every possible award, except, of course, The Woman of the Year prize.