“There are a few singular voices of genius in film comedy; Mel Brooks joins the ranks of Chaplin, Keaton and Woody Allen, creating a genre unto himself,” said Susan Lacy, creator and executive producer of “American Masters.” “This project has been a joy. Mel can make anything funny – he even had me in stitches during a conference call about distribution contracts. His humor is truly instinctive – and constant!”
Brooks, who turns 87 next month, was born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn. After a stint in the army during World War II, he began working the Borscht Belt resorts in the Catskills, eventually becoming a Tummler (master entertainer) at the famed Grossinger’s. He began writing for television, most notably for Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour.” He became friends with Carl Reiner, with whom he would develop “The 2000 Year Old Man” routine, which led to several best-selling comedy albums.
In 1968 Brooks made his debut as a director with “The Producers,” starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. The film won Brooks the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The 1970s would see Brooks create such comedy classics as “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Silent Movie,” and “High Anxiety.”
Brooks turned “The Producers” into a Broadway musical in 2001. The show was a runaway hit, breaking box office records and winning a record 12 Tony Awards. Brooks is one of an elite group of artists to receive the entertainment industry’s top four awards: Oscar, Emmy, Tony, and Grammy.
Brooks was married to actress Anne Bancroft for 41 years until her death from uterine cancer in 2005 at age 73.
Unabashedly Jewish in his approach to comedy, Brooks has often taken shots at Hitler and Nazis, most notably in the “Springtime for Hitler” number from “The Producers” and in the 1983 film “To Be or Not to Be.” He even did a music video where he played Hitler called “Hitler Rap.” He feels the best way to get back at your enemy is to make fun of them.
Now in its 27th season on PBS, “American Masters” has previously profiled such Jewish artists as George Gershwin, Danny Kaye, Elaine May, Arthur Miller, and Billy Wilder. “When they called me to say I had been chosen as the next ‘American Master,’ I thought they said I was chosen to be the next Dutch Master,” cracked Brooks. “So I figured what the hell, at least I’ll get a box of cigars. When I realized my mistake I was both elated and a little disappointed at losing the cigars.”
Next month Brooks will receive the American Film Institute’s lifetime achievement award.
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