Mel Brooks: The Actor, The Comedian, The Filmmaker

Mel Brooks is one America’s most influential actors, comedians, and filmmakers. He’s also a composer and songwriter. His biggest successes came during the 1970s when he released hits such as History of the World Part 1 and Blazing Saddles. In 2001 he picked up a Tony Award for his work on the producers making him part of a very exclusive club of people who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and a Tony, also known as the EGOT. Here are some little-known facts about Mel Brooks.

Brooks Served His Country Well

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In 1944, as Brooks was graduating from High School, the nation needed people to serve in the army as World War II came to its bloody conclusion. Brooks joined the 1104th Engineer Combat Unit and was sent to Europe. Although he survived the war, it seemed like an unusual precursor to his comedy career. On five different occasions, his unit fought as an infantry unit would on the front lines and suffered major casualties. He was present at and involved in the Battle of the Bulge, one of the most horrific battles of World War II. During the war, he also experienced some anti-Semitism from his fellow soldiers.

He Paid To Meet His Wife

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When Mel fell for Anne Bancroft there was a teeny problem; he didn’t know her very well. They had met while appearing on Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall in 1961. So, behind the scenes, he bribed a lady working on the set to tell him where she’d be dining that evening so he could run into her accidentally on purpose. This was a good move on Brooks’ part because in 1964 they were married all the way up until her death in 2005. Brooks describes their lives together as nothing short of perfect and that they could spend every second together.

He Only Ate With One Actor

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Mel Brooks had a peculiar rule which enabled him to separate his role as a director without becoming too chummy with the cast. He never ate with anyone who appeared in his films. The only exception to this rule was Cleavon Little, who appeared in Blazing Saddles; he liked him so much that it’s rumored that he begged to eat with him. Quite an honor for Little if he was the only actor Brooks cared to share a meal out of all the actors he’s ever worked with.

Brooks Is (And Isn’t) Jewish

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Brooks has a peculiar relationship with the Jewish faith and he openly spoke about that relationship. He said in an interview with Men’s Journal, “I’m rather secular. I’m basically Jewish. But I think I’m Jewish not because of the Jewish religion at all. I think it’s the relationship with the people and the pride I have. The tribe surviving so many misfortunes, and being so brave and contributing so much knowledge to the world and showing courage.” His time in the military also helped him to develop this outlook as he eventually learned what was happening to his people all across Europe while he was fighting.

Mel Is An EGOT

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We said at the start that Mel has won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony which makes him an EGOT. That makes him one of a select group of only 11 people in the world. If he can pick up another Oscar in his career, he’ll be the first person in history to become a double EGOT. In 2001, he became the eighth person to enter the EGOT inner circle. He won three Tony’s for Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Book of a Musical for The Producers. He also won an Oscar for The Producers for Best Original Screenplay. Beginning in 1997, he won three consecutive Emmys, as a guest actor on the show Mad About You. It was during this time that he also won his first of three Grammys, in 1998 for Best Spoken Comedy Album for The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000.

Mel Learned The Drums From A Legend

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Mel Brooks’ earliest showbiz career moves were as a drummer. As it turns out, he didn’t learn the drums from any old teacher, he learned to play them as a teenager under the tutelage of Buddy Rich. At the time, Buddy Rich was one of the biggest stars of the drumming world and was known to work closely with the musical masters Artie Shaw and Timmy Dorsey. He was also once the second highest paid child star in the world (just behind Jackie Coogan).

Brooks Was Bullied At School

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Brooks says that he was an angry child after the death of his father, who died when he was just two from kidney failure. However, his anger didn’t help him very much and he was constantly bullied at school. He was also a very sickly child of very small stature, which was the butt of many of his classmates jokes who continuously tormented him about his size for his age. I’m sure Brooks is the one laughing now as he counts his money and awards.

“Get Smart” Was His First TV Hit

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Get Smart was Brooks’ first hit TV show. He co-created the series with Buck Henry in 1965. The show was a huge hit when it was released and introduced a genre that would become very popular in the long run: the spy spoof. It starred Don Adams as the “hero” Maxwell Smart. Brooks notes on the show that, “It’s an insane combination of James Bonds and Mel Brooks comedy”. The show ran for a total of five seasons and ended in 1970 on its 138th episode. The Museum of Broadcast Communications went on to say that Get Smart was notable for, “broadening the parameters for the presentation of comedy on television”.

Get Smart Was Nearly Never Made

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Despite the fact that it turned out to be a smash hit, Brooks’ Get Smart was nearly never made. They pitched it to ABC who was not impressed and refused to make it on the grounds that they thought it was “un-American.” However, although this was a hard rejection, it is understandable considering that nobody had made a spy spoof quite like Get Smart ever. It was revolutionary in a lot of ways, which is why a network may have been hesitant to air the show. Fortunately for Mel, CBS stepped in and rescued the show and the world was graced with Get Smart.

Before Get Smart, Brooks Was A Gag Writer

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Before Mel managed to get his own TV series made, he was hired to write gags for other TV shows. In 1950, he was desperate to get a job writing gags for TV comedian Sid Caesar and auditioned by falling to his knees and singing a comic song about himself. Caesar then hired Brooks for his show Your Show of Shows. Here he worked with Woody Allen, Neil Simon, and Carl Reiner. During this time, he developed his skills as a comedian, as well as honed his own style of rapid wordplay and satire. When he finally left working for Caesar, he was earning $2,500 per show, which was substantial money at the time.

His First Comedy Album Sold A Million Copies

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Brooks met Carl Reiner whilst working on Your Show of Shows and they became close friends. Eventually, they began working on a sketch focusing on a man that was 2,000 years old and had been around to witness Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. It was a private piece for friends but they were encouraged to record it and it went on to sell more than a million copies as “2,000 Years with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks.” It was a television piece as well as was made into a collection of albums.

Ballantine Beer Liked The 2000 Year Old Man

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The company Ballantine Beer liked the 2,000-year-old Man sketch so much that they commissioned Mel to write a series of commercials for the company in the 1960’s. Brooks then went on to develop a series in which he adapted the 2,000-year-old man character. That series went on to become the 2,500-year-old brew master in which Dick Cavett interviews an ancient German brew master who claimed to have been in the Trojan horse. In the ad, the 2,5000-year-old-man claims, “The Trojan horse could have used a six-pack of fresh air”.

Springtime For Hitler

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When Mel decided to move from television to the big screen, his first break was with The Producers. Its biggest number, the song called “Springtime for Hitler,” was a very hard sell to the studios who considered it in very poor taste. It took an art house studio to release it instead. This song on the film is yet another testimony to Brooks’ revolutionary sense of humor, and his refusal to be told no. It is clear from his works such as this that he paved the way for many of our favorite comedians and writers today.

The Producers Brings Home The Oscar

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It might have been hard to get it made, but The Producers won Mel Brooks the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. He was up against John Cassavetes and Stanley Kubrick, so it was an extremely notable achievement. The win turned the film into a cult hit and it was very popular on college campuses across the nation. In addition to the film winning an Oscar, it also took home a whopping 12 Tony Awards for its success on Broadway as well.

Everybody Drops The Ball Sometimes

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After Mel Brooks managed to turn The Producers from a flop into a hit, his next work turned out to be a straight up dud. He went on to make The Twelve Chairs, a movie about diamonds hidden in chairs. It bombed with critics and audiences alike and is reputed to have lost a fair amount of money for its investors. However, the film actually wasn’t Mel Brooks original story. It was one of 18 film adaptations of the Russian novel by Ilf and Petrov.

Twelve Chairs Nearly Killed Brooks’ Career

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Twelve Chairs was such a commercial disaster that studios thought Brooks’ career was finished and refused to look at his next idea at all. Luckily for American film, Brooks found the agent, David Begelman, who was willing to represent him to the studios. Eventually, he would be hired to direct Blazing Saddles. This was yet again another amazingly lucky moment for Brooks, considering that Blazing Saddles was the film that earned Brooks the title as one of the greatest comedians of the time.

From Zero to Hero: Blazing Saddles

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Blazing Saddles was the movie that turned Brooks’ career around and saved him from becoming another one hit wonder director in Hollywood. The film starred Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, and even Brooks himself. It was a tongue in cheek look at the Western genre. Yet, due to Brooks’ failure with The Twelve Chairs, he was only trusted with a $2.6 million budget to make Blazing Saddles. Luckily for both Brooks’ and the production company, It would gross nearly $120 million worldwide and was the second most successful movie of 1974.

Gene Wilder Put The Strong Arm On Brooks

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Gene Wilder replaced Gig Young as the drunken cowboy The Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles. However, Wilder had a condition for taking part. Wilder wanted to do a spoof of the Frankenstein movies, so for an exchange for doing Blazing Saddles, he insisted that Brooks direct Young Frankenstein. Not a bad move as it turns out; Young Frankenstein was the third most successful movie of 1974. It was this idea that proved to Brooks that Wilder was a cut above the rest since he clearly had a good sense of humor himself. In an interview, Wilder even recalls Brooks saying to him that, You’ree a sheep surrounded by wolves” and that he wanted to keep him close.

Things Went Briefly Rotten

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In 1975, Mel Brooks was a hot property after his comeback success with Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Yet, instead of capitalizing on his film career, he returned to the small screen to direct When Thing Were Rotten. The show was a Robin Hood parody which was critically acclaimed but sadly it couldn’t find an audience and was quickly shelved after just 13 episodes. Although the show itself never caught on, Brooks didn’t give up on his dream of a Robin Hood parody, and in 1993, he released the film Robin Hood: Men In Tights.

Hitchcock And Brooks Worked Together

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in 1977, Mel Brooks produced, directed, and starred in his film High Anxiety. This was his first speaking lead role, and he was accompanied by his other troupe of actors in the majority of his films which included Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, and Madeline Kahn. What’s interesting about High Anxiety, is that, of course, it’s a parody of suspense films, mostly those directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Brooks originally asked Hitchcock if it was okay with him at first in which Hitchcock offered to even help with the screenplay. At one point Brooks told Hitchcock he was no longer going to make the film and Hitchcock essentially insisted that he did.

Mel Could Do Serious As Well As Funny

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Although Brooks was and is still known for his parodies and comedic acts, films, and television shows, there was more to him than just that. He also had a serious side, and those serious projects he worked on proved to be just as successful. For example, the film The Elephant Man may have been directed by David Lynch, but it was Mel Brooks who produced it. It was also 1980’s most critically acclaimed hit. This would lead to Brooks and his own production company working on dozens of other serious works including Cronenberg’s The Fly and 84 Charing Cross Road starring his wife, Anne Bancroft.

Brooks Had A Hit Rap Record

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In 1983, Mel Brooks agreed to star in a remake of the 1942 classic, To Be or Not to Be. It became internationally renowned not so much for Brooks’ acting, but rather for the soundtrack which included the controversial number “To Be or Not to Be (The Hitler Rap)” with Brooks as a rapping Hitler. The song became a minor hit around the world managing to peak at #12 in the UK. Just when you thought that Brooks had done it all, he comes out with a hip-hop record with himself portraying Adolf Hitler.

Star Wars Inspired His Biggest Hit

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Mel Brooks directed his second film of the ’80s in 1987. He came out with Spaceballs, which was a parody of the incredibly successful Star Wars trilogy. It also became his biggest hit, though it didn’t do as well at the box office as Blazing Saddles, it sold the most units on video of any of his movies. For many young boys, this film can be seen as a rite of passage passed down from father to son. It’s innocent in the majority of its comedy but just raunchy enough that some of the jokes may have to be explained.

Robin Hood Worked The Second Time Around

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Brooks returned to his desire to parody Robin Hood after the somewhat disastrous flirtation of When Things Were Rotten with Robin Hood: Men In Tights in 1993. This time a film, it parodied Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It was a huge success on the big screen and was only beaten in lifetime video sales by his previous film Spaceballs. The film was directed and produced by Brooks and was co-written by Brooks, Evan Chandler, and J. David Shapiro. However, the story was by Chandler and Shapiro along with the stars Cary Elwes, Richard Lewis, and Dave Chapelle.

The Producers Musical Is A Record Breaker

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The Producers was so popular that Brooks eventually remade it as a stage show. After 33 previews, the original Broadway production opened at the St. James Theatre on April 19, 2001. The stage show then went on to win 12 Tony awards, the biggest haul of any show at the Tonys. It took the record from Hello, Dolly! which had held the record for 34 years with 10 wins. The show also held the record for most nominations for eight years until it was surpassed by Billy Elliot the Musical in 2009, and then Hamilton in 2016.

Young Frankenstein The Musical

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The success of The Producers prompted Brooks to dust off Young Frankenstein and turn that into a musical too. It was titled The New Mel Brooks Musical: Young Frankenstein with the lyrics and music written by Brooks. After four weeks of previews, it was finally opened to Broadway on November 8, 2007, and closed on January 4, 2009, after 484 performances. It was nowhere near as successful as The Producers and received very much a mixed critical and audience reaction. It also included a sly teaser for a Blazing Saddles musical that read, “coming soon.”

No Sign Of Blazing Saddles: The Musical

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Although it might have been hinted at in the Young Frankenstein musical with Brooks even coming out to address the audience, to date, at least, there has been no sign of Blazing Saddlesbeing remade as a musical. There’s no creative team assigned to it and we suspect it’s not going to happen. It appears that Brooks and his team may have gotten a little ahead of themselves and figured that they were on a roll. Although a Blazing Saddles musical would be interesting, it’s possible that Brooks just wants to leave that project as one of his best films and doesn’t want to taint it.

Sherrif Bart Went On To Win An Emmy

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Cleavon Little played Sherrif Bart in Blazing Saddles and was Mel Brooks’ favorite actor to work with. After Blazing Saddles he went on to star in TV and film and won an Emmy for his role in the TV sitcom Dear John in 1989. After winning the Emmy, he starred on the Fox sitcom True Colors from 1991 to 1992. Sadly, he passed away in 1992 of colorectal cancer at the young age of 53.

Gene Wilder Made Young Frankenstein Happen

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Gene Wilder worked with Mel Brooks on multiple projects and was directly responsible for Brooks’ involvement in Young Frankenstein after the deal he made when agreeing to act in Blazing Saddles. Wilder’s career was one of the most successful in Hollywood and his role as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is one of the most beloved in film history. He acted from the 1960s up until the early 2000’s. After several years of focusing in energy into writing and painting, Gene died in 2016 at the age of 83.

Zero Mostel Was Blacklisted In The ’50s

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Zero Mostel was the star of the film version of The Producers in his role as Max Bialystock, a cherished character to filmgoers of a certain age. He was blacklisted for “un-American activities” in the 1950s, in which his trial was a highly-publicized event. His role in The Producers was part of a well-earned come back. He was also an Obie Award winner, as well as a three-time Tony Award Winner. Unfortunately, he passed away in 1977 from complications resulting from a crash diet.

Where Is Bill Pullman Now?

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Bill Pullman was one of the three actors who led the cast of Spaceballs, Brooks’ most popular film. He continued to act following the movie and has starred in Scary Movie 4, Titan AE, While You Were Sleeping, and much more. In addition to his work on screen, he also worked on numerous plays as well. One of his most notable was his performance in The Goat, or Who is Sylvia which won numerous awards and even a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Aside from his acting, he has as also worked as a playwright. His most recent role on television was as President of the United States in the series 1600 Penn and now as Detective Harry Ambrose in the USA Network show The Sinner.

John Candy Died Young

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John Candy’s role in Spaceballs was one of many major roles on the big screen. He also starred in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Uncle Buck, Cool Runnings, and many others. Although he is mostly known for his comic roles, he also had success in more serious roles in the films Only the Lonely and JFK. He died at the age of 43 in 1994 of a heart attack during the filming of Wagons East! while on vacation in Mexico due to weight-related health issues. The film was later dedicated to Candy.

Rick Moranis Was Widowed

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Best remembered for his role in Ghostbusters, Rick Moranis also starred in Spaceballs as the character Dark Helmet. His acting career continued with other family comedies such as Little Shop of Horrors, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and The Flintstones. His career came to a screeching halt when he made the decision to stop acting in order to raise his children on his own after he became widowed. He rarely appears in movies today but is a regular on the fan convention circuit.

Cary Elwes Is Still A Success

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As one of the three leads in Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Cary Elwes was a big-name actor. He is known for and has starred in a ton of recognized movies including The Princess Bride, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Hot Shots!, Twister, The Jungle Book, Liar Liar, and Saw. His last appearance in a film was his portrayal of Andy Warhol alongside Kevin Spacey in The Billionaire Boys Club in 2016. He has also had recurring roles in the series X Files and Psych. Currently, he is starring in the series The Art of More.

Mel Brooks Was Married To A Superstar

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Mel Brooks married the actress Anne Bancroft who was a serious actress in her own right. She’d won an Oscar for her performance as the teacher of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker and she also has Baftas, Emmys, and Tonys to her name. She was married to Brooks from 1964 until her death in 2005. The couple definitely fits the definition of a “power couple” both leading very successful celebrity lives with numerous awards to each of their names. It is also known that Brooks and his wife were madly in love and even starred in films together.

Brooks Became Brooks Thanks To A Trumpet Player

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Mel Brooks was actually born with the name Melvin Kaminsky. He had always been obsessed with the stage from a very young age. He recalls his uncle taking him to see the Broadway musical Anything Goes where he was mesmerized and fell in love. Not long after, he began working as a percussionist in the Catskills. However, there was a famous trumpet player in the area called Max Kaminsky and Mel didn’t want any confusion so he changed his name to Mel Brooks since his mother’s maiden name was Brookman.

His Walk Of Fame Entry Is Unusual

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If you should visit Hollywood’s Walk of Fame you’ll see many a famous person’s hands and footprints. But only Mel Brooks has left a 6-fingered handprint. In typically comedic fashion Mel wanted to make history twice; so he wore a prosthetic finger on his left hand when he made the print. The public was certainly not shocked by this stunt and now for as long as his print is around, people will either question or laugh at the kind of individual that Mel Brooks was.

Richard Lewis Is A Stand-Up Comedian

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Richard Lewis is a stand-up comedian who appeared in Robin Hood: Men in Tights and while he has continued to act, it’s his comedy which has made the biggest impact He was featured on Comedy Central’s list of the the 100 greatest stand-ups of all time. He is known for co-starring in the comedy series Anything But Love as well as his semi-autobiographical role in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Aside from those notable roles, he has an extensive filmography and continues to build on it today.

Dave Chappelle Does Standup, Too

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Dave Chappelle was the second stand-up comedian in Mel Brooks’ acting lineup for Robin Hood: Men in Tights. He has also starred in The Nutty Professor, Con Air Air, You’ve Got Mail, Blue Streak, and Undercover Brother. However, his first lead role was in the film Half Baked in 1998. He’s best known for his work on his own sketch series Chappelle’s Show and has been dubbed America’s “comic genius” by Esquire magazine. In 2009, he was ranked as well on Comedy Centrals’ “100 Greatest Stand-Ups of all time”.

Where Is Mel Brooks Today?

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It’s no secret that Mel Brooks has one of the most successful careers in the entertainment industry considering he’s an EGOT and all. However, since his major successes in the past, he has continued to work. His most recent role was the voice of M. Luteau in the film Leap!. In 2010, he won the “Presidential Medal of Freedom” which was presented to him by President Barack Obama. Brooks is now 91 years old and has been playing a one-man show in Las Vegas titled “An Evening With Mel Brooks”, which gives an in-depth behind-the-scenes look at his successful experience in Hollywood.