Director Mel Brooks is 95 years young today! The king of parody is still alive and kicking. Many celebrities and fans have sent a cascade of lovely birthday greetings, honors, and well wishes to the comedic icon. Today, let us celebrate all that is Mel Brooks and his remarkable life and career.
Melvin Kaminsky (the king of parody) was born in Brooklyn, New York, On June 28, 1926. Brooks lost his father at age two and relied on comedy to get through life without a dad and being bullied for being small and sickly as a child. Brook’s family was poor, and one day his uncle (who was a cab driver) received two free Broadway tickets from one of his fares. His uncle took him to go see the Broadway musical, Anything Goes; and it changed the direction of Mel’s life forever.
World War II and Big Break
Fast forward to WWII. A theme that has been ever-present in Mel Brook’s material and films. It was an event that Brooks himself felt personal, due to his and his parents’/family’s European Jewish heritage and upbringing. Brooks was drafted into the United States Army in 1944. After scoring high on an IQ test, he was sent to an elite training program to learn skills, in engineering, foreign languages, and medicine. When the program was disbanded (due to manpower shortages) he returned to basic training, the same year.
He would go on to serve in the 78th Infantry Division as a corporal in the 1104th Engineer Combat Battalion. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, which lasted from December 16, 1944 – January 25, 1945. This was a major counteroffensive battle against Germany on the Western Front which cost thousands of lives on all sides. Brooks also served by diffusing land mines as allies made their way into Germany.
After the war ended in 1945, Brooks worked a series of nightclubs until his friend, Sid Caesar (who has made appearances in a few of his films) gave him his first break in 1949. Caesar had initially hired Mel to write jokes for the NBC series, The Admiral Broadway Review. Brooks’ big break came to fruition when he teamed up with the late Carl Reiner (famous film director, writer, actor, comedian, and helped to create the life, that is film director Rob Reiner) to create the 2000 Year Old Man. This famous act along with Mel Brooks creating the famous James Bond – spoofing comedy series, Get Smart (1965-1970), solidified his name in the 1960’s comedy circuit.
Mel Brooks’ Directing Debut
1967. Mel Brooks wrote and directed an underground film that showcased his love of Broadway…and comedy. The Producers, the wonderful classic comedy about has-been director, Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) roping in unexpecting accountant, Leo Bloom (thus starting Mel Brooks’s wonderful partnership with Gene Wilder); into overselling a Broadway production to a bunch of unwitting old lady backers. They do so with the sole intention for the production to flop, as according to accounting advice from Leo, “You can make more with a flop, then you can with a hit.”
The film follows the would-be producers into luring in a hippy and a seemingly clueless director with a flair for overdramatizing dramas. Oh, and the hippy is playing the lead of Adolph Hitler, in a musical called, Spring Time for Hitler written by an ex-nazi as a love letter to his former leader.
The Producers basically gave a taste for Mel Brooks’s humor as a director, which doesn’t just focus on parodies alone. A lot of people found his work to be absurd, cheesy, and ridiculous. Probably more so now as opposed to then. Although those things are intentionally there, he always managed to give these seemingly soulless and goofy films a meaning.
Many of his characters were faced with absurd situations, yes. The interesting thing is that the absurdities were brought on people who were either intolerant or retained too much power and wanted to have control over other people. His main characters who always were against these evils, although silly with situational humor, were always treated with dignity and managed to point out the absurdities within society.
Comedic Film Legacy
Mel Brooks has directed 11 features in total. Following The Producers, he went on to direct the brilliant Ron Moody in The Twelve Chairs (based on the Russian novel of the same name) in 1970, and then hit the comedic gold mine with the then-controversial, Blazing Saddles. The amazing cast starred the amazing Cleavon Little as the title character, and co-starred comedic greats Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, and Harvey Korman. The film was controversial in 1974 because it called out the blatant stupidity of racists with a black slave-turned-sheriff making fools out of all of them. It was wonderful, and Little’s performance was beautiful and at times, heart-wrenching.
The King of Parody
“It’s good to be the king.” The king of parody has brought so much love and good humor to those he has worked with and those who have watched. Following Blazing Saddles was the unforgettable Young Frankenstein (1974), Gene Wilder’s passion project starring Wilder, Everybody Loves Raymond’s Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Marty Feldman, Kenneth Mars, and Teri Garr. His silent film Silent Movie (1976) followed, and that was followed by his Alfred Hitchcock parody High Anxiety (1977).
The hilarious History of the World: Part 1 (1981) came out a few years later…and no, there was never a “part 2” featuring Hitler on ice. It was just for comedic effect. His 1987 Star Wars parody, Spaceballs, wasn’t popular with critics at the time, but it remains a fan favorite to this day. After another brief hiatus from directing, Brooks returned with Life Stinks (1991), the cult favorite Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), and he retired from directing after Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995).
Brooks at 95
Mel Brooks is still going strong at 95, and still on occasion pleasantly surprises us in film cameos as well as lending his voice to animated shows and features (Toy Story 4 and Hotel Transylvania). The film that started it all for the Director, Mel Brooks; The Producers, has since been adapted as a well beloved Broadway musical, which was then adapted as a film musical starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick (the original showrunners for the Broadway production), in 2005. It goes without saying that the comedic genius and king of memorable parodies, has created a legacy. Today, he got to witness enormous amounts of love and appreciation, not just by those who are close to him or have worked with him, but those who have come to get a glimpse of him through his works worldwide. He is trending, after all. Happy 95th, Mel Brooks!