If there’s one person who should be called an ‘icon of American entertainment,’ it’s Mel Brooks. His career has spanned eight decades, and, in that time, he’s given us some of the funniest films in cinema history.
Anyone who’s watched The Producers, Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, High Anxiety, Spaceballs, or History of the World: Part One among his other films can confirm that!
He began his career at age 14 by performing stand-up comedy. He would later write and perform in television shows before making it to the big screen. He’s made us laugh with his comedies that have combined slapstick, wit, history, science fiction, and classic storytelling all at once!
But behind every comic genius’s career is often a difficult life. Such was the case for Mel Brooks.
In fact, it was his tough childhood that shaped him to become the comic genius we have come to love…
Melvin Kaminsky was born on his parent’s kitchen table in 1926 as the youngest of four boys. Both his parents were Jewish and had ancestors who had left Europe for greener pastures in the United States.
As the baby of the family, he was showered with love from an early age. He was the center of attention in the family, and he loved the attention he faced. Within a few years, he managed to hold everyone’s attention by telling jokes. He soon realized that he could build a career from his comedic talents.
But he didn’t use comedy just to entertain others. He also had to use it to defend himself.
He grew up in a poor neighborhood that was also a tough neighborhood. He had to endure bullying as well as anti-Semitism. These challenges made his early life difficult.
In fact, much of his early life could be described as traumatic. When a young person faces trauma, they may never recover from it. They have to find a way to deal with the trauma to succeed in later life.
This was the challenge that Mel Brooks had to face…
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At the age of 2, his father died – leaving Mel without a role model on how to become a man and handle challenges.
His childhood was filled with many frightening incidents. Along with the other Jewish kids, he faced tremendous bullying. He had to protect himself from verbal taunts and at times, physical violence. He recalled in a Playboy interview about how scrawny he was – making him the perfect target for bullies.
He recalls how when he and his Jewish friends would visit the local swimming pool, they would have to band together in a group to show their collective strength.
His Jewishness actually contributed to his humor. The long history of Jews being marginalized and persecuted has helped them develop a sense of humor – almost as a defense mechanism. Mel Brooks decided to use laughter rather than sorrow to deal with trauma. He used it to handle bullies and anyone who disdained him.
He would later recall: “If your enemy is laughing, how can he bludgeon you to death?”
But perhaps a lesser known fact about Mel Brooks is that he did indeed learn to fight. Mel Brooks fought in World War II! Even though he was anti-war, he still decided to fight in the Second World War as did all his brothers.
He felt it was necessary to fight against Hitler and the Nazis and to protect the Jewish people. While we should consider him a hero just as all World War II veterans are heroes, he doesn’t consider himself to be a hero. He just felt he was doing the right thing.
He was an engineer in the army, often having to rebuild structures while being shot at. He also fought in the Battle of the Bulge – one of the most important battles in the war.
It was also during this time in the war that he began to mock Hitler. He realized that one way to defeat the evil tyrant and to raise morale is to mock your enemy. He knew that as a Jew, if he was caught by the Nazis – he would get sent to a concentration camp.
But this frightening prospect didn’t manage to overwhelm Mel Brooks. Over a loudspeaker, Mel Brooks would impersonate the Jewish singer Al Jolson to cloud out the hatred of the Nazi propaganda.
One may think that his career began after he served in the Second World War. But by this time, Mel Brooks already had experiencing with writing and acting for the stage, in nightclubs, and on television.
Upon his return from Germany, he resumed his career. He also knew that he wanted to use humor to uplift others. He had learned about the power of humor for dealing with trauma and helping others. He knew that to reach a wide audience, he had to break into cinema.
He had become a known figure in the entertainment industry and in the 1960s, he got a chance to direct his first feature film. This odd black comedy was called The Producers. It was about two theater producers who planned on producing a bad-taste musical called “Springtime for Hitler.”
He was passionate about the film which starred Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. The film today is considered to be one of the finest comedies in American cinematic history.
But how did audiences and critics react to The Producers when it released in 1968?
It was a MAJOR flop.
He did win an Oscar for his writing, but clearly his comic genius wasn’t appreciated at the time. This was a major drawback for Mel. One major flop is enough to destroy an entertainer’s career for good…
In fact, after facing a major flop many entertainers decide to bow out of the industry altogether. The pain of rejection is so severe that many don’t want to experience it again.
But Mel Brooks didn’t give up. He followed The Producers with a lesser-known film called The Twelve Chairs. Like his previous project, this was another major flop. Not only did the film not have any success but it was a nightmare for Mel Brooks to work on.
The film was shot in Yugoslavia which was a challenge for Mel. He had difficulty adapting to the customs of the communist nation. In fact, during one difficult day of shooting he threw his director’s chair in the Adriatic Sea. Being that Yugoslavia was a communist country, this chair was considered public property and this angered many officials.
He would later recall that he entered Yugoslavia with black hair and left with grey hair.
Mel Brooks would later say that The Twelve Chairs was his favorite film of his own – despite the challenges of making it. Unfortunately, it never became a favorite for audiences or critics and did nothing to propel his career.
Then, in the mid-1970s, Mel Brooks began to write a new screenplay. He had developed a penchant for telling challenging stories through comedy. He decided to write a comedy based in the Old West.
While this may not sound inherently funny, he decided that the Sheriff of the local town would be a black man – which was unheard of and extremely taboo for the time period that the film was set in. He co-wrote the screenplay with comedian Richard Pryor who was also not afraid of tackling taboos through humor.
He was taking a huge risk. It was clear that, so far, audiences didn’t respond to Mel Brook’s style of comedy. Overall, audiences didn’t appreciate the mix of slapstick, wit, and dark humor rolled up into one.
Yet, Blazing Saddles changed that forever. Ironically, Mel Brooks didn’t expect this film to be a major hit. Perhaps he was feeling slightly discouraged due to the failure of his previous films.
Critics loathed the film. But audiences loved it and Mel Brooks was now a household name. While he did have a few more flops throughout his career, most of his films became major hits. In later years, The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein would be ranked as some of the greatest comedy films from 1900-2000 by the American Film Institute.
His later successes included the films High Anxiety, Spaceballs, History of the World: Part One, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
Life didn’t continue to be easy for Mel Brooks, however. He was married to Florence Baum in 1953 and got divorced 9 years later. Before he had any success in filmmaking, he had already been divorced and had to manage looking after his three children.
He would later marry actress Anne Bancroft in 1964 – still much before he had any success in filmmaking. Yet, Anne stuck with Mel through thick and thin and supported him throughout his career until her death in 2005.
Today, Mel Brooks is in his 90s and is recognized as one of the greatest comic geniuses of our time. In fact, critic Roger Ebert described Mel Brooks as one of the most successful comedy directors in the world and one of America’s funniest filmmakers.
Next time you watch a hilarious Mel Brooks film, take time to appreciate the genius behind it. Remember that behind the laughs is a heartbreaking tale – but one of triumph that can inspire anyone to never give up on their dreams!
Are you a fan of Mel Brooks? You should be!
Do you think his life and career are appreciated? Or do you think we need to share more about his struggles so we can appreciate his work even more?
Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.
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