Mel Brooks is a national treasure, right up there with Yellowstone and the Statue of Liberty, only much funnier and more Jewish. Today is Brooks’ 88th birthday, and while it isn’t the holiday it should be we can at least pay tribute to the man who has given us so much. I think we can save the praise for how great Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles are, we all already know that. Instead, let’s cut to the chase. Here are 10 things that hopefully you already know about Mel Brooks, but if you don’t, you should.
1. He’s on the verge of a double EGOT. Mel Brooks is one of the few in showbiz that’s managed to pull off winning an Oscar, a Grammy, an Emmy, and a Tony — the “grand slam” of entertainment. Brooks won his first Emmy in 1967 for The Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris Special and completed the awards grand slam in 2001 with a Tony for The Producers. Brooks has won multiple Tonys, Grammys, and Emmys, and if he ever pulls off another Oscar win he’ll be the first person in showbiz to have managed two EGOTs.
2. We essentially have him to credit for the current zombie craze. Without Mel Brooks their would have been no World War Z book, movie, or collector’s coffee mug. Author of Wold War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide, Max Brooks, is the offspring of Mel.
3. He co-created Get Smart. Brooks is of course known best for his comedy films, but it bears reminding that he created one of the most popular TV shows of the 1960s. Brooks was instrumental in creating the spy spoof along with comedy genius Buck Henry, and Don Adams in the starring role. The show nabbed an impressive seven Emmy awards over its 138 episode run and introduced the world to the ever popular spy gadget — the shoe phone.
4. He gave Dave Chappelle his first film role. In 1993 Dave Chappelle was just a 20-year-old comic working in clubs with an appearance on Evening at the Improv and Def Comedy Jam. Mel Brooks needed somebody to play the Morgan Freeman character in his spoof of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and as told to Esquire, he knew immediately Chappelle was the perfect fit.
“I knew Dave was the guy. I had seen a hundred guys but Dave had a presence. He basically said, I’m not afraid of this shit. I’m not afraid of the camera. I am who I am. And that was so evident in his attitude. And when we were doing the movie he didn’t know he had a sweetness in him, he is the sweetest kid. He was the perfect sidekick for the hero.”
5. He trolled the Nazis while serving in WWII. Then known as Melvin Kaminsky, Brooks joined the Army Corps of Engineers at 17 and was assigned to the 1104th Engineer Combat Group. As a combat engineer one of Brooks’ duties was defusing landmines, but even in the face of war he was still a prankster. Supposedly, during the Battle of the Bulge, the Germans began blasting propaganda over speakers and Brooks then set up his own speakers and did his imitation of Al Jolson’s “Toot Toot Tootsie.”
6. Blazzing Saddles nearly became a TV show. Brooks’ movie was so successful that Warner Brothers pushed for a spin-off television show. The pilot called Black Bart, was produced in 1975, but never made it to air. Most likely due to Brooks’ opposition about creating the show in the first place. Via Esquire:
“I hated that. I said, ‘What are you going to do, it’s 24 minutes for a sitcom, do you think you can get any of this in that time span?’ I told them it’s a big mistake. And I said I’d have nothing to do with it. They said, “But you have to write it,” and I told them no. I was right, it wasn’t good what they came up with.”
7. He brought in Alfred Hitchcock to help with High Anxiety. Brooks looked up to Hitchcock as the greatest director there ever was and wrote a letter, telling him that he was going to lampoon his style in High Anxiety. It turned out that Hitchcock enjoyed Blazing Saddles so much that he asked Brooks if he could help some with the writing on the film. In an interview with NPR, Brooks described how he would go to the director’s office at Universal Studios every Friday at noon for lunch and they would work on the script together.
“He said, ‘what are you going to do about The Birds.‘ I said, ‘well, gee, at the moment I haven’t included it.’ And he said, ‘well, why don’t you have them attack you with their – you know, with their doody.’ He said it’s going to be funny. I said ‘thank you, thank you, Mr. Hitchcock. I loved him.”
8. In addition to Dave Chapelle, Brooks made Gene Wilder a huge star. It was Brooks’ wife, Anne Bancroft, who introduced the then unknown Gene Wilder to Brooks while working on a play. Wilder appeared in Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, but it was Brooks who helped to push him into the mainstream spotlight with The Producers the same year, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory a few years later.
9. He’s also been a producer on some great movies that are not comedies. Brooks’ comedic side will always take the spotlight, but he’s worked on some incredible films outside of the comedy genre as well. Brooks was a producer on David Lynch’s The Elephant Man as well as David Cronenberg’s sci-fi bug flick, The Fly.
10. His older brother was his role model after losing his father. Brooks grew up in Williamsburg, which at the time was one of the poorest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, and lost his father at a young age to tuberculosis of the kidney. The future director would engross himself in the western and horror movies of the day and credits his brother with having a huge impact on his upbringing.
“I thank my lucky stars that I was born and that my brother Irving was so kind and good to me. He was giving me street names, he gave me a tricycle, trying to make up for the loss of—I didn’t realize it, but trying to make up for the loss of our father.”
Oh, and that Black Bart pilot eventually made its way to the internet.