95 Things We Love About Mel Brooks on His 95th Birthday
See if your favorite isn't number 33 ...
En español | Comedy legend Mel Brooks was born on June 28, 1926. And in the 95 years since then, he hasn't stopped making us laugh, whether it's on the big screen, the small one, on stage, on record albums, even on his son Max's marvelous video PSA about social distancing during the pandemic. There are a million reasons why we consider him America's greatest living comedian. But in honor of his 95th trip around the sun, here are our top 95.
1. Because his real name is Melvin Kaminsky.
2. Because he grew up in a Brooklyn tenement. Of course he did.
3. Because the name of his native borough is not where he got the idea for the professional name “Brooks.” His mother's maiden name was Brookman.
4. Because his cab driver uncle took him to his first Broadway show — Cole Porter's Anything Goes, with Ethel Merman.
5. Because afterward, he vowed he would never work in the garment district (as was expected of him), that he'd go into show business instead.
6. Because he got his unofficial start as a performer working as a “pool tummler,” telling jokes and performing skits on a diving board.
7. Because as a teenager, he accepted a gig performing in the Catskills for a then-staggering $200 a night …
8. … but the hotel was expecting the famous trumpeter Max Kaminsky, not Mel Kaminsky …
9. … and that's the moment he decided to change his name to Mel Brooks.
10. Because he's one of the few entertainers with an EGOT (winner of an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony).
11. Because he learned how to play the drums at 14 from neighbor Buddy Rich.
12. Because in his first play in the Catskills, he dropped a glass of water, and after the glass broke, he took off his wig and said to the audience: “I'm 14! I've never done this before!” The crowd roared.
13. Because in his high school yearbook, he said his ambition was to become president of the United States.
14. Because he's a Kangaroo (he attended the Virginia Military Institute — that's their mascot).
15. Because he served during WWII as part of the Army's 1104th Engineer Combat Group.
16. One of his jobs was defusing landmines.
17. While hiding under a desk during heavy incoming shelling, he told himself: “Okay, if I get through this, I'll get through anything."
18. He was at the invasion of Normandy ...
19. ... and saw action during the Battle of the Bulge.
20. Because his comedy idol was Sid Caesar, whom he would stake out in the hallway to pitch jokes to.
21. Because Caesar finally relented and hired him for $50 a week.
22. Because he later became a member of the most famous writers’ room in TV history on Caesar's Your Show of Shows alongside …
23. Carl Reiner ...
24. Neil Simon ...
25. Woody Allen …
26. and Larry Gelbart.
27. Caesar's show was such a pressure cooker that Brooks began going to psychoanalysis. “It was a choice of that or suicide,” he said.
28. Because his boss, Caesar, once dangled Brooks out of a very high hotel room window by his ankles.
29. Because after his first marriage broke up, he lived with a pal, which inspired Neil Simon's The Odd Couple.
30. Because he dated Eartha Kitt.
31. Because he had the good sense to marry Anne Bancroft in 1964 …
32. … and stay together until her death in 2005.
33. Because he was so smitten with Bancroft when he first met her, he couldn't speak. We repeat: Mel Brooks couldn't speak!
34. When they got married at City Hall in lower Manhattan, their witness was a guy who was passing by on the street.
35. Because he was Carl Reiner's basis for Morey Amsterdam's comedy-writer character Buddy Sorrell on The Dick Van Dyke Show.
36. Because in the early ‘60s, he was one of the few people who wanted to work with the blacklisted comedian Zero Mostel.
37. Because he always recognized the line dividing good from bad taste — and defiantly skipped over it.
38. For his brilliant “The 2,000-Year-Old Man” skit with Reiner, which they first created as a party gag.
39. The legendary critic Kenneth Tynan was at one of those parties and called Brooks “the most original comic improviser I had ever seen."
40. Why? Because of ad libs like this: When asked about Jesus Christ, his 2,000-year-old-man replies, “Thin lad, wore sandals, long hair, walked around with 11 other guys."
41. And because he said that having lived for two millennia, he had fathered 42,000 children. “And not one comes to visit me."
42. George Burns talked Brooks and Reiner into recording the skit on an album.
43. Because he didn't give up after his first play, Shinbone Alley, about a dead poet reanimated as a cockroach, flopped with critics and closed after 59 shows.
44. Because on October 1, 1962, he was a guest on Johnny Carson's first night hosting The Tonight Show (along with Joan Crawford, Tony Bennett and Rudy Vallee).
45. Because he created the hilarious TV spy spoof Get Smart with Buck Henry in 1965.
46. Before the show was picked up by NBC, ABC rejected it as “distasteful and un-American."
47. The CIA reportedly thought it was hilarious.
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48. Because he won an Academy Award for his first film, The Critic, an animated short about an old Jewish man commenting on modern art.
49. Because he hit it out of the park with his first feature as a director, 1967's The Producers …
50. … and won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for it, beating out Stanley Kubrick and John Cassavetes …
51. … even though no major studio would touch the independently financed film because it was considered so offensive.
52. For the sheer audacity of “Springtime for Hitler."
53. Because he was largely responsible for Gene Wilder's career, thanks not only to The Producers but also Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.
54. For hiring the politically incorrect Richard Pryor to help write the script of Blazing Saddles …
55. … which made more than $100 million at the box office …
56. … and became the top-grossing comedy in Hollywood history until National Lampoon's Animal House came along.
57. In 2006, those fart jokes were officially enshrined for future generations in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
58. Because he somehow also directed and released Young Frankenstein in the same year!
59. For every single second of Young Frankenstein …
60. … including when Marty Feldman's Igor breaks the fourth wall and gives a bug-eyed wink at the camera.
61. For the inspired idea of having the famous mime Marcel Marceau utter the only word in his 1976 pre-talkie era send-up Silent Movie.
62. Because he considered Alfred Hitchcock the greatest director who ever lived …
63. … then spoofed Hitchcock (brilliantly) in 1977's High Anxiety, which takes place partly at the Psych-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous.
64. But not before sending a note to Hitchcock saying, “If any of this offends you, I won't do it."
65. Because Hitchcock loved High Anxiety so much he even gave a few hints on the script.
66. Because he gave future Diner and Rain Man director Barry Levinson one of his first breaks as a writer on the film.
67. Because there never would have been a movie like Airplane! without his blueprint.
68. Because of his bawdy delivery of the line “It's good to be the King” in 1981's History of the World, Part I.
69. Because he also played Moses, deliverer of the 15 … crash! … 10 Commandments!
70. Because of the “Coming Attractions” for History of the World, Part 2 at the end of Part 1, which includes teasers for scenes such as “Hitler on Ice” and “Jews in Space."
71. Because he still paid Orson Welles, the film's narrator, his contracted $25,000 for five days work on the film after he knocked out all of his lines in one afternoon.
72. Because he once defined tragedy as “if I cut my finger” and comedy as “if you walk into an open sewer and die."
73. Because he's a wine connoisseur.
74. Because he would publicly fight with critics who panned his work.
75. Because he had the smarts to turn down the role of Dr. Loomis in the horror classic Halloween (much to Donald Pleasence's relief).
76. Because he produced The Elephant Man, thus enabling the mainstream career of its offbeat director, David Lynch.
77. For producing David Cronenberg's deliriously disgusting The Fly.
78. Because of his and Bancroft's swinging Polish-language version of the song “Sweet Georgia Brown” in 1983's To Be or Not to Be.
79. Because he is a closet Trekkie.
80. Because 1987's Star Wars spoof, Spaceballs, showed American kids that funny names were … funny:
81: Yoda — Yogurt.
82. Darth Vader — Dark Helmet.
83. John Candy's mutt-like Chewbacca knock-off — Barf.
84. Because Rick Moranis’ Darth Helmet literally fast-forwards through his own movie in one of the other great fourth-wall-breaking gags.
85. Because — who knew? — three of his four Emmys are for guest-starring on the ‘90s sit-com Mad About You.
86. For the delightfully on-the-nose idiocy of the titles of Dracula: Dead and Loving It and Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
87. Because he's been honored at the Kennedy Center and has a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Not bad for a pool tummler from Brooklyn.
88. Because the apple apparently doesn't fall far from the tree — his son Max wrote the 2006 bestselling book World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.
89. Because of his spectacular comeback in 2001 with the hit Broadway adaptation of The Producers …
90. … and its 12 Tonys.
91. Because when he imprinted his hands in cement on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, he used a prosthetic eleventh finger.
92. Because The Producers inspired the title of the 1991 U2 album, Achtung Baby.
93. For his turn as “Melephant Brooks” in Toy Story 4.
94. Because he ate dinner and watched a movie with his best friend, Carl Reiner, every night in the last decade of Reiner's life.
95. Because every comedian working today is living in a world that Mel Brooks created. Period.
Chris Nashawaty, former film critic for Entertainment Weekly, is the author of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story and a contributor to Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.