In February 2020, I joined Mel Brooks at the Beverly Hills home of his best friend, the director and writer Carl Reiner, for their nightly tradition of eating dinner together and watching the gameshow Jeopardy!. It was one of the most emotional nights of my life. Brooks, more than anyone, shaped my idea of Jewish-American humour, emphasising its joyfulness, cleverness and in-jokiness. Compared with his stellar 60s and 70s, when he was one of the most successful movie directors in the world, with The Producers and Blazing Saddles, and later his glittering 2000s, when his musical adaptation of The Producers dominated Broadway and the West End, his 80s and 90s are considered relatively fallow years. But his 1987 Star Wars spoof, Spaceballs, was the first Brooks movie I saw, and nothing was funnier to this then nine-year-old than that nonstop gag-a-thon (forget Yoda and the Force; in Spaceballs, Mel Brooks is Yoghurt and he wields the greatest power of all, the Schwartz).
I loved listening to Brooks and Reiner – whose films included The Jerk and The Man With Two Brains – reminisce about their eight decades of friendship in which, together and separately, they created some of the greatest American comedy of the 20th century. The deep love between them was palpable, with Brooks, then 93, gently prompting 97-year-old Reiner on some of his anecdotes. It was impossible not to be moved by their friendship, and hard not to feel anxiety about the prospect of one of them someday having to dine on his own.
Only a month later, the US went into a lockdown. Then in June Reiner died, followed a few months later by Jeopardy!’s long-term host, Alex Trebek. I worried about Brooks. What was he doing with his evenings without even Jeopardy! for company? When his memoir, All About Me!, arrived in the post last month, my concerns were not assuaged. It is as sparkling and delightful as you’d expect from Brooks, full of great advice, such as how to get a studio head to give you more money for your film (catch them off-guard in the bathroom), and memories from the making of his gold-plated classic movies. But it’s also full of ghosts. Almost everyone he writes about is now dead: Reiner, Brooks’s wife Anne Bancroft, Richard Pryor, Gene Wilder, TV star Sid Caesar, comedian Dom DeLuise, film-maker Buck Henry – all gone. Living to 95, as Brooks now is, is not for the faint-hearted.
I became even more concerned in the run-up to this, our second interview. Brooks has never needed much encouragement to get in front of a camera, but I was told that he wanted to talk by phone, not video chat, because he doesn’t want to be on a screen. As I dial his number, I am braced, unsure what to expect.
“Hi! How are you? Thank you so much for your time, I appreciate it,” says Brooks, when he answers, sounding reassuringly chipper.
I ask how he’s been during the pandemic. “Good and bad,” he says. “But my son Max – he’s a very good writer, he wrote The Zombie Survival Guide, World War Z, that’s Max – he said to me, ‘You’re stuck in the house during this pandemic, and sooner or later you want to write your memoir, so this is a good time to do it. Just write down all the stories you told me growing up.’ So I did that.”
Did he find it painful or comforting to write about his past? He hesitates before replying: “A little of both. Yeah, a little of both. When I look back at people like Gene, who I loved so much and miss so much, and my adventures with Carl – you met him, you saw what a sweetheart of a guy he was, my best friend – and, of course, my wife who was my great love and support, it was hard to keep going sometimes.”
Brooks is one of just 16 people in history to win an EGOT, short for an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony (he has 11 of those in total, many for the 1967 film The Producers, or his 2001 Broadway adaptation). In 2009, President Obama gave him a Kennedy Center Honor, in recognition of his contribution to American culture, after he turned one down from President George W Bush in protest against the war in Iraq. (Brooks asked Obama if he could have two honors, to make up for the one he turned down. “Only one per customer,” Obama replied.)
He has a star on the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard (although instead of leaving his own handprints on the pavement, he used a prosthetic hand with six fingers) and an American Film Institute (AFI) lifetime achievement award. As part of the AFI presentation, Clint Eastwood talked about how the western movie was a central part of the American identity. “And this is what Mel Brooks did to it,” he faux-snarled, and cut to the famous fart scene in Blazing Saddles. Brooks relates all this and more with relish in All About Me!. As he writes, “I’m not bragging. It’s just a fact.”
Brooks’s story begins – as it did for so many American comedians of his generation, including Reiner – in a working-class Jewish family. “People say, ‘Out of the suffering of Jews, the need to laugh is critical for the survival of the race.’ But we didn’t become comics out of misery. We became comics because there are a lot of laughs in Jewish households. There’s always some wiseguy making cracks about how fat Aunt Sadie is, and it’s a need for that joy to continue that was the engine for all of us to become comics. It was fun being a little Jewish boy in a household with three older brothers and my mother; my aunt and my grandmother living next door,” he says.
He was born Melvin Kaminsky and grew up in the Brooklyn tenements. His father died of kidney disease when he was only two, and even as an adult, when Brooks would get a big laugh doing standup at Radio City Music Hall, he would think: “I wish my father could have heard that laugh.” His mother compensated by lavishing love on him, singing the Bing Crosby song You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby as she dressed him on cold winter mornings. He knew it so well he sang it to his teacher, and she made him sing it to the whole school. Is that when he caught the performing bug?
“I think so. I loved it – their applause and their whistles. I was only five, but I knew what I had to be, to do that strange thing of getting up in front of a bunch of people and make them applaud and laugh,” he says.
He got plenty of inspiration for laughter from his mother. “She made me keep lookout for when my grandmother would come into the apartment. When she did, I’d whisper, ‘It’s Grandma!’ and my mother would run around the kitchen and hide anything treif [non-kosher] like ham, because my brothers liked ham-and-cheese sandwiches. And then she’d sit at the table with a calm smile on her face,” he laughs. This scene, with its caperishness verging on slapstick, all wrapped up with a gleefully Jewish twist, could have come straight out of a Brooks movie.
“I remember always being funny,” he writes in his book, and this was partly to fend off the bullies at school, who were all much taller than him. Comedy, Brooks writes, was his weapon. As a teenager, he got a job as a busboy working at a resort in the Catskills, a holiday destination so popular with Jews that it was known as “the Borscht Belt”. He was quickly spotted by the hotel’s owner as someone who could entertain the guests round the pool. It was about this time that he became “Melvin Brooks”, because he also dreamed of being a drummer, and it was easier to fit Brooks – a homage to his mother’s maiden name Brookman – on a drum kit than Kaminsky.
But his budding drumming and comedy career was interrupted when he was 18 and he followed his three older brothers into the army to fight in the second world war. (Miraculously, all four boys survived.) Brooks was shipped out to Normandy, where he swept for landmines, and he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Over the years, Brooks has been criticised by some for making fun of Hitler in his movies and treating him as a joke. But not many of his critics literally fought against Hitler in the war. Who would know better than Brooks that comedy is a weapon?
After the war, Brooks met Sid Caesar, who had also worked in the Borscht Belt and was now a comedian in need of a writer. Brooks wrote for Caesar’s popular TV variety shows Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour, and he worked alongside a bunch of fellow young unknowns: Reiner, Neil Simon and, later, Woody Allen. Brooks scoffs at my suggestion that, between them, they coined modern Jewish-American humour – “We were just part of the swim” – but they certainly popularised it, and in turn, it helped to popularise all of them. What was Allen like to work with?
“Woody was so young then. I was about 24 when I started, but Woody must have been 19. But so wise, so smart. He had this tricky little mind and he’d surprise you, which is the trick of being a good comedy writer. That was Woody – always making a left turn. Then I moved to California and he was in New York, but every once in a while, we’d send each other letters. I’d say how great his movie was, he’d say how great mine was – that kinda thing,” Brooks says.
But the writer Brooks was closest to was Reiner. Pretty much from the moment they met, the two men became best friends, and Brooks loved to make him laugh. Just to amuse one another, they came up with their routine of The 2000 Year Old Man, in which Reiner would ask Brooks, the man who had lived through two millennia, about his life, and Brooks would riff answers:
Reiner: Did you know Jesus?
Brooks: Thin lad, right? Wore sandals? Hung around with 12 other guys? They always came into my store. Never bought anything, just asked for water.
It progressed from being their private joke to their party trick to, in 1960, a successful series of comedy albums that won them a Grammy. Whether The 2000 Year Old Man was recalling the Crucifixion or the French Revolution, he always spoke in the same accent, which sounded a lot like a Yiddish-inflected Brooklyn accent from the early 20th century.
“I wanted to preserve that dialect. When I was a little kid, it was all over the place, but then suddenly, it was kind of gone. Nobody spoke Yiddish any more, that wonderful crazy language. Like, English has ‘chide’, but it can’t compare to [the Yiddish translation] ‘kibbitz’,” Brooks says.
For Brooks, the real joy of The 2000 Year Old Man was spending time with Reiner. “Any time I could surprise him and really break him up, I knew it was funny. He was the greatest audience. Ahhh, I miss him so much, Hadley. He would call me in the evenings and say ,‘Come over, come over! I got a big stuffed cabbage for us!’ Even at the end he was always Carl: funny, sweet-natured, warm and just the most wonderful friend a person could ever have. People know how good he was, but not how great,” Brooks says.
Can he watch Jeopardy! – which currently has a series of guest hosts – without Reiner sitting next to him? “It’s over for me. All the stuff I used to do with Carl is still around, but I don’t enjoy it if I don’t share it with Carl. It’s as simple as that.”
I tell Brooks that I recently interviewed Steve Martin, with whom Reiner frequently collaborated, and he said Reiner’s memorial happened over Zoom due to the pandemic. I can almost hear Brooks wince down the line. “Oh. Yeah. So bad. Anyway, I love Steve – so wise and witty,” he says, changing the subject.
Soon after Brooks and Reiner released The 2000 Year Old Man album, Brooks divorced his first wife, with whom he had three children. On a whim, he tagged along with a friend to go to hear the actor Anne Bancroft rehearse for a performance. Brooks walked into the dark theatre, and saw Bancroft in the spotlight.
“Anne Bancroft, I love you!” he shouted.
“Who the hell are you?” she shouted back.
“I’m Mel Brooks! Nobody you’ve ever heard of!”
“Wrong!” she replied. “I’ve got your 2000 Year Old Man record with Carl Reiner and it’s great.”
What was it about her that made him fall so fast? “She was smart. She was a short stop: she would get the ground ball, toss it to second and make a double play,” he says, making the most romantic baseball metaphor I’ve ever heard. “I could never bamboozle her – she always knew what was going on. Also, she was downright, flat-out beautiful!”
For the next week, he made sure to turn up wherever she was. “It’s kismet!” he’d say, as they bumped into one another at yet another restaurant. “No, you’re stalking me! If you want to see me, why don’t you just ask me on a date?” she replied. So he did, she said yes, and that, for the Italian Roman Catholic girl and Brooklyn Jewish boy, was that.
It was only after he met Bancroft that Brooks’s movie career took off. “I’d still be a TV comedy writer if it weren’t for Annie, because she always thought there was nothing I couldn’t do, no rhyme I couldn’t make, no joke I couldn’t pull off. She was my biggest fan,” he says with feeling.
With Bancroft’s encouragement, Brooks wrote The Producers, his classic story about two men who try to put on a theatrical flop and inadvertently make a hit, and he talked the studio into letting him direct, despite never having directed a movie. He cast Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock and Gene Wilder as Leo Bloom. “The studio said, ‘Get rid of the curly-haired guy, he’s not handsome enough and he looks a little nuts,’ meaning Gene, of course. And I said, ‘It’s done, you’ll never see him again.’ That’s another movie-making tip: just say yes to whatever the executives say, and then stick to your vision. When it’s a hit, they’ll be happy,” Brooks says.
It was and they were, and then there was no stopping Brooks. Over the next decade he wrote and directed five more movies, each one a hit, including Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (also 1974) and High Anxiety (1977, a riff on Hitchcock movies, which Hitchcock loved). Suddenly Brooks, who hadn’t been able to afford pay for Bancroft’s meals when they were dating, was one of the most successful directors of the 1970s. He then founded his production company, Brooksfilms, so he could produce movies that weren’t the kind of comedies audiences expected from him. These included The Elephant Man, for which he hired the near unknown David Lynch as director, and The Fly, in which he insisted on casting the then unknown Jeff Goldblum. People know how good Brooks is, but not how great.
The support did not flow in one direction in Brooks and Bancroft’s relationship: it was only after they got married that Bancroft won a Tony and then an Oscar for her performance in The Miracle Worker. During the course of their marriage, she accumulated four further Oscar nominations including for Mrs Robinson in The Graduate. So he must have encouraged her, too, I say.
“Yes, but she didn’t need it. Like I said, she was a short stop, always playing on the infield,” he says, meaning she knew how to look after herself. “I was so lucky to have her, and I was very lucky that together we made Max.”
Bancroft was 40 when Max was born, by which point she’d given up hope that she could have a child. He was their miracle baby, and with his father’s features and mother’s colouring he still looks strikingly like both his parents. These days, it’s 49-year-old Max – and his wife and son – whom Brooks often goes to for dinner. During lockdown, he and Max made funny videos, which Max tweeted, about the importance of social distancing and voting for Biden, and it’s not hard to imagine that Brooks might have once done those with Reiner.
Brooks’s book is mainly about his work as opposed to his personal life: “Personal means personal, and I don’t want to spill the beans,” he says. But he couldn’t resist sticking in a few anecdotes about happy holidays he took with Bancroft, dinners they hosted, their weekends away with the Reiners, and laughing, always laughing. Did they ever fight? “We fought a lot. One time, I left the house after a terrible fight and I checked into a hotel at midnight and at about three in the morning I called her and said,‘You still up?’ She said yes. I said, ‘I’m coming home.’ The people at the desk said, ‘That was a short stay.’ But I couldn’t spend the whole night without being with her,” he says.
Bancroft died from uterine cancer in 2005, at the age of 73, yet Brooks makes no mention of this in the book. “No, that still hurts too much,” he says. Does he ever watch her movies? “I don’t decide to turn on one of her movies, but if one is on when I turn on the TV, then I’m caught, and I’ll stay until the end and cry. I’ll see her energy, her joie de vivre. She was just amazing. I don’t think there was anybody better,” he says quietly.
It was Bancroft who convinced Brooks he could write the songs when he decided to turn The Producers into a Broadway musical, even though he had never scored a show before. “She said, ‘Just write the songs, they’re in you! You’re the Jewish George M Cohan,’” Brooks says. (Cohan was the early 20th-century songwriter behind Give My Regards to Broadway and Yankee Doodle Dandy.) Bancroft was right, and the original Broadway production, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, won 12 Tonys in 2001, more than any other show ever. When Hamilton won 11 in 2016, Brooks quietly cheered that The Producers still held the record. Does his competitive spirit still burn bright at 95?
“It’s always there. When I saw Hamilton I wrote, ‘It’s the best musical ever on Broadway (except for The Producers),’” he cackles. “That’s how it is in show- business. It’s always, ‘You’re good – but you’re not me!’” But that’s not how it was with you, Reiner and Bancroft, I say. The three of you were each other’s biggest fans. “That’s true, that’s true,” he says, quiet again.
Brooks used to love meeting his fans and didn’t even mind when they would interrupt his meal in a restaurant, where he was invariably dining with several dozen of his closest friends. But now he does mind: “They crowd around me and breathe on me and give me their pens. It’s just too dangerous. So I don’t go out for meals until [the pandemic] is gone,” he says, and for the first time he sounds not just alone but vulnerable.
I ask why he didn’t want to talk by video chat. “Ach! Because I don’t want to have to worry about two things – how I look and how I sound. I just want to be free to sit and talk. And we did that, didn’t we?” We did. “Right! Good!” he says, back to his puckish self. “So look, next time I make it to beautiful London, that city that I love, we’ll go out for dinner together, OK? It’s a deal!”
The shadows grow long in the twilight, but the sun hasn’t set yet.
• All About Me! by Mel Brooks is published by Cornerstone. To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com.