Though acclaimed for his comedy, the legendary Mel Brooks has proven he is taken seriously as a cultural icon. Over the weekend, Brooks shared a theater box with President Obama and First Lady Michelle during the Kennedy Center Honors, where he received an award. Hollywood mingled with Washington over the two-day event that also feted Robert De Niro, Bruce Springsteen, the opera singer Grace Bumbry and the jazz musician Dave Brubeck.
According to the New York Times, the Sunday evening gala performance at the Kennedy Center was just one of many festivities, including a dinner Saturday hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a Sunday reception with President Obama at the White House. Jon Stewart, Meryl Streep and Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman attended the dinner, reports the Times, where Perlman, a 2003 honoree, paid tribute to Springsteen.
“He gives his audience what it wants, but he also lets them know what they want and helps teach them to want more,” Perlman said.
“I agree 100 percent,” said Brooks of the decision to include him among those receiving the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors. At that point, a noise was heard in another room—the photographer arriving—and Brooks sprang to life again, quickly pulling on a navy blazer with a red pocket square. “I am a national treasure, I should be celebrated. And I hope against hope that you won’t find my award on eBay, because you never know,” he said, adjusting the pocket square. “You run out of cash and wherewithal . . .”
With that, Brooks’s voice trailed off. The no doubt very wealthy writer-director-actor was apparently seriously concerned that he might still lose it all. The “national treasure” stuff was vintage Brooks chutzpah, of course, but the fear of the abyss was, in its own way, vintage Brooks, too.
Like Max Bialystock, the washed-up impresario at the heart of “The Producers,” Brooks is intimately acquainted with the bottomless depths of showbiz hell. Like the Cleavon Little character in “Blazing Saddles,” a black sheriff in an all-white town, he knows what it’s like to have all the cards stacked against you. And like his recession-battered country in its prolonged season of pain, he can’t help but laugh at the epic ridiculousness of our present predicament.
Which, of course, is the biggest reason Mel Brooks means more to American comedy now than ever.
“You want to talk about poverty?” asks Max Brooks, Mel’s 37-year-old son, who seems to have made peace with his father’s career. He asserted that Mel has “really made up for lost time” and that “in my dad’s day, as long as you didn’t get drunk and smack the wife around—and brought home a check—you’re father of the year.” The two have grown very close, he said, since the death of Anne Bancroft, Max’s mother and Mel’s second wife, in 2005. In the poor but proud Jewish enclaves of 1930s New York, Mel would tell Max, neighbors would grind up chalk and put it in glass bottles filled with water “so people thought you got your milk delivered.” It was a time when a dentist could diagnose cavities in four of Mel’s teeth and then pull all four, because fillings cost a dollar but extractions just 50 cents. (“For the rest of his life he’s had tooth problems because of that.”)
Back in Brooks’s office, as the day wore on and the afternoon sun cast ever-lengthening shadows across his desk, you had to feel a little sorry for the man. The chaos of the writers’ room is where Brooks always felt most at home; after all, that crucible of mugging and cigar smoking and can-you-top-this?-ing gave birth to television comedy almost single-handedly, which is one reason he created his own writers’ room of sorts when working on “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein” and his other ‘70s comedies. Now Brooks is surrounded by Emmys and Tonys and framed posters of his films, as well as a keyboard on which he’s been plinking out songs for a possible “Blazing Saddles” musical. But no people.
“It’s lonely,” he said. “You have to create characters and they talk to you and you live with them.”
The loneliness only deepened after the loss of Bancroft, to whom he was married for 40 years. Without her, not even Brooks would have had the chutzpah to adapt “The Producers” into a Broadway musical. True, the 1968 film already possessed a jaw-dropping production number, “Springtime for Hitler,” in which the Führer is depicted as a Broadway baby, singing and dancing his way into the audience’s heart (“We’re marching to a faster pace. Look out, here comes the master race!”). But though it had brought him an Oscar for Best Screenplay, “The Producers” had remained largely a cult sensation.
But his wife, Brooks says, always believed that he was “the best lyricist she knew,” as well as “a wonderful songwriter,” and finally demanded that he go up to the attic and write. “That day, I came down with almost a whole song.”
Mel Brooks receives The Ten Commandments in History of the World Part I: