We’re just going to come out and say it, Mel Brooks is an icon’s icon. He is also the Jewish comedian who has influenced American Jewish culture the most during his seven (plus) decades in show business.
Brooks inspired entire generations of comedians by pushing society’s buttons the only way he knew how: with a smile, a song and a jab. So in honor of his 90th birthday, we wanted to mark the milestone by listing how Brooks became so near and dear to our hearts.
1) He brought Nazi humor into the mainstream.
With “The Producers,” Brooks made it okay for the rest of the world to laugh at the Nazis and the atrocities of the Holocaust, but not everyone was a fan of his humor.
In an interview with the Men’s Journal, Brooks opened up about his many critics: “When I did ‘Springtime for Hitler,’ the war was not even cold. And the memory of being in concentration camps was still vivid for Jews. It was literally in bad taste. People like rabbis and would write to me and say, ‘This is execrable.’ And I’d say, ‘You can’t bring folks like Hitler down by getting on a soapbox -– they’re better at it than we are. But if you can humiliate them, ridicule them, and have people laugh at them – you’ve won.’”
Brooks never let a chance to transform the most hated man in history into a caricature go by, enthusiastically whipping out a small comb in his pocket to turn his upper lip into a teeny tiny Hitler mustache.
And who can forget his Hitler rap?
2) The man has an EGOT!
Brooks is part of a privileged small club of artists to have won the coveted EGOT - an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Word on the street is, if he wins another Academy Award he will be the only person to win an EGOT twice. Here’s hoping!
We love this sweet moment from his three-time Emmy winning role as uncle Phil in “Mad About You.”
3) The Schwartz is always with him!
We can’t say for sure that Brooks set out to make a Jewish version of “Star Wars,” but when Yoda became Yogurt, that’s exactly what “Spaceballs” turned out to be.
4) It’s good to be the king.
5) For this beautiful thought on being Jewish.
In another notable moment in his Men’s Journal interview, Brooks had this to say when asked about the role of religion in his life: “I’m rather secular. I’m basically Jewish. But I think I’m Jewish not because of the Jewish religion at all. I think it’s the relationship with the people and the pride I have. The tribe surviving so many misfortunes, and being so brave and contributing so much knowledge to the world and showing courage.”
6) He always has the last laugh.
Lest you forget that he just might be the funniest man in Hollywood, when Brooks showed up for his walk of fame ceremony, he left behind an 11-fingered impression, trolling every other star who ever came before him.
7) He always shook up the status quo.
More than any other movie, Brooks’s 1974 “Blazing Saddles” was the most provocative and controversial for its time. But Brooks and his cowriters, Richard Pryor included, had a point to make about race, and they tested studio’s and audience’s boundaries.
During the 40th anniversary edition release, Brooks recalled being pushed by Pryor himself. “When I thought it was getting to be too much, Richard said, ‘No, we are writing a story of racial prejudice. That’s the word, the only word. It’s profound, it’s real, and the more we use it from the rednecks, the more the victory of the black sheriff will resonate.’ ”
The Library of Congress agreed and in 2006, “Blazing Saddles” was considered “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and was accepted for preservation in the National Film Registry.
8) He was incredibly devoted to his wife.
Brooks has always been effusive and outspoken about his devotion and love for his second wife, Anne Bancroft, whom he called a “guiding force” in much of his success. The two met on the set of a television show where Brooks paid a woman who worked on the set to let him know where Bancroft was eating dinner so he could just happen to run into her.
Brooks married Bancroft at the New York city hall in 1964 with a passer-by acting as a witness and they were “glued together” from then until her death from uterine cancer in 2005.
During a SiriusXM interview with Judd Apatow in 2010, Brooks barely held back tears as he told stories of working alongside Bancroft, saying, “I liked her so much. I couldn’t get enough of her.”
9) He has a wonderful singing voice.
Comedy might be his thing, but Brooks is also an accomplished singer. When asked which production brought him the most satisfaction, the actor said that learning how to sing “Sweet Georgia Brown” in Polish with Bancroft was the most pleasure he ever derived from a movie, especially because he got to spend 24 hours with his wife.
Thank you for your many talents, Mel.
Happy birthday, this one’s for you.