Funny Man: Mel Brooks by Patrick McGilligan
In his show business career that has lasted for seven decades, Mel Brooks – who recently turned 93 – can boast generations of fans who have followed different aspects of his career, whether it be as a writer for the legendary TV sketch comedy series “Your Show of Shows”, half of the comedy duo (with Carl Reiner) that created the “2000-Year-Old-Man” routine, creator of the 1960s spy spoof sitcom “Get Smart”, director of such classic comedy movies as “The Producers”, “Blazing Saddles”, “Young Frankenstein” and “Spaceballs”, or the driving force behind the mega successful musical version of “The Producers” that won 12 Tony Awards and became the toast of Broadway.
Sid Caesar got so fed up with Brooks
Yet through his many successes – and his many failures – the former Melvin Kaminsky had one common thread throughout his life on TV, movies and the stage: he had an aching need to be liked by everyone and garner a great deal of attention from friends and colleagues alike, even to the point of obnoxiousness (which explained why during a “Show of Shows” writing session, star Sid Caesar got so fed up with Brooks’ shtick that he dangled Brooks from the window of the writers’ room high atop 30 Rock).
Patrick McGilligan, who has written critically-acclaimed biographies of legendary Hollywood directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray and Orson Welles, gives Brooks a multi-dimensional biographical treatment in his excellent tome Funny Man: Mel Brooks.
Mel Brooks with and without the laughter
This book can be best described as Mel Brooks with and without the laughter. For the fans of his impressive body of work, they will certainly not be disappointed, as McGilligan offers plenty behind-the-scenes stories of Mel Brooks the TV writer/creator and film director in a chronological approach. For example, Brooks wanted comedian Richard Pryor, who was one of the writers of “Blazing Saddles”, to portray the lead character of Sheriff Bart. However, Warner Bros. objected to Brooks’ choice of Pryor because of his rampant drug use at the time; the role eventually went to little known actor Cleavon Little, and became a career defining role for him.
Mel Brooks had two personalities
However, the main argument McGilligan offers about what shaped Brooks’ psyche on the screen and behind the screen was kind of a Jekyll and Hyde existence, which was defined by his friends and colleagues as two spilt personalities: “Nice Mel” (one glaring example is how he gave parts to mentor Sid Caesar in two of his movies during a low time in his career) and “Rude Crude Mel” (which was painfully exemplified by the cold, distant treatment he gave his first wife Florence, and the psychological abuse he put co-star Lewis J. Stadlen through during the shooting of his 1983 comedy “To Be Or Not To Be).
Also, two other aspects of Brooks’ personality that was barely public knowledge, but comes out in great detail in the book, were his ability as a shrewd Hollywood businessman, who through his production company Brooksfilms (which produced David Lynch’s Oscar-nominated biopic “The Elephant Man” in 1980) managed to negotiate thorough, complicated domestic and international distribution deals for his movies that made Brooks quite wealthy. The other is how Brooks managed to see himself through so many personal and professional setbacks and failures (his early 60s Broadway musical “All American” and his 1975 short-lived ABC sitcom “When Things Were Rotten”, for example) that he became a sort-of Hollywood version of Lazarus, in which he rose from the ashes from what could have been a career-ending failure to a major success that was bigger than the previous one.
Using countless interviews and thorough research, Patrick McGilligan has constructed in Funny Man: Mel Brooksa portrait of a human dynamo who wanted to make people laugh whether it be through an impromptu conversation or talk show appearance, or one of his popular comedy creations. However, through a lot of insecurity, a constant needy feeling, and a two-faced personality, this book shows that the steps Mel Brooks took to the pinnacle of becoming a comedy legend was indeed no laughing matter.