James and Kate Kaminsky – he a German Jew via Poland, she a Russian Jew from modern day Ukraine – had immigrated to Brooklyn, New York. They had four sons. The youngest, Melvin was born on June 28, 1926. Soon after his birth, the family moved to nearby Williamsburg, New York. Melvin was two-years-old when his father died of kidney disease – a loss which would impact him throughout his life.
Melvin was small and sickly – not at all athletic – which made him a perfect target for being picked on and bullied. He discovered that the best way to defend himself was through comedy. A neighborhood friend, Buddy Rich, taught Melvin how to play drums and at age 14, he began to play for money.
Following high school, he enrolled at Brooklyn College and studied Psychology. That pursuit was interrupted when he was drafted into the US Army. He was a combat engineer, tasked with diffusing land mines. He fought in the infamous Battle of the Bulge. He also fought the Germans with his own forte – entertainment. In response to the Nazi propaganda which blared through loudspeakers, Melvin setup his own system and played recordings of Al Jolson – a famous Jewish performer.
After the war, Mel turned to entertainment full time, pursuing work as a pianist and drummer on the Catskill Mountain circuit. When one night the scheduled comedian fell ill, Mel stood in. He was a hit. He soon found work as a writer for television working with Sid Caesar. Together with Carl Reiner he developed a routine known as the 2000-Year-old Man. He had an idea for a show that would be a spy-parody featuring a bungling mishap prone secret agent. Working with Buck Henry, Get Smart was created, featuring Maxwell Smart as Agent 86 and his competent and beautiful Agent 99. The show ran for six years.
He then turned to film, creating an animated short titled The Critic. That film won an academy award. Mel then turned his focus back to comedy, writing a screenplay for a movie to be called The Producers. “Once we get funding, he told his friend Gene Wilder, “you’re going to play Leo Bloom.” Wilder’s response was one of doubt. “You’re going to make a movie about two Jews intentionally producing a flop because it will make more money than a hit, with the name Springtime for Hitler – it won’t get funded”. But it did. Wilder played the lead and Mel won an Oscar.
1974 was a magical year for Mel – not one, but two blockbuster box office hit comedies. The first, co-written with Richard Pryor, was a parody of classic western films titled Blazing Saddles. Gene Wilder, one of the many soon-to-be-famous actors in the movie, spent his down time writing notes for a film he’d envisioned. Curious, Mel read the notes and together, they produced Young Frankenstein on a budget of only $2.8 million. Those two movies, along with The Producers, are ranked by the American Film Institute in the top 13 comedy films of all time.
Mel would go on to produce, direct and act in a variety of movies. In 1999 he released a comedy album based on the 2000-Year-old Man which won a Grammy. In 2001, The Producers was adapted to a Broadway play – Mel was awarded three Tony awards. He is one of only twelve people to have collectively won at least one Emmy, Grammy, Tony and Academy award. He’s won lifetime achievement awards, the National Medal of Arts and well – his awards are just too many to list. These results were achieved because Mel Brooks is a truly fearless brand.
Fearless Brands bring their heart, soul and heritage to every endeavor
Mel Brooks (the name he adopted when performing in the Catskills) has been called madcap, irreverent, hysterical, creative, rebellious and juvenile – a master of farce, parody and satire. He is all of those – and more. On an HBO special, he commented on the impact his father’s death may have had on his work – “There’s an outrage there. I may be angry at God, or at the world, for that. And I’m sure a lot of my comedy is based on anger and hostility.” A lot perhaps, but not all. From childhood, Brooks had the talent to create humor and entertainment in virtually any situation – a true gift and talent.
He was married twice, marrying Anne Bancroft after his first marriage ended in divorce. He and Bancroft were happily married for 41 years, up until her death in 2005. It was his wife who paid him what may be his greatest tribute when she said” My life starts when I hear his key in the door.”
Critics called Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein sophomoric, vulgar and definitely in ‘bad taste’. They would be proven wrong. Those stories have stood the test of time. They make social statements which are perhaps more relevant today than when the films debuted.
Brooks has said that his favorite line from any of his films came at the end of Blazing Saddles when the Black Sheriff (Cleavon Little) when asked where he was headed says ‘Nowhere special’. Gene Wilder’s character responds with ‘Nowhere special. That’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to go.’
Simply put, Mel Brooks is a genius when it comes to comedy, satire, parody and entertainment. He is also a fearless brand from whom much can be learned.
Embrace your heritage – Early in his career, Hollywood had deemed Brooks’ work as “too Jewish”. Rather than be swayed, Brooks continued creating and producing what he found funny, silly and entertaining. No race, creed or religion – including his own – were spared from his sarcasm and humor. By so doing, Brooks was able to remain open and proud of his heritage, which led to his success.
Trust your talent – From a very early age, Mel Brooks relied on his talent to get him through life – the good times and the trying times. Humor allowed him to navigate high school’s tormentors. His gift of irony allowed him to survive the battlefields of WWII. His creativity – coupled with his love of entertaining – has seen him through a blessed life. Know your talents. Trust them. Rely on them. Believe.
Welcome collaboration – The sheer number of tremendously talented people that Mel Brooks collaborated with is, by itself, an exceptional tribute to the man. He shared his talent. He embraced others’ creativity, humor and passion. Working together with tremendously talented people helped make Mel Brooks’ works even greater and more compelling than they might have been had he worked solo. Fearless brands are totally comfortable with themselves – both their skills and shortcomings. The result is that they don’t fear collaboration or competition.
To fully tell the story of Mel Brook’s talent, his collection of work, the contributions he’s made both publicly and privately would require a book. A very big book at that. He has lived a very full and rich life. In turn, he has made significant contributions to society on a global basis. That’s the result of his being a fearless brand. Follow his lead. Get comfortable with yourself – your roots, your talents, your shortcomings. Find your purpose. Be open to collaboration. Be a fearless brand.