Legendary comedian and filmmaker Mel Brooks will be honored by the American Film Institute with its Lifetime Achievement Award next year. Brooks, one of a select few talents to win an Oscar, Emmy, Tony, and Grammy, will be recognized for a career that includes some of the funniest films ever made.
“Mel Brooks is America’s long-reigning king of comedy – as he taught us long ago, it’s good to be the king,” Howard Stringer, chairman of AFI’s board of trustees said in a statement. “He’s a master of an art form that rarely gets the respect it deserves, and it’s AFI’s honor to shine a bright light on laughter by presenting Mel Brooks the 41st AFI Life Achievement Award.”
Brooks, 86, was born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn (he took the stage name Brooks from his mother’s maiden name, Brookman). His father died when Brooks was two years old, leaving his mother to raise Brooks and his three older brothers on her own. After a stint in the army, Brooks began performing the Borscht Belt circuit and was a tummler (master entertainer) at Grossinger’s, one of the most famous Catskills resorts.
In the 1950s, Brooks became part of Sid Caesar’s legendary writing team on Your Show of Shows. It was there that he met Carl Reiner and the two became fast friends, eventually becoming one of the most popular comedy teams of the 1960s with their 2000 Year Old Man LP’s.
In 1968 Brooks wrote and directed his first film, The Producers, a raucous comedy starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder that did not make a lot of money on its initial release but is now considered one of the all-time great film comedies. The film won Brooks an Oscar for his screenplay and made a star out of Wilder, who would also team up with Brooks for Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.
Brooks has personified modern Jewish humor for decades. Who else would put a Yiddish speaking Native American chief in the middle of the old West as he did in Blazing Saddles? Or revamp the Sherwood Forest legend by replacing Friar Tuck with Rabbi Tuckman, as he did in Robin Hood: Men in Tights? (Both of these roles were played by Brooks.)
In 2001 Brooks turned The Producers into a Broadway musical with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the Mostel and Wilder roles. The show was a runaway hit, breaking box office records and winning an unprecedented 12 Tony Awards.
Brooks had one of the most storied Hollywood marriages to Anne Bancroft. The two were wed for 40 years when Bancroft died of uterine cancer at age 73 in 2005. “I get excited when I hear his key in the door,” Bancroft once said of her husband. “It’s like, ‘Ooh! The party’s going to start.’” They have a son, Max, 40, who won an Emmy as one of the writers of Saturday Night Live and has drawn a cult following as the author of a series of books about zombies.
Brooks joins the distinguished ranks of such past AFI winners as Orson Welles, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Kirk Douglas, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Barbra Streisand, and Shirley MacLaine.
The AFI tribute will be held on June 6, 2013 in Los Angeles and air later that month on TNT.
American Masters Documentary Mel Brooks: Make a Noise Premieres Nationally Monday, May 20 on PBS.