Mel Brooks

On this date in 1926, comedic genius Mel Brooks (né Melvin James Kaminsky) was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Kate (Brookman) and Max Kaminsky, whose Jewish lineage stemmed from Poland and Ukraine. His father died of kidney disease at age 34 when Brooks was 2, and he grew up in tenement housing.

He was drafted in 1944 into the U.S. Army after enrolling at Brooklyn College for a year. He served as a combat engineer defusing land mines in France and Germany, was promoted to corporal and participated in the Battle of the Bulge.

Unenthused about a clerk’s job his mother had lined up for him at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he started working in Borscht Belt resorts and nightclubs in the Catskills as a drummer, pianist and stand-up comic. His friend Sid Caesar hired him as a TV comedy writer, and in 1950 he worked on Caesar’s variety series “Your Show of Shows” with Carl Reiner, Neil Simon and others.

After he moved to Hollywood in 1960, he and Reiner created the “2000 Year Old Man” character, which went on to be featured on five successful comedy albums and numerous TV sketches. Brooks played a man claiming he’d witnessed Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, had 42,000 children “and not one comes to visit me.”

With Buck Henry he created the TV spy spoof “Get Smart” that aired from 1965-70. His first feature film, “The Producers” (1967), won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar and was a Broadway smash. That Brooks could make “Springtime for Hitler” palatable in the mainstream and arguably hilarious, says a lot about his talents.

“People like rabbis 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.’ I knew ‘Springtime for Hitler’ was perfect, I knew it was right.” (Men’s Journal, June 2013)

He went on in the last third of the 20th century to join the elite as an actor, director and producer on screen and stage. “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” in 1974 were followed by “Silent Movie,” “High Anxiety,” “History of the World, Part I,” “Spaceballs” and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights.”

A musical adaptation of “The Producers” ran on Broadway from 2001-07 and was remade into a musical film in 2005. A successful Broadway run started in 2007 for “Young Frankenstein,” which Brooks has called his best film. He continued to work into his 90s and published a memoir in 2021 titled “All About Me!: My Remarkable Life in Show Business.”

He married Florence Baum, a professional dancer with Broadway credits, in 1953. They had three children: Stephanie (b. 1956), Nicholas (b. 1957) and Edward (b. 1959). The marriage ended in 1962 and he married actress Anne Bancroft in 1964. They had a son, Maximilian (b. 1972), and were together until her death in 2005. In a 2021 interview, he called himself “very, very lucky” to be married to Bancroft. “And I, if I believed in God, I would thank God every night for giving me Anne Bancroft.” (NPR “Fresh Air,” Dec. 7, 2021)

He was asked in the interview if religion was “something you want at this point in your life, or are you remaining as secular as you’ve always been?” He replied: “Being afraid I’m going to die has not made me more religious. I’m still — I’m tribal. I love being a Jew, and I love Jewish humor, and I loved the — I don’t know, the je ne sais quoi that the Jews — they have a wonderful attitude. You know, I guess it’s called survival.” 

PHOTO: Brooks at the premiere of the “Mel Brooks: Make A Noise” PBS documentary in 2013 in Beverly Hills, Calif.; s_bukley/

Freedom From Religion Foundation