Mel Brooks knows comedy. He’s been writing and directing for at least 68 years, making a name for himself with brazen comedy that ranges from the absurd to surreal to even parallel, with social commentary deftly woven throughout that—making his films as relevant today as they were when they were first released. Take the character William J. Lepetomane, a corrupt and absurd man so unfit for his government role that he has the word “GOV” spelled out on the back of his blazer to assert his title—sound familiar?
You know his name from hit satirical comedies Young Frankenstein, The Producers, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Spaceballs, and Blazing Saddles, but did you know he was actually in the military before he turned to comedy?
“Life literally abounds in comedy if you just look around you.”
Though Brooks is 90 years old now, the legendary comic is still full of humor and keen insight. Lucky for us, the comedian is touring with a live Q&A and screening of Blazing Saddles.
If you didn’t already know, Blazing Saddles is a satirical Western starring Gene Wilder, Cleavon Little, Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn, and Mel Brooks. The film pokes fun at everything from Hollywood’s “obscured” racism of Western films (a black sheriff in an all-white town) to worn industry tropes (a yiddish-speaking Indian Chief).
In celebration of Brooks return, we’ve unearthed 7 strange facts about Mel Brooks that are oddly befitting of the kooky film director, producer, actor, and all-around industry multi-hyphenate.
1. Mel Brooks was a combat engineer in World War II
According to the Army Corps of Engineers, Brooks enlisted in the army at the ripe age of 17, ranking highly in intelligence testing and placed in the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). That program was eventually terminated and Brooks ended up in Oklahoma for basic training and then shipped off to Europe in 1944 with the 1104th Engineer Combat Group. In stark contrast to the lighthearted nature of comedy, Brooks’ main responsibility while in the military was deactivating enemy land mines.
2. Mel Brooks donned a prosthetic sixth finger to leave his prints on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
As he told talk show host Conan O’Brien later that day, Brooks wanted to leave a lasting impression: “I wanted to do something just a little different. I didn’t know what, so — I got another finger.” While remarking on how honored he was to be included amongst the stars he’d noted on the walk as a young child, he added “Somebody’s going to come in from Des Moines, Iowa, and say, ‘Mother, mother come see what — is it Mel Brooks’ left hand? Does he have six fingers?’”
3. His son, Max Brooks, is the author behind World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War and The Zombie Survival Guide.
Maximillian “Max” Brooks is Mel’s son with wife, actress Anne Bancroft. World War Z was later developed into a film produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment. The film was released in 2013.
4. Mel Brooks’ premiere for Blazing Saddles was held at a drive-in movie theatre where those riding horses received free entry.
Those using “other forms of horsepower” had to pay for general admission.
5. Mel Brooks discovered Dave Chapelle
Needing someone to play Morgan Freeman’s role in his Robin Hood spoof, Chapelle was cast as Ahchoo in Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). A big break for Chapelle, the young comedian was 20 at the time. This first film role exposure led to more film parts, with Chapelle eventually establishing the legendary Chappelle’s Show.
6. Mel Brooks eats dinners in front of a TV almost every night with comedian Carl Reiner
The two detail their dining routines together in their episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Reiner says, ““[Mel] comes [over] at least five or six nights a week. It’s over 60 years now, we’ve been friends. We watch television looking for good movies or television shows that we like.”
7. Mel Brooks is an EGOT
He is one of twelve people and five media franchises to have ever won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and a Tony.
At 90-years-old we can only imagine what kinds of stories he will tell about growing up in New York and working with greats like Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, and wife Anne Bancroft.
Catch “Mel Brooks: Back in the Saddle Again”, a live Q&A with the legend himself, following a screening of Blazing Saddles, on January 20, 2017; 8pm at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. The show is part of Riot LA’s Comedy Festival in Los Angeles. More info + tickets here.