There’s only one man who can make both you and your grandmother laugh, and that’s Mel Brooks. Don’t believe it? Watch Blazing Saddles or listen to The 2,000 Year Old Man and see for yourself. Once you experience the fast-paced, quick-witted humor of Mel Brooks, it’s hard to believe that anything serious can exist in his head.
But comedy is almost always bred from pain, and Mel Brooks is no exception. Born in 1929 to Jewish immigrants, success didn’t come easily to Mel. As it turns out, what brought Mel to comedy in the first place is no laughing matter.
Born in Brooklyn, Mel Brooks is the son of Jewish immigrants and grew up with three other brothers. His father died at 34 years old, and Mel said his comedy is likely based on “anger and hostility” surrounding his dad’s death.
Mel’s obsession with all things “musical” and “comedy” began at age 9, when his uncle took him to see his very first Broadway show, Anything Goes. That’s when he says he “fell in love with Broadway.”
Mel was always filled with interesting ideas, it seems, as his first foray into musical theater was in the form of…drum lessons? It sounds unrelated to theater, but he actually became a well known percussionist!
By the time he was 14, Mel was making money as a percussionist, and soon enough, he was making even better dough by touring in the Catskills and playing in clubs. His talents took him into what was known as the “Borscht Belt” of the Catskills.
At this point, however, Mel ran into a problem. His given name — Melvyn Kaminsky — was too similar to prominent trumpeter Max Kaminsky, whose home base was the Catskills. So, Mel changed his name to “Brooks” to avoid confusion.
Eagle Rock Entertainment
In 1944, Mel put his comedy and music ambitions aside in order to join the army. He was a member of the 1104th Engineer Combat Group and saw action at the Battle of the Bulge.
GI Jews Documentary/YouTube
After the war, Mel was hired as a writer for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, which gave him a chance to flex his funny bone for the first time. It was there that he met his future comedy partner, Carl Reiner!
The 2,000 Year Old Man became one of the duo’s most famous characters, and they even created several popular comedy albums starring the elderly gentleman. In 1998, their album The 2,000 Year Old Man In The Year 2000 earned a Grammy award.
Mel’s first attempts at writing Broadway musicals were less than stellar. He wrote the musicals Shinbone Alley and All American in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, but they never really took off like his other comedies.
Before focusing on musical theater, Mel collaborated with Buck Henry on the hit TV show Get Smart, which was, in typical Mel Brooks form, a spoof of classic spy plots like those seen in the James Bond franchise.
Get Smart wasn’t always a hit, however. When the show was pitched to ABC in the mid-60s, executives called it “distasteful and un-American.” Luckily for us, NBC took a chance on the unusual show, and a classic was born!
And we can’t talk about Mel Brooks without mentioning The Producers. At first, his movie script about two producers who purposefully open a terrible Broadway musical starring “Adolf Hitler” proved too bizarre for some people in the industry.
The Producers/Embassy Pictures
Things weren’t bleak for long, though. After finally (and ironically!) finding two producers to support his outlandish idea, The Producers was turned into a film that ended up winning Mel an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
Mel eventually turned The Producers into a Broadway musical starring Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, a risky move that truly paid off: It was a huge success, and the show earned an unprecedented 12 Tony Awards.
The Producers/Broadway/Paul Kolnik
Mel’s specialty was spoofing movie genres, as seen with the wildly successful movies Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and Spaceballs. Alfred Hitchcock good naturedly helped with Mel’s movie High Anxiety, which was a spoof of Hitchcock’s own films!
High Anxiety/20th Century Fox
While piling up career successes, he married Oscar-winning actress Anne Bancroft in 1964, and they remained married until her death in 2005. He’s credited his late wife as “the guiding force” behind developing The Producers and Young Frankenstein for the stage.
Mel also came up with the melody and lyrics for some of the iconic songs in his movies and musicals, including for the classic “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers. He also wrote the song Blazing Saddles!
Blazing Saddles/Warner Bros.
In To Be Or Not To Be, Mel and Anne perform a duet called “Sweet Georgia Brown,” which they decided to perform in Polish. They had to hire a tutor, but the hard work paid off, and the film became one of Mel’s favorites.
To Be Or Not To Be/20th Century Fox
Soon, the accolades piled in. In 2001, Mel joined one of the most exclusive groups in Hollywood when he became an EGOT, AKA the winner of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award. Only 15 other individuals are in the “club!”
Mel Brooks: Unwrapped/HBO
In 2010 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. Mel Brooks proved that even comedians can have cultural importance, even if they had to endure difficult childhoods, like many of Mel’s fellow comedians.
In 2014, Mel made a lasting imprint on the entertainment world when he received a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. He had a prosthetic finger on his right hand, forever cementing his place in history as the Hollywood legend with 11 fingers.
He cemented himself in the pantheon of comedy heroes, right along recognizable faces like Don Knotts. While he cracked fans up as Barney Fife or any of his other famous characters, Don wasn’t always laughing on his own.
Instagram / classictv
The funnyman’s childhood was anything but picturesque. His father, suffering from mental illness and addiction, often beat him and threatened him with a knife. He died when Don was a teenager, leaving the family to survive in less than glamorous conditions.
Reddit / Meunderwears
Don had to work hard out of necessity. One of his first jobs came as a chicken plucker for a poultry company in West Virginia. But fortunately for the teenager, he wasn’t only talented at pulling out feathers.
He had a knack for cracking people up, and, if you can believe it, that talent thrived when Don enlisted in the Army. Rather than fight on the front lines, he joined an official comedy troupe called Stars and Gripes that entertained the troops.
Once his military stint wrapped up, Don set out to make it in showbiz. Surprisingly, his first TV role was a dramatic one. He landed a recurring part on the soap opera Search for Tomorrow. The pay was nice, though Don wasn’t interested in melodrama.
Procter & Gamble Productions
Throughout the ’50s, Knotts made headway in radio and on stage, with an especially gut-busting performance in No Time for Sergeants. When the farce was adapted for the big screen, Don joined the cast — and met the biggest collaborator of his life.
Andy Griffith had a natural chemistry with Knotts, so Don naturally came to mind when he needed a sidekick for his new sitcom. Though The Andy Griffith Show made the veteran second banana in Mayberry, he tended to steal every scene he stumbled into.
With the smash success of his bumbling deputy, Don became a star. He was a household name and a winner of five Emmys in six years! That overwhelming success made his decision in 1968 all the more puzzling.
While fans expected Don to continue with Griffith, he couldn’t resist a juicy film contract from Universal. Still, his other characters never escaped the shadow of Barney Fife. His starring vehicle, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, even featured many of the same Mayberry actors!
Despite this typecasting, Knotts still built up his star-power across a variety of interesting projects. He’d throw himself into any ridiculous situation, even The Incredible Mr. Limpet, a movie about a man who turns into a fish and helps detect German submarines.
Don was also fearless about poking fun at his own image, unlike many other actors. When he made a guest appearance on a variety or talk show, he would own whatever silly wig or costume producers gave him.
Never content to rest on his laurels, he appeared in dozens of different TV shows, too. From Scooby Doo to Matlock, Don could wring a joke out of any guest part. He even helped rescue one of the biggest sitcoms ever.
Three’s Company brought in Knotts as the new landlord after they moved the Ropers to their own spinoff. The cast was terrified by the addition of a huge star. But Don righted the ship, and even took on many of Suzanne Somers’ scenes when she left the show.
Not only did Knotts take great joy in his work, but he also reaped the benefits of being famous. When not wrapped up in one of his three marriages, Don was quite the womanizer. Turns out he was far more confident than his characters!
Unlike many TV stars of the ’50s, Don stayed relevant as the new millennium approach — and passed him by. He shone as a mysterious TV repairman in the fantasy film in Pleasantville. But Don was aware that he was losing a step.
New Line Cinema
Due to macular degeneration, the legend was rapidly losing his eyesight. Nevertheless, Don kept working. A spot on That ’70s Show marked his final live-action appearance. His health declined, though even sickness couldn’t mar his heart of gold.
The Carsey-Werner Company
Weakened by lung cancer, Don Knotts knew that a 2006 bout with pneumonia would take his life. A long list of friends and admirers were shocked when they heard about his state. Andy Griffith immediately hopped on a plane to spend time with his old partner.
The entire world mourned when Don, often described as the nicest man in show business, passed away later that year. Fans discussed the best way to pay tribute to Knotts’ unrelenting kindness and talent.
Flickr / Ben Churchill
A number of Don Knotts statues appeared, though one North Carolina piece started a firestorm. The town of Mount Airy, which served as the model for Mayberry, began a Barney Fife sculpture until someone pointed out they never secured the rights to the character.
Instagram / mainstreetmorgantown
As a result, the town had to immediately destroy the statue! Surely, Knotts would’ve delighted in the crazy mixup. He always maintained a sense of humor during hard times. Loved ones found that out firsthand — and their reactions were nothing short of outrageous.