Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man: Mel Brooks in His 90s

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Mel Brooks has just turned 92, and, as far as anyone can tell, he is unaltered. He has blue-gray eyes and a rakish smile; his hair is white and full; the voice remains powerfully hoarse, with traces of Louis Armstrong’s music filtering through the guttural tones. When Brooks gets excited, that voice bursts out of him like a tiger bursting out of the bush. At other times, he murmurs rapidly, teenage-style, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” No one is ever likely to miss a Mel Brooks joke, since he speaks, sometimes roars, with great precision. His normal speaking voice—not the Yiddish-accented voice of the comedy routines—could be called classical Brooklyn, the sound I remember as a New York kid from encounters with taxi drivers, baseball fans, and teachers. Those men had a definite flavor, and they meant to be understood.

Edward Said spoke of a “late style” in certain artists—a changed consciousness near the end, a practice of concision, definitiveness, and in some cases rejection of convention and even of the audience itself. A Brooks later style, I suppose, is always possible: One can imagine him at 100 bantering in Shakespearean Yiddish with robots. But his style now, in his 90s, is the same as it was decades ago when he was making such madcap-profound films as Young Frankenstein and appearing with Carl Reiner in the world-historical comedy routine The 2,000 Year Old Man. I have seen him twice in the past few months, in Los Angeles and then in New York, and he remains prodigal in expression, memory, and imagination.

Most recently, on May 8, I caught his act at, of all places, New York’s formidable Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue. “Those are German Jews,” I warned him in advance, meaning that they wouldn’t laugh as easily as Russian-descended Jews. I needn’t have worried. Brooks turned the vast, fretted hall into an intimate space. On the dais, he sat for short periods in a club chair, holding back as if exhausted, and then jumped up (“Does he have steel springs in his legs?” my wife marveled) and paced back and forth on the synagogue’s narrow stage, ranging over his life and experience, acting out his stories with arms, hips, shoulders. His comedy is inseparable from physical energy. A few weeks earlier, in his office at the Culver Studios in Los Angeles, he moved back and forth in his desk chair, but at a certain point he stood up and remained standing, shooting out songs and stories, restaurant and hotel advice, questions of every sort, all with the restless hunger for new information of a man entering, not exiting, the stage of life.

In Los Angeles, Brooks was enjoying the success of a shortened version of Young Frankenstein. His obsession with Mary Shelley’s novel, and with the various Hollywood horror-fantasy versions of the myth, culminated in his 1974 film, Young Frankenstein, with Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein’s ambitious grandson and Peter Boyle as the monster. (They dance “Puttin’ on the Ritz” together, in white tie and tails.) On Broadway, in 2007, Brooks and the director Susan Stroman mounted a musical version of the material, a show that Brooks now calls “lugubrious.” It was only moderately successful, so he cut about 40 minutes, bringing the entire evening (with intermission) down to about two hours, and that version has been playing at the Garrick Theatre in London since last September. Was it hard to edit himself? “I did it in a couple weeks. I knew what to do.” He cut three songs and added a new one. (Singing) “It could work! My grandfather wasn’t wrong. You could re-animate dead tissue.” He finds it hard to believe “It Could Work” wasn’t in the original show, since it’s the “Rain in Spain” moment, the song that makes the musical a hit. In imitation of Dr. Frankenstein, he seems to have reanimated his own dead show.

In the 1970s, he said he wouldn’t do stand-up in the future, since the last thing he wanted was to wind up, as he put it, “a white-belted, white-shoed, maroon-mohair-jacketed type” headlining in Las Vegas. This vision, I suspect, was always a warning to himself more than an actual possibility. In any case, he now speaks of his reborn enjoyment of performing onstage. In recent years, nattily dressed, he has been selling out such places as the Kennedy Center, the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, and Radio City Music Hall. In these outings, he is accompanied onstage by his producer and manager, Kevin Salter, a 40ish-year-old wasp from the Northwest with an encyclopedic knowledge of Brooks and his work. “De facto manager,” Salter told me. “No one really ever manages Mel Brooks.” Salter feeds him questions and cues certain memories. “There are some greatest hits,” Salter said, “but he would quickly become bored if I asked him the same questions each show. He’s best when nothing is planned.” At one of his recent appearances, Brooks asked for questions from the audience. An urgent inquiry went as follows: “What do you wear: Briefs or boxer shorts?”

“Depends.”

~~~  CONTINUE  ~~~

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