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CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD / SUSAN KING

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will honor Mel Brooks

The funny man's long career will be recalled.

July 22, 2009

It all started on Henry Street in Brooklyn for Mel Brooks.

"I was a street-corner comic," he recalled, more than 60 years later. "I would comment on the goings-on in the neighborhood -- 'Here comes Mrs. Bloom. Duck.' "

Brooks honed his comedic chops as a young stand-up in New York's Catskills Mountains in the 1940s -- fertile ground for future funnymen, as Brooks told it in a recent interview.

"I was doing the Catskill jokes, which were like 'Let me tell you about this girl I took out last night. This was a slender girl. Skinny. We're talking about a very skinny girl. I took her to a restaurant and the waiter said, 'Check your umbrella.' "

Eventually, Brooks abandoned the one-liners for more "people jokes. I would do impressions that the band would laugh at. I never did normal James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart impressions. I would say, 'Ladies and gentlemen, Thomas Jefferson.' I would say, 'It's imperative that we form a union of equality. . . .' And I would go on and on. The band would be hysterical."

And it didn't ruffle his feathers when the audience wasn't impressed. He always had a zinger comeback.

"I would say to the audience, 'How do you know I'm wrong? Did anybody see him?' "

On Friday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences pays tribute to arguably the world's funniest man (with Oscars, Tonys, Emmys and Grammys to prove it) at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

Besides clips from such classic Brooks comedies as "The Producers," "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein," there'll be a discussion with Brooks and Carl Reiner, Richard Benjamin, Teri Garr, Tracey Ullman and Lesley Ann Warren. Film historian Leonard Maltin will be the host.

Reiner, who was a regular on Sid Caesar's seminal 1950-54 NBC comedy series, "Your Show of Shows," immediately became friends with Brooks, who was one of the writers.

"Whenever there was a lull in producer Max Liebman's office, Mel would get up and do a performance," said Reiner.

"The first time I saw him he turned into a Jewish pirate. I will never forget. I think the first words out of his mouth were complaining about the cost of sailcloth. He said, 'Do you know how much it costs to set sail?' And he told us how many dollars a yard it was for sailcloth. I will never forget it; he called his cutlass a cutlet. Those are the first two jokes of his I remember."

Reiner also quickly realized that Brooks was an "extremely, highly intelligent human being, who is well read. Books were his big thing. During 'Your Show of Shows,' he was a collector of rare books and he read them all. His brain is full of information."

Brooks, 83, still has great memories of being on the writing staff on "Your Show of Shows," which aired live for 90 minutes on Saturday nights.

"For the first three or four years, it was just me, Mel Tolkin and Lucille Kallen -- we were the only writers," Brooks said.

"Of course, Max Liebman, the producer, helped, Sid Caesar helped and Carl Reiner, who was a gifted writer. We just worked morning, noon and night. We never stopped. But it was the genius of Sid. He would often go past the material and go way beyond. Nobody got ulcers. Nobody felt the pressure."

And it was during "Your Show of Shows" that Brooks and Reiner created their insanely funny comedy character, the 2,000-year-old man. But Reiner said Brooks always gets the facts wrong.

"We always argue about this," said Reiner. "But being a historian rather than a comedian, I remember it well. I actually came into the office one day. I had seen the show 'We, the People Speak.' It was a TV program with Dan Seymour. They would do re-creations of the news. I thought we should do a takeoff on this. But they decided we couldn't do political things."

So he turned to Brooks, who was sitting in Liebman's office. "I said, 'Here is a man who was actually at the scene of the Crucifixion 2,000 years ago. Isn't that true, sir?' And the very first answer he ever gave me was, 'Oh, boy.' I said, 'You were there? You knew Jesus?' He said, 'Thin lad. Wore a beard. Wore sandals. He was always with 12 other guys. They always came into my store and never bought anything but always asked for water.' That's how it began."

Brooks' first foray into films was providing the witty commentary for the 1963 animated short "The Critic," which won an Oscar. Five years later, he made his feature writing and directorial debut with "The Producers," for which he won an Oscar for original screenplay. Over the next 30 years, he wrote and directed such comedy spoofs as "Young Frankenstein," "Blazing Saddles," "Silent Movie," "High Anxiety" and "Spaceballs."

Brooks also conquered Broadway with the musical version of "The Producers," which won a dozen Tony Awards. His latest endeavor on Broadway, a lavish musical version of "Young Frankenstein," didn't wow the critics.

What the critics thought doesn't matter to him. He loved the show.

"If I had done 'Young Frankenstein' first, it would have been just as big as 'The Producers' on Broadway," declared Brooks. And at this point, who can argue with Mel?

Though the academy tribute is sold out, there will be a standby line.

For more information, call (310) 247-3600 or go to www.oscars.org.

Elsewhere: Paramount released the first season on DVD of "The Lucy Show," the 1962-68 CBS comedy series that was Lucille Ball's follow-up to "I Love Lucy." Vivian Vance returns as her comic foil.

A terrific new documentary, "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg," directed by Aviva Kempner and opening Friday, chronicles the life of seminal writer-actress Gertrude Berg, who created the first sitcom, "The Goldbergs," in 1949.

--

susan.king@latimes.com

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