Mel Brooks: ‘I got friendship, love and free food. Free eats are very important’
The actor and his fellow giant of US comedy Carl Reiner on their 70-year friendship
Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner in 1974. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
Every evening, Mel Brooks leaves his home in Santa Monica, gets in his car and stares down Los Angeles’ notorious rush-hour traffic to go to Carl Reiner’s house in Beverly Hills. There, the two comedy icons do what they like to do most these days: chat, eat dinner together and watch the long-running quiz show Jeopardy!
“This is a great place because I got friendship, love and free food. Free eats are very important, you know,” says Brooks, as we wait for Reiner in his den. His voice is a little raspier than it once was, but that signature puckishness is fully intact.
Brooks knows this home well because Reiner (97) has lived in it for 60 years. Gene Kelly used to be his neighbour; Kirk Douglas (103) until last month, lived close by. Brooks – a mere whippersnapper of 93 – remembers when Reiner moved in because their friendship predates the house: they have been best friends for 70 years.
“Robbie used to sit on the stairs, looking through the banisters, watching us do the 2000 Year Old Man. I’d say, ‘You should be sleeping!’ but he’d just sit there,” says Brooks. (Robbie is better known to those outside the inner Reiner circle as the film director Rob Reiner, Carl’s oldest child and still a baby at 72.)
Back when we started there weren’t that many jobs for Jews. It was either the garment centre, sports or comedy
The 2000 Year Old Man is the revered comedy sketch Reiner and Brooks coined in the 1950s, in which Reiner – always playing the straight man – would interview Brooks, the titular old man, about his life. Despite coming from the same time and place as Jesus Christ, the 2000 Year Old Man talked an awful lot like a Jewish guy from 1950s Brooklyn: “I have over 42,000 children and not one of them ever visit me!” was a typical kvetch from Brooks. When Reiner asked what the plague was like, Brooks improvised back, “Too many rats, not enough cats.” Reiner and Brooks made five 2000 Year Old Man albums, winning a Grammy in 1998, and Brooks used to joke, when his films occasionally tanked, that he was living off his and Reiner’s comedy records.
But the two friends started the routine as a private joke, something to amuse one another while they were sitting in this living room, and they still do it there today, to make one another laugh.
Given that Brooks made Blazing Saddles, The Producers and Young Frankenstein, and Reiner directed The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and The Man With Two Brains, while little Robbie Reiner on the staircase grew up to make This Is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally, it’s pretty easy to argue that much of the best mid to late 20th-century American comedy emerged from the people currently and formerly in this house.
Reiner now appears, notably frailer than Brooks, and walks in slowly with some assistance. “What’s happening here?” he asks uncertainly.
“It’s the Guardian! Rupert doesn’t own it, so they can write what they like,” says Brooks.
“Oh good, I’m happy. But come close because I sometimes have problems hearing,” says Reiner as he settles into an armchair. Brooks and I huddle in on either side of him.
“Now tell her how you met me,” says Brooks, making the kind of loving prompt a wife would give her ailing husband, urging him to tell the anecdotes he has told a thousand times, and hoping he’ll tell them a thousand more.
Our wives liked each other, which was lucky because we love one another
“I remember it very well. It was 1950...” begins Reiner. Some of his faculties may be fading, but his love of storytelling is undimmed.
Brooks and Reiner were both born in New York, second-generation Jewish immigrants. America was made by immigrants, but it was these children of immigrants who helped to define Jewish-American comedy, with its mix of joyful silliness and whaddya-gonna-do shrugs.
“My dad invented clocks that run on batteries and he thought: ‘I’m gonna make a fortune!’” says Reiner, pointing to a battery-operated clock on a side table, barely visible among the dozens of century-spanning family photos. “But then the war started, the Germans took the patent and they flooded the market.”
“So really, we lost the war,” says Brooks with (of course) perfect comic timing.
Why do they think so many comedians were – and are – Jewish? “Well, back when we started there weren’t that many jobs for Jews. It was either the garment centre, sports or comedy,” says Brooks.
“I think Jews were naturally funny because they were low on the totem pole, so they made fun of the people higher on the pole,” says Reiner.
“Oh yeah, that’s good. Carl’s very quick. He’s going to be 98 in March and he’s quicker than anybody,” says Brooks.
I thought, who is this guy? This guy is the funniest single human being on the planet Carl Reiner
They met working on Sid Caesar’s TV variety show, Your Show of Shows. (Other writers who worked for Caesar included Neil Simon and, later, Woody Allen, both of whom also played no small part in the coining of Jewish-American comedy.)
“I’ll never forget it. I came in one day and I heard this guy say: ‘I’m a Jewish pirate. You know what they’re charging for sails these days? $33.72 a yard! I can’t afford to rape and pillage any more!’ I thought, who is this guy?” says Reiner, eyes widening at the memory. “This guy is the funniest single human being on the planet.”
“Oh, come on,” scoffs Brooks. “Maybe the third.”
“Just look at the raft of movies he’s made, from Blazing Saddles onward!” continues Reiner.
“Well, The Jerk ain’t so bad,” says Brooks, with a fond pat of his friend’s wrist.
The two “got a kick out of one another right away”, Brooks says. “Also, our wives liked each other, which was lucky because we love one another.”
“The best thing Mel ever did was marry a girl named Anne Bancroft, ” says Reiner.
“Yeah, I did,” says Brooks, with a happy smile but sad eyes.
“From the first time he saw her, every place she went, he made sure he was there,” chuckles Reiner.
“Yeah, I did,” Brooks repeats a little more quietly.
Brooks’ first marriage had just ended when he happened to stop by a studio to watch the taping of a Perry Como TV special. It was 5 February 1961. Bancroft was rehearsing and it was love at first sight for Brooks. Unable to control himself, he shouted out, “Anne Bancroft, I love you!”
“Who are you?” she replied, peering out into the dark.
“I’m Mel Brooks!” he shouted back.
“I got your record!” she replied.
So it was the 2000 Year Old man that got him a date with Anne Bancroft? “Yeah, pretty much. We started hanging out every day and every night — we couldn’t be without each other. We were made for each other,” Brooks says.
Their evening routine never changes: they sit and talk 'about everything', then have dinner in front of Reiner’s massive TV while they watch Jeopardy!
Bancroft died from cancer in 2005. It has been hard for Brooks, learning to live without her. There was a period, after a hernia operation, when he stopped going out. “I was stuck at home – emotionally, I mean. I was afraid to go out. But then I pushed forward because that’s what you have to do, and I went out,” he says. Naturally, one of the first places he went was Reiner’s house: “Eating with this guy? You can’t beat it.”
Reiner’s home is smart but in no way showy, the way some Beverly Hills homes are. Instead of gilt and marble, the main decorating accents are family photos: every surface is covered with pictures of the Reiners, and the most prominently featured is Reiner’s late wife, Estelle.
“That painting there? She did that. My wife was a very fine artist,” says Reiner, pointing to a strikingly beautiful painting on the wall.
“And she was a terrific jazz singer. She taught Anne how to play the ukulele,” says Brooks.
“Then Anne put her in her movie Fatso. It started a career for her,” says Reiner. She later made appearances in The Man With Two Brains (directed by her husband) and To Be Or Not to Be (directed by Brooks.) But Estelle Reiner’s film career peaked in 1989, thanks not to her friends or husband, but to her son. Rob Reiner cast her in When Harry Met Sally to say the immortal line, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
“Yes, she was special,” agrees Reiner. Estelle died in 2008. The two had been married for 64 years.
Despite eating in most nights, Brooks and Reiner maintain a social life busier than most people a third of their age: my date with them had to be changed once when they realised they had double booked me with Nathan Lane, and tonight I am being squeezed in just after a visit from Alan Alda. But when you’re in your 90s, your friendship group depletes suddenly. Just weeks before our meeting, the screenwriter Buck Henry died at the age of 89. As well as creating with Brooks the 1960s satirical detective TV show, Get Smart, he wrote The Graduate, which, of course, starred Bancroft.
“He could break you up with just a funny face – and so bright, too. Also Tom Meehan [who died in 2017]. He helped me write Young Frankenstein and The Producers. He was a joy, and he wasn’t even Jewish,” marvels Brooks.
This sets Brooks to thinking about other friends who have passed away: Gene Wilder, of course, Zero Mostel long ago. But also the lesser-known Ronny Graham, who died almost 20 years ago and appeared in many of Brooks’ films.
“We wanted to write a musical about Napoleon, but we only ever wrote one song,” says Brooks.
“It’s a great song. Give her the lyrics!” says Reiner, but Brooks needs no prompting to perform.
“Retreat, retreat! Drop your sword and run / The foe is near, we’re outta here – run! / Run away! / You run away, you live to fight another day! Retreat!” he sings, hitting some properly impressive high notes.
“Such verve!” marvels Reiner.
“But I think there’s no question the people we miss most are our wives,” says Brooks, solemn again.
In one of the running jokes in 2000 Year Old Man, Brooks explains his longevity, for which he credits, variously, avoiding fried foods and airplanes. Brooks and Reiner haven’t made it to 2000, but combined their ages almost add up to 200, so what is their secret?
“Eating the food here,” Brooks replies immediately.
“Being blessed with wonderful children and grandchildren. Have you ever met his son, Max?” asks Reiner, referring to Brooks and Bancroft’s only child, now an acclaimed writer.
I say I have not.
“You must! The word genius is thrown around, but this boy is a true genius. And he learned how to do so much himself!” says Reiner, marvelling at 47-year-old Max Brooks’ precocity.
I tell Reiner I interviewed his son, Rob, two years ago.
“Who?” he asks, having drifted off a little.
“Rob Reiner, your son,” Brooks mock shouts into Reiner’s ear.
“Oh, Rob! He should have been president, but he says he can’t get 60 per cent of the votes in his own house,” says Reiner.
But really, Reiner thinks the secret to a long life is “having something to do in the morning”, and these two men are proof of this maxim. Brooks has been busy recently with the recent screening of an HBO special about his life.
“Do you have the DVDs?” he asks, and I assume he is referring to the special. But it turns out he means a box set he has just put out of Bancroft’s movies, determined her legacy is not forgotten. “I’ll make sure you get them,” he promises.
My God, the thought of being without him – the world would be too bleak!
Reiner, meanwhile, has just published his 19th and 20th books. Known as his “scrunch” books, they feature pictures of, in one, celebrities and, in the other, famous works of art, but scrunched up, and you have to guess who or what they are. Reiner himself is in it, and his name is given as “Estelle’s husband, Carl.” I thought the books were a bit mad when I saw them, but back at my hotel, I can’t stop playing Reiner’s scrunch game. Never doubt the entertainment nous of a man with nine Emmys (for Caesar’s Hour, The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mad About You) and a Grammy (for The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000) for comedy.
Reiner and Brooks’ evening routine never changes: they sit and talk “about everything”, then have dinner in front of Reiner’s massive TV while they watch Jeopardy!. It seems like a pretty great life, and it is.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a better friend than Carl,” says Brooks.
“My God, the thought of being without him – the world would be too bleak!” says Reiner, and Brooks’ face falls a little, as if he is envisaging all too clearly a world without Reiner.
“Now, come on, Carl, let her ask some questions,” he says.
I tell them I just like listening to them talk to one another.
“But you might want to ask about something specific, and Carl will be ready, willing and able to answer anything,” says Brooks, buoying them both along.
Reiner puts his hand on top of Brooks’. “Always,” he says. – Guardian