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Confessions of a 2000-year-old man

By Todd Leopold, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mel Brooks recently received Kennedy Center honor
  • Famed comedian on "2000-Year-Old Man:" "We weren't going to do this as a record"
  • Brooks toying with idea of "Blazing Saddles" play, talks up "Young Frankenstein" tour

(CNN) -- Contrary to the image presented by his films, Mel Brooks is not a meshuggeneh.

Instead, a phone conversation with the writer and director is more like a chat with a thoughtful, caring grandfather than what his Yiddish forebears would term a lunatic. He asks how the job is going; he speaks with pride about recent tributes he's received from the Ellis Island Foundation and the Kennedy Center.

Not exactly what you'd expect of the man who wrote "Springtime for Hitler" or was attacked by a wet newspaper in "High Anxiety" -- though he'll drop in a joke at the earliest opportunity.

Asked how he heard about his selection as a Kennedy Center Honoree, he recounts a phone call from George Stevens Jr., the show's longtime co-producer.

The Mel Brooks File
Born: June 28, 1926, as Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn, New York
Early life: Entertained at Catskills resorts while still a teenager; served in the U.S. Army during World War II
Personal: Married to Florence Baum (1951-61); Anne Bancroft (1965-2005); four children
Television: Writer, "Your Show of Shows" (1950-54); Creator (with Buck Henry), "Get Smart" (1965-70); Creator, "When Things Were Rotten" (1975)
Movies (as writer and/or director): "The Producers" (1968), "The Twelve Chairs" (1970), "Blazing Saddles" (1974), "Young Frankenstein" (1974), "Silent Movie" (1976), "High Anxiety" (1977), "History of the World Part I" (1981), "Spaceballs" (1987), "Life Stinks" (1991), "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" (1993), "Dracula: Dead and Loving It" (1995)
Movies (as producer): "The Elephant Man" (1980), "My Favorite Year" (1982), "To Be or Not to Be" (1983), "The Fly" (1986), "84 Charing Cross Road" (1987)
Theater: "Shinbone Alley" (1957, book); "All-American" (1962, book); "The Producers" (2001, composer, lyricist, book); "Young Frankenstein" (2007, composer, lyricist, book)
Quote: "I really learned what not to do." -- on the 1962 Broadway flop "All-American," which featured a miscast Ray Bolger in the lead role; almost 40 years later, he would use the lesson in rejecting the suggestion of Hugh Jackman for "The Producers' " Max Bialystock
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"He says, 'We have just picked the Kennedy Center Honors for 2009, and it's Bruce Springsteen and Robert De Niro and Grace Bumbry and Dave Brubeck, and we'd like to add you to that list," Brooks, 83, recalled. "So I said, 'What's in it for me?' "

Well, for the Kennedy Center Honors, it's just a nice medal and an appearance on a TV special where famous people say nice things about you. But Brooks isn't complaining. Besides the Kennedy Center event -- at which he met President Obama and Michelle Obama, "who are very tall" -- he's helping to promote the musical of "Young Frankenstein," which is currently on tour, and chatting about a boxed set of the records he did with old friend Carl Reiner, "The 2000-Year-Old Man: The Complete History" (Shout! Factory), which came out late last fall.

The latter, featuring the now-famed ancient who's seen it all, is a particular joy, he said, especially since the routines, which were first recorded in the early '60s, were never intended to see the light of day.

"We weren't going to do this as a record," he recalled. "We had started doing it in the early '50s, and [World War II] was only over five or six years, and the Jewish accent with the Holocaust and everything was still not so kosher ... so we only did it at parties for Jews who would understand it. We weren't going to do this for the world because it would be construed as maybe anti-Semitic."

But comedian and talk-show host Steve Allen was at one of the parties and insisted Brooks and Reiner record their shtick. The first album, released in 1960, was a hit and was followed by four others, most recently in 1998. (The latter won a Grammy for best spoken word record.)

Part of the thrill of doing the "2000-Year-Old Man" -- as well as the recordings' other characters -- is the unexpected, said Brooks.

"I enjoy it mostly when I don't know what [Reiner's] going to ask," Brooks said. "He'll say something like, 'What is one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century?' and I'll say, 'Liquid Prell.' I really like being wild and free and irreverent."

(Reiner: "What language did you speak?" Brooks: "Rock, basic rock.")

He wasn't a fan of rehearsed performances on various TV shows, "because [the preparation] took a lot out of Carl's responses and my joy doing it."

He calls Reiner an outstanding straight man: "He's so real, and he's so earnest. ... And then he begins relentlessly chasing me down and cornering me. And when he corners me I'm like a trapped rat and I spring at him something insane, and that busts him up."

He's not taking that Kennedy Center arts medal as a sign to wrap up a successful career, one that also includes a best screenplay Oscar (for "The Producers"), several Emmys (for a Sid Caesar special and guest spots on "Mad About You") and a boatload of Tonys (for the 2001 "Producers" musical). He's currently toying with a stage version of "Blazing Saddles," and he and Reiner are talking about another "2000-Year-Old Man" recording.

"I'm having fun," he says.

That's not so crazy, is it?

 
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