Historical Vignette 109 - Mel Brooks Was a Combat Engineer in World War II
Soon after graduating from high school in 1944, 17-year-old Melvin Kaminsky enlisted in the U.S. Army. Raised in poverty by his widowed mother in tough Brooklyn neighborhoods, the future Mel Brooks was now to experience the stern realities of war unlikely preparation for a life in comedy.
Ranking high in intelligence testing, Private Kaminsky was placed in the elite Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) and sent to Virginia Military Institute to be taught skills such as military engineering, as well as horsemanship and saber-wielding. When the combat arms complained that ASTP deprived them of the brightest enlisted men, the Army terminated the program after young Kaminsky had received twelve weeks of training. He then went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for regular basic training. Shipped to Europe in late 1944, his first duties were as a forward artillery observer. Next he was assigned to the 1104th Engineer Combat Group in time to participate in the Battle of the Bulge (although he would later state that he was not at the center of the most heated action).
The 1104th had been activated in March 1943 and landed in Normandy on 11 June 1944. It advanced with the Allied forces through France, Belgium, and the Netherlands and entered Germany. The unit constructed the first bridge over the Roer River and built similar structures over the Rhine and Weser rivers and the Lippe and Aur-Oker canals. It also destroyed pillboxes and cleared roads. By the end of the war in Europe the 1104th was conducting a reconnaissance of the Harz Mountains.
The group, like other Engineer combat units, was frequently in advance of the front lines. It was often under artillery, mortar, and sniper fire. Five times it fought as infantry and suffered several casualties. Melvin Kaminsky?s main responsibility was the harrowing business of deactivating enemy land mines. He also endured 'and not always passively' the anti-Semitism of some of his fellow soldiers. The teenager/soldier did not see the Nazi death camps but he recalled large numbers of refugees: 'They were starving. It was horrible.'
'War isn't hell," he observed. 'War is loud. Much too noisy. All those shells and bombs going off all around you. Never mind death. A man could lose his hearing.' Asked by his son if during the war he thought about 'what it would take to rebuild postwar Europe ,' he replied 'You thought about how you were going to stay warm that night, how you were going to get from one hedgerow to another without some German sniper taking you out. You didn't worry about tomorrow.'
Discharged as a corporal, he soon found work as a comedy writer in the infant medium of television and adopted the name Mel Brooks. His career expanded into acting, directing, and producing. His achievements include classic films such as Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and The Producers - in which he skewered his old foes Hitler and the Nazis.
"I was a Combat Engineer. Isn't that ridiculous' The two things I hate most in the world are combat and engineering.'Mel Brooks
Sources: James Robert Parish, It's Good to Be the King: The Seriously Funny Life of Mel Brooks (2007); U.S. News and World Report website (August 12, 2001); Max Brooks, Saving Mel Brooks.
10 Kickass Things Mel Brooks Did (Besides His Movies)
When you say the name "Mel Brooks," the first thing most people think of is laughing a lot at Young Frankenstein or Spaceballs or, to a lesser extent, Dracula: Dead and Loving It. And his movies will always be hailed as some of the greatest comedies ever made, no matter how hard Adam Sandler tries. But what's up on screen is only one side of Brooks. He's done so much kickass stuff that he should get his own statue in Washington DC, next to that Jefferson guy. Here's 10 reasons you should be impressed besides how many times he got you to watch Blazing Saddles and still laugh.
10) Created Get Smart
Teaming up Mel Brooks with Buck Henry is like teaming chocolate with peanut butter in a delicious candybar that you get to watch Don Adams eat. The off-beat spy spoof ran for 138 episodes in the late '60s and spawned a film, a spin-off series, a spin-off from the film, and more zany catchphrases than you can shake a shoe phone at. It won seven Emmy awards and was nominated for a whopping 14 more. If he hadn't broken his streak by making The Producers in 1968, Brooks could have been simply known as one of the greatest TV comedy writers of all time.
9) Fathered Max Brooks
Even if you haven't heard Mel's name recently, you've probably heard about his son Max, especially if you're into the whole zombie resurgence that's grasped pop culture by the balls. Max wrote The Zombie Survival Guide, which more or less re-opened the door to modern zombie interest, then followed it up with the cult hit World War Z. But Max is more than just flesh-eating monsters--he's written for Saturday Night Live, G.I. Joe comic books, and recorded voices for Batman Beyond and Justice League.
8) Conquered Broadway (Three Times)
While it seems like every new Broadway show going up is just a staged version of a movie, Mel Brooks set the tone with his 2001 blockbuster The Producers when he was a spry 75-year-old. The massive hit won 12 Tonys and was even made into a so-so movie with the Broadway stars. But that's not Mel's only stage claim to fame; his revue All-American, while technically considered a flop, garnered two Tony nominations in 1962, and his follow-up to The Producers, Young Frankenstein, got three. Plans for Blazing Saddles on Broadway are in the works, with 85-year old Brooks writing the book and music.
7) Formed the Justice League of Comedy Writers
It's a real thing. Not the name, but one of the most incredible collections of comedy writers in the world, with Brooks right in the middle of it. Writing for Sid Caesar, be it for Your Show of Shows, Caesar's Hour, or one of his various specials, meant that you were at the top of the '50s comedy game. This "Justice League of Comedy" included Brooks, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner (The Jerk), Neil Simon (The Odd Couple), Daniel Simon (Diff'rent Strokes and My Three Sons), Larry Gelbart (M.A.S.H.), Selma Diamond (Night Court, Monsters Inc.), Michael Stewart (Bye Bye Birdie, Hello, Dolly!), and comic legend Mel Tolkin. A plaque memorializes the building they all worked out of in New York.
6) Discovered Dave Chappelle
Comedian Dave Chappelle was only 20-years-old when Brooks chose him to star as Ahchoo in 1993's Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Just having graduated college and working as a comedian, this was Chappelle's big break -- his first film role. The exposure indicated he was someone to watch, leading to additional film roles and the legend that is Chappelle's Show. All because Brooks needed someone to play the Morgan Freeman role in a Robin Hood spoof.
5) Won the EGOT
Okay, this is the last entry that 's about awards, promise. Did you know that Mel Brooks is one of the twelve or so people who qualify for an EGOT award? It's not really an award as much as an honor: EGOT winners have each won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. Brooks qualified for his Emmy in 1967 with a TV special, but came back to win in 1997, 1998, and 1999 for his role in Mad About You. The Grammy went to his 1998 album The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000 with Carl Reiner, and then he went on to win twice in 2002 for Producers-related work. The Oscar stands alone, for best writing for the original Producers in 1968, while he took home three Tonys for the musical in 2001. Tracey Jordan is jealous.
4) Married Anne Bancroft
This was a major accomplishment, mostly because Anne Bancroft was super hot, both in looks and in her career. When she died, she was one award away from winning the EGOT (I know, I'll shut up about it). The two were a match made in borscht belt heaven, with an up-and-coming young Brooks sweeping the serious actress off her feet with non-stop jokes. And while she was turning heads in The Graduate as the sexy older Mrs. Robinson, she went home every night to one of the funniest men in history. The pair stayed attached at the hip and thoroughly in love from 1961 to her death in 2005.
3) Produced David Lynch's The Elephant Man
The raucous side of Mel Brooks comes out in all of his films, which is why his serious side had to be hidden from the public. With 1980's The Elephant Man, the comic took a back seat to what Brooks called a story about the "classic wandering Jew." David Lynch, master of the bizarre and macabre, directed (off a script Brooks got from his children's babysitter), while Brooks was on set every day, supervising a tale of a deformed circus freak that starred Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, and Anne Bancroft (she didn't have to audition). The trademark goofiness was gone, replaced with a sedate reverence and respect for the work. His name wasn't linked to the movie, just in case people got the wrong idea (and why we felt justified including it in this list).
2) Served His Country
Singlehandedly won World War II! Okay, that not true, but lots of our boys in uniform might not have made it home without Brooks's help. At 17, young Melvin Kaminsky joined the Army Corps of Engineers and was assigned to the 1104th Engineer Combat Group -- just in time to be shipped over for the Battle of the Bulge. His unit fought through Europe, building bridges, destroying pillboxes, and occasionally fought as infantry. Brooks, née Kominsky, had the duty of defusing landmines in front of the advancing army. According to legend, after the Battle of the Bulge the Germans began blasting Axis propaganda through loudspeakers. Brooks supposedly set up his own speakers and blasted his impression of Al Jolson's "Toot Toot Tootsie."
1) Discovered Gene Wilder
Dave Chappelle is a comedy genius, but Gene Wilder is a national treasure. Wilder had done extensive stage work, studying with acting icon Lee Strasberg and rooming with improv guru Del Close, but he didn't make the leap to screen until the late '60s. While working with Anne Bancroft in a stage production, he was introduced to her husband, Mel Brooks. They hit it off and Brooks said that Wilder would be perfect for a lead role in what eventually became The Producers. In the three years in-between that conversation and the audition, Wilder took a small part in Bonnie and Clyde, but it was Brooks who saw that he could be a star. Willy Wonka, Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and a series of films with Richard Pryor followed, cementing Gene Wilder's place in history. Thanks, Mel Brooks!