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Interfaith Celebrities: Mel Brooks Honored at Kennedy Center

December 22, 2009

Each year, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., holds a gala to honor five artists for their lifetime achievement. The gala was held earlier this month and will be broadcast on CBS on Tuesday, Dec. 29, at 9PM. This year's award recipients were Robert DeNiro, Mel Brooks, Bruce Springsteen, African-American opera soprano Grace Bumbry, and jazz musician Dave Brubeck.

 Mel Brooks
Kennedy Center Honoree Mel Brooks laughs as he is introduced by U.S. President Barack Obama at a reception at the White House in Washington December 6, 2009. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.

Years ago, a Jewish press reporter accidentally started a still persistent story that DeNiro's mother was Jewish. (She was not). The actor did grow up in a very Jewish milieu--both his parents were Greenwich Village artists--and he has more than credibly played Jews in several film roles.

Brubeck, 89, is also not Jewish. His last name comes from some remote German ancestry. Born a Protestant, he converted to Catholicism as an adult. His great mentor and teacher was Darius Milahud, a famous French Jewish composer who fled France after the Nazi invasion and taught in California until France was liberated.

Brubeck named his first son, Darius, after Milhaud. Brubeck is the composer of "Gates of Justice," (1968) a cantata based on Jewish texts and the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King that was commissioned by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the central organization of Reform Judaism. The work is still performed on occasion by orchestras.

Comedian Jon Stewart, who is Jewish, began the gala tribute to Springsteen, weaving a funny tale of the singer' s origins: "I'm not a music critic, nor historian … But I am from New Jersey. And so I can tell you what I believe. ... I believe that Bob Dylan and James Brown had a baby …[They] abandoned the child on the New Jersey Turnpike, and the child was raised by a pack of feral vaudevillians. That child is Bruce Springsteen."

Stewart's spiel had the audience in stitches--Springsteen cracked a big smile and First Lady Michelle Obama, who attended with the President, was seen doubled over with laughter.

Brooks, 83, is famously Jewish. He was feted from the stage by Jack Black, who performed an excerpt from "Men in Tights," and by Harry Connick, Jr., who sang "High Anxiety." Mark Morrison, of the TV show Glee," sang "Springtime for Hitler."

President Obama hosted a White House reception for the recipients just before the gala. He said of Brooks: "There was a method to Brooks' madness. By illuminating uncomfortable truths about racism and sexism and anti-Semitism. He's been called 'our jester' asking us to see ourselves as we really are, determined that we laugh ourselves sane."

On Brooks and Bancroft

It is a shame that actress Anne Bancroft (1931-2005), Brooks' beloved wife, did not live to see her husband receive the Kennedy Center medallion. Actually, her own lifetime achievement was significant enough that she may have been honored in her own right by the Kennedy Center had she lived a little longer.

Brooks and Bancroft seemed, superficially, to be an unlikely match. Mel Brooks is a fairly homely guy who is a bundle of manic comic energy. Bancroft was a strikingly handsome woman who put out a persona of quiet class. Moreover, Brooks, born Melvin Kaminsky, is, as I said, Jewish. Bancroft, born Anna Italiano, was of Italian Catholic background.

When they met, in 1961, Bancroft was riding a career crest fueled by a 1960 Tony for best actress in the play, "The Miracle Worker." Bancroft reprised her role as Helen Keller' s teacher in the 1962 film of the play and won the best actress Oscar.

Brooks, on the other hand, was just coming out of the low point of his career. From 1950 to 1957, he made a good living as a TV staff writer for Your Shows of Shows and Caesar's Hour, two great comedy sketch shows starring Jewish comedian Sid Caesar. However, he did not appear on camera and had no real performing career to fall-back on when Caesar' s Hour ended. He found it hard to find work between 1957 and 1960.

On top of this, his marriage was on life support by the late '50s. In 1961, Brooks and Florence Baum, his (Jewish) wife of ten years, finalized their long-pending divorce.

But Brooks still had to find some money to support his three young children with Baum. His unexpected "savior" was the now-famous "2000 Year Old Man" routine that he did with his friend, Carl Reiner, another Jewish comedian whom Brooks worked with on the Caesar shows.

Steve Allen, the late TV host, persuaded them to put the routine out as an album after hearing it at parties. The album (1960) was a smash hit and paid Brooks' bills. It also gave him the professional standing to persuade NBC to take a chance, in 1965, on a goofy satire of James Bond movies that he co-created. The show was Get Smart and it was another hit.

In 1961, Brooks was working on a musical routine for the Perry Como TV show and Bancroft was guest-starring on the show. Brooks later said he fell in love with her at first sight and bribed a stage hand to find out where she was having dinner. He showed-up at the restaurant and "chatted her up." They started dating and, in 1964, they were married in a civil ceremony at city hall in New York City.

Bancroft once recalled in an interview that her mother didn't object to the difference in religion between herself and Brooks. Bancroft added that her mother might have had a different opinion if she had met Brooks ten years before she did.

But, in those 10 years, Bancroft had gone through one failed, childless marriage (to a non-Jewish guy) and several other bad relationships. She was seeing a therapist when she met Brooks. In light of all this, Bancroft said, when Brooks showed up at her mother' s apartment, her mother was "just glad that Mel was a man."

On the other hand, Bancroft once said that when Mel's Jewish mother found out he was going to marry an Italian Catholic girl, Brooks's mother said: "Bring her over. I'll be the one in the kitchen with my head in the oven." (Despite this statement, Brooks' mother got over it and she and Bancroft became good friends not long after the couple's wedding.)

Actually, despite the couple' s ethnic and religious differences, they had a lot in common in terms of their early background. Mel was born in Brooklyn, one of four children born to first generation American, working class Jewish parents. His father died when he was young and his mother barely was able to feed the kids from her salary as a garment worker. Bancroft was born in the Bronx, to working class Italian immigrant parents. Her father was a skilled garment worker (dress pattern maker) and her mother was a telephone operator.

While proud of their respective backgrounds, neither Brooks nor Bancroft were ever more than "light" practitioners of their faiths. Nonetheless, when Anne became pregnant in 1971 with the couple's only child (Max Brooks, born 1972), she wanted to have the child baptized. Brooks proposed a compromise that they both accepted: he would consent to a baptism, if Bancroft would consent to their child having a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony when he/she was 13.

The couple stuck to this deal and their son was baptized and had a bar mitzvah. Max, who identifies as Jewish as an adult, is now the best selling author of comedic books, including The Zombie Survival Guide.

In the mid-'60s, Mel Brooks was on a talk show and was asked, in effect, how the "very Jewish" Brooks could marry an Italian Catholic (Bancroft) without her first converting to Judaism. Mel replied in a comedic shout: "She doesn't have to convert, she's a star!"

In part, it was just this sort of absurd humor that bound the couple together. Bancroft, who was adept at both drama and comedy, loved her husband's humor. She told the New York Daily News in 2000: "He makes me laugh a lot. I get excited when I hear his key in the door. It's like, Ooh! The party's going to start."

By all accounts, it was a loving, almost story book marriage. They laughed and they made it a point to virtually never talk show business at home. Anne, however, did prod Mel for years to write a Broadway musical version of his film, "The Producers." Finally, he sat down and wrote it, including all the songs. Mel credits his late wife with what he considers the most satisfying success of his career.

Mel Brooks, as you might imagine, was destroyed for a time by Anne's death from cancer. In an interesting article for Men's Health magazine, that falls into the category of celebrity news you can use, Max Brooks describes how he helped his father to cope with this loss. Max notes in the piece that complicating things was the fact he had just became a father for the first time. Max and his wife, Jewish playwright Michelle Kholos, had a son (their only child so far) in 2005.

It's also nice to note that Max says that in helping his father, he was aided by his half-siblings. I gather that Brooks is close to the children of his first marriage, too.

In a recent New York Times piece, Brooks describes his current routine. Most nights, he stays-in and watches a DVD with Reiner, now 87. Reiner became a widower in 2008, when his wife of 65 years, Estelle, died. There's also a nice little anecdote about Mel playing with Max's son, Henry.

Update On Christoph Waltz, the Baddie in Inglourious Basterds

Last September, I wrote a long column item about Quentin Tarantino's film Inglourious Basterds." Among other things, I said that Tarantino, in a recent interview with a Jewish paper, provided a surprising detail--that the son of Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who played the evil SS Col. Hans Landa in Basterds, was a rabbi in Israel.

I added that the newspaper interviewer didn't ask Tarantino whether Waltz, himself, was Jewish. I suspected Waltz wasn't Jewish, but that Waltz's ex-wife and the mother of his children, an American from New York, is Jewish.

My guess was borne out when horror film director Eli Roth, who played a Jewish commando in Inglourious Basterds, recently appeared on TMZ.com with (Jewish) host Harvey Levin.

Roth visited Levin to promote the recent DVD release of Inglourious Basterds. Roth, who is Jewish, said that Waltz was not Jewish,"but he almost converted to Judaism" and that he (Waltz) "knows the most about Judaism of anyone I have ever met." He said that Waltz's son is actually not yet a rabbi, but is currently studying in Israel to be a rabbi. Finally, Roth told Levin that he invited Waltz to his parents' home to celebrate the Jewish New Year last year.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.

Nate Bloom writes a weekly column on Jewish celebrities, broadly defined, that appears in the Cleveland Jewish News, the American Israelite of Cincinnati, the Detroit Jewish News, and the New Jersey Jewish Standard. It also appears bi-weekly in j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Starting April 2012, a monthly version of his column (featuring relevant "oldies but goodies") will appear in the following Florida newspapers: the Jewish News (Sarasota and Manatee County), the Federation Star (Collier County) and L'Chayim (Lee and Charlotte counties).

The author welcomes questions and celebrity "tips," especially about people you personally know. Write him at middleoftheroad1@aol.com. And feel free to comment below.

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