January 17, 2020

Comedy Icon Revealed in ‘Mel Brooks Unwrapped’

From left: Mel Brooks and Alan Yentob; Photo courtesy of Alan Yentob

The genius behind such iconic comedy classics as “The Producers,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Blazing Saddles” and, with best buddy Carl Reiner, “The 2000-Year-Old Man,” Mel Brooks has had audiences in stitches for six decades and has an Oscar, four Emmys, two Grammys and three Tonys to show for it. In the HBO documentary “Mel Brooks Unwrapped,” the writer-director-producer-actor is truly in his element, joking and telling stories with filmmaker Alan Yentob, his friend for over 25 years. 

“It’s a very intimate portrait of Mel,” Yentob told the Journal, comparing it to their Emmy-nominated 2012 collaboration, “Mel Brooks Strikes Back!” “That was a simple interview with clips,” Yentob said. “This is very special. It’s about Mel and [his wife] Anne [Bancroft], his career, his friendships. I think it gets very close to the real Mel Brooks.”

Combining footage from interviews done over the years with film clips and photographs, it’s informal and full of fun anecdotes (including a great one about Cary Grant). “We made up the film as we went along,” Yentob said. “It was a creative partnership. We could be as playful as we wanted to be.” Brooks plays piano in it and often bursts into song. “Music is a very important part of Mel’s life,” Yentob noted. “When we’re together in the car, he always has the radio on, particularly songs from the ’30s and ’40s. I love that era, too.”

Yentob was a fan of Brooks long before he became his friend. He recalled the first time he saw “The Producers” in a theater with a largely Jewish audience in London. The idea of a musical about Hitler was shocking. “Remember the scene of the audience with their mouths open? That’s what the [movie theater] audience was like, including me,” he said, praising Brooks’ audacity to go where others would not. “I don’t think you could make that film or ‘Blazing Saddles’ today.”

“It’s a very intimate portrait of Mel. It’s about Mel and [his wife] Anne [Bancroft], his career, his friendships. I think it gets very close to the real Mel Brooks.” — Alan Yentob

Yentob also praised Brooks’ enduring talent, wit, creativity and unflagging energy at 93, and marveled at his “ability to make films that say something and are funny at the same time. He’s got a great understanding of the traditions of filmmaking. And he’s Jewish, of course. Where would Hollywood be without the Jews?”

The documentary delves into Brooks’ early life as Melvin Kaminsky, the son of Polish and Russian Jewish immigrants who settled in Brooklyn, N.Y., and his comedic beginnings as a “tummler” (emcee) in the Catskills. Reiner makes an appearance, and Bancroft, who died in 2005, is seen in photos and home movies. “Anne was a very special person and her loss was tragic for Mel,” Yentob said. “He misses her every day. When he talks about her, he doesn’t have to say very much. You can see how much she means to him.”

Yentob, the London-born son of Iraqi Jews, joined the BBC as a trainee in 1968 and worked his way up the ladder to director, producer and creative director. His many award-winning documentaries include films on Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles and Philip Roth, all of whom became friends. 

But Yentob is especially close with Brooks, who is the godfather of his son, Jacob. Bancroft was the godmother of his daughter, Isabella. “I share a lot of thoughts with him and we speak on the phone all the time,” Yentob said. “I see him a few times a year. When he was in London doing ‘Young Frankenstein,’ we would take trips to Paris and Venice to have fun. One of the great pleasures of my life is my friendship with Mel. It’s very profoundly important and that’s why the film is made intuitively, informally and creatively in a way that not many people would be able to do.” 

Currently, Yentob is in Ethiopia making a film adapted from Lemn Sissay’s memoir “My Name Is Why” about Sissay’s life in the foster care system. Yentob recently completed the BBC documentary “The Man Who Saw Too Much,” which tells the story of Boris Pahor, the oldest living survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. “He was a Slovenian working with the resistance in Italy and was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Natzweiler concentration camp,” Yentob revealed. “He wasn’t Jewish. He wrote a book about it called ‘Necropolis.’ ”

Yentob hopes viewers of “Mel Brooks Unwrapped” appreciate the boldness and imagination that make his subject such a remarkable figure. Like Brooks, Yentob is driven by curiosity, creativity and the willingness to take risks. “If you don’t try things out, if you play it safe, it’s unlikely you’ll succeed,” he said. “Mel certainly hasn’t played safe.”

“Mel Brooks Unwrapped” premieres Dec. 13 on HBO.