Friday, September 12, 2014

Mel Brooks Gets His Hands Dirty (and other recollections of a Dynamic Duo)

Sounds like Mel Brooks, impish as always, has just given the finger to Hollywood. In honor of the Blue-Ray release marking the 40th anniversary of Young Frankenstein, Brooks was invited to embed his hand and footprints in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. (Its official name is now the TCL Chinese Theater, in recognition of its current ownership, but it will always be Grauman’s to me.)  When Brooks arrived for the ceremony, he was wearing a fake extra digit, as a way of confounding future stargazing tourists. He happily conjured up for the press some visitor from Des Moines squealing, “Harry! Harry! Look, Mel Brooks has six fingers on his left hand!”

I’ve long enjoyed Mel Brooks’ genial zaniness, and Young Frankenstein, which the L. A. Times calls “a comic monsterpiece,” is a special favorite of mine.  And I’ve been delighted with Brooks’ largely successful conquest of Broadway’s musical comedy genre, which can always use a boost. A family member once was squeamish about Brooks’ humorous glorification of Nazi Germany via the “Springtime for Hitler” aspects of The Producers. But he was completely won over by hearing Brooks explain that, as a Jew, he considered his mocking salute to Hitler and his thugs a public victory over the forces that had tried to annihilate his people.
“It’s good to be the king,” as all Mel Brooks fans know. It’s certainly fair to call Brooks, now 88, the king of outrageous comedy on stage and screen. (Not to mention recordings: who of my generation can ever forget The Two Thousand Year Old Man?) But every king deserves a worthy consort, and I can’t talk about Brooks without paying tribute to his wife of 41 years, the late and very much lamented Anne Bancroft.

When I was newly pregnant with my first child, I was sitting in my doctor’s waiting room, feeling fairly discombobulated by the world in general. To pass the time, I thumbed through an office copy of some ladies’ magazine, and scanned a photo spread on the Brooks-Bancroft marriage. These two had always seemed to me the oddest of couples. He was a goofy comedian, while she was an elegant and serious actress, who’d won an Oscar for her role as Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker. As I was reading, the door opened . . . and in walked a woman who looked exactly like Anne Bancroft. I was stunned: who knew that early pregnancy led to hallucinations?

It turned out, of course, to be the real Anne Bancroft, who was a longtime patient and friend of my doctor. It was titillating, somehow, to be under the care of Mrs. Robinson’s own gynecologist. In later years, when I was researching The Graduate, he discussed her with me briefly, making clear his affection and respect. Then one evening there was a screening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, highlighting Oscar-winning films of 1963. One feature was Mel Brooks’ hilarious short, “The Critic.” Brooks and Bancroft were in the audience, along with Carl and Estelle Reiner. Afterwards, when I grabbed a bite to eat at Kate Mantilini’s (now sadly closed), the two couples were seated in the next booth. I don’t know what they talked about, but Bancroft’s throaty laugh was a joy to hear. Soon afterward, I learned she had died, of uterine cancer, at age 73.  

Too bad she didn’t live to have her handprints at Grauman’s Chinese.  She might have liked to embed in the concrete, in honor of her most famous role, the outline of a very shapely arched leg.  


  1. A great tribute to a wonderful actress. I loved that she and Mel Brooks were a couple - it gave hope to guys with a sense of humor and less than matinee star looks that a hottie like Ms. Bancroft was not out of the realm of possibility. Mel Brooks and six fingers - at 88 - what an incredible man. I love so many of his movies - and I'm thrilled he's found this new creative outlet adapting his shows into Broadway musicals. All I can say in closing? "That's Hedley!"

  2. Mr. Craig, I love your idea that Anne Bancroft's marriage gave hope to the non-matinee idols among us. And I think she'd love it as well.

  3. Didn't you love Mel Brooks' six-fingered imprint in the cement? I thought it was so apropos.

  4. I do indeed love it, Tina. Amid all those other hand and footprints, it's nice to see someone truly get creative. Thanks for writing.