Mel Brooks, the Brooklyn-born funnyman best known for directing side-splitting comedies such as Spaceballs, Blazing Saddles, The Producers, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, is not somebody most people would associate with life and death type of dangerous work. Yet, that is precisely what Mel Brooks did during the Second World War when he fought the Nazis as a combat engineer clearing minefields under enemy fire and was in the thick of the Battle of the Bulge. As he put it: “I was a combat engineer. Isn’t that ridiculous? The two things I hate most in the world are combat and engineering“.
From Teen Comic to Soldier
Born Melvin James Kaminsky in 1926, descended from German Jews on his father’s side and Ukrainian Jews on his mother’s, Brooks was raised in poverty after his father’s untimely death when the future comedian was only two years old. Understandably, growing up without a father was rough, and it left its mark on Brooks, as a child and into his adulthood. As he put it decades later: “There’s an outrage there. I may be angry at God, or at the world for that. And I’m sure a lot of my comedy is based on anger and hostility“.
Growing up small and sickly in a borderline slum in Brooklyn, Brooks developed a sense of humor and a precocious comedic talent early on. It came in handy, and helped him defuse confrontations and avoid getting picked on and beaten up. At least, more often than not. Most people in his neighborhood worked in New York’s Garment District, but when Brooks was nine, an uncle took him to see a musical comedy on Broadway. After the show, the awestruck child declared his determination to never end up in the Garment District, but to make his living in showbiz instead.
It was not just a child’s flight of fancy: from then on, Brooks rolled up his metaphorical sleeves and set about making his wish come true. By the time he was 14, he had secured himself a gig as an entertainer at a swimming pool, and kept the crowds in stitches with his slapstick routines. At 14, he also apprenticed with jazz bandleader and drummer Buddy Rich, who taught him how to play the drums, and Brooks added “musician” to his repertoire. He also changed his name from Mel Kaminsky to Mel Brooks, to avoid getting confused with jazz bandleader Max Kaminsky.
Music gave Brooks an unexpected entry into the world of standup comedy: at 16, he was doing a gig as a drummer when an MC came down with an illness and was unable to perform. Brooks stepped in as a pinch hitter, and he hit it out of the park. Things were going well for Brooks, and he was en route to realizing his childhood dream of becoming a professional entertainer when his budding showbiz career was interrupted by WWII.
Brooks graduated high school in 1944, with nebulous plans to go to college and study psychology, but then decided to enlist in the US Army. As he described his decision: “I enlisted to go to college, not to be in, you know, foxholes and shot at. But listen, that’s what happens in a war. Being a kid of seventeen, eighteen, I was a peacenik, I was against war, but I knew what Hitler was doing to Jews. So, I really did feel this was a proper and just war, and a war that should be fought. My mother had four stars in her window. I think the limit was three if you had children in the army – that is, I think I could have gotten out of it, but I was gung ho at being a soldier“.