On the surface, Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft couldn’t have seemed more different. “She was tall and striking, and he always referred to himself as short and homely,” Patrick McGillgan, author of the new biography Mel Brooks: Funny Man, tells Closer Weekly in an exclusive new interview, on newsstands now. “Then there was the matter of their disparate ethnicities.”
As Anne once joked, “When Mel told his Jewish mother he was marrying an Italian girl, she said, ‘Bring her over! I’ll be in the kitchen — with my head in the oven.'”
But seriously, folks, theirs was one of Hollywood’s most enduring romances. They had both experienced unsuccessful first marriages — hers to lawyer Martin May and his to showgirl Florence Baum — who also happens to be the mother of his first three children. “Mel was writing around the clock and very driven,” says McGilligan. “And he was a wayward husband.” His torrid affair with chanteuse Eartha Kitt, who starred in a Broadway show Mel cowrote, helped lead to his marital split.
Mel introduced himself to Anne — who had made a big splash onstage in The Miracle Worker — when she was guest-starring on The Perry Como Show in 1961. “He began to follow her around doggedly, and they clicked,” says McGilligan. “She found him funny, adorable, smart and entertaining, and he admired her serious acting prowess and thought she was a beaut.”
At first, Anne’s star outshone Mel’s. When she was nominated for an Oscar for The Miracle Worker, a New York newspaper misidentified her date as Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny. After three years of dating, they got married at Manhattan’s City Hall in 1964. Mel soon found mainstream success as the co-creator of TV’s Get Smart, then launched his big-screen career, winning an Oscar for the screenplay of 1969’s The Producers and making such raunchy, wildly popular classics as Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.
Meanwhile, Anne earned acclaim for films like The Graduate and The Turning Point. “They spent time apart, sometimes going to foreign countries, but they always visited each other’s sets,” says McGilligan. “They did bicker and disagree, but they also agreed a lot, and they always ended things with a laugh.”
In 1972, Anne gave birth to her only child with Mel, son Max. “She did most of the parenting,” says McGilligan. “Mel later said he regretted that at times he focused on his career to the detriment of being a father.”
Mel and Anne worked together occasionally, including in 1984’s To Be or Not to Be. On and offscreen, they always got a kick out of each other. “I’m married to a beautiful and talented woman who can lift your spirits just by looking at you,” Mel once gushed. Raved Anne: “When he comes home at night and I hear his key in the lock, I say to myself, ‘Oh good! The party’s about to begin!’”
Sadly, that party ended in 2005 when Anne died of uterine cancer at 73. Mel, her husband of more than 40 years, “was deeply wounded — he couldn’t get out of bed,” says McGilligan. “But he slowly bounced back.” Now, at 92, Mel is “like the Energizer Bunny — he keeps going and going.” As Mel says, “If you’re quiet, you’re not living. You’ve got to be noisy and colorful and lively.”
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