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Famous Veterans: Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks

"I was a Combat Engineer. Isn’t that ridiculous? The two things I hate most in the world are combat and engineering."
-- Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1926 as Melvin Kaminsky to Jewish parents from Germany and Ukraine. Brooks lost his father when he was two years old, and in retrospect, reflects on that event as the genesis for his farcical comedy style: "I'm sure a lot of my comedy is based on anger and hostility. Growing up in Williamsburg, I learned to clothe it in comedy to spare myself problems - like a punch in the face."

Before he could complete his degree in psychology from Brooklyn College, Brooks was drafted into the Army to fight during World War II. He served as a corporal in the 1104 Engineer Combat Battalion, 78th Infantry Division as a combat engineer. One of his tasks during the war was to defuse land mines, and he also fought in the Battle of the Bulge. It has been reported that when the Germans played propaganda recordings over loudspeakers, Brooks responded by setting up his own sound system and played music by Al Jolson, a Jewish musician. He would get in a further dig at Nazi leader Adolf Hitler a few decades later when he directed The Producers, a comedy focused on the worst Broadway musical of all time, "Springtime for Hitler."

When reminiscing on his years in the Army, Brooks trots out his trademark humor: "War isn’t hell... War is loud. Much too noisy. All those shells and bombs going off all around you. Never mind death. A man could lose his hearing." Asked by his son if during the war he thought about "what it would take to rebuild postwar Europe," he replied, "You thought about how you were going to stay warm that night, how you were going to get from one hedgerow to another without some German sniper taking you out. You didn’t worry about tomorrow."

Discharged as a corporal, Brooks performed stand-up comedy before writing for television programs such as The Admiral Broadway Revue and Your Show of Shows, taking on his new name of Mel Brooks. His career expanded into acting, directing, and producing. His achievements include classic films such as Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. In recent years he has focused his efforts on Broadway productions, and is one of the few entertainers to have earned an Oscar, Emmy, Tony, and Grammy.

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