Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft Shared Love and Laughs

"Anne and I both grew up during the marriage," says Brooks, "we both knew what was really important"

Photo: Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive/Getty

On the surface it seemed one of the stranger matches of the 20th century: the serious, award-winning dramatic actress Anna Maria Louisa Italiano, and the man whose fertile imagination introduced both flatulence around an Old West campfire and a singing-dancing Adolf Hitler to the silver screen, Melvin Kaminsky.

Or, as the world knew them, Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks.

Asked about the couple’s marriage, which lasted from 1964 until her death from uterine cancer in 2005, an introspective Brooks says in the new PBS American Masters documentary Mel Brooks: Make a Noise, “You know, it took because Anne and I both grew up during the marriage, we both grew up, we both knew what was really important, and what love meant, and … what doing for each other meant.”

While the 82-minute program focuses primarily on Brooks’s nearly 70 years of creative output – Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, The Producers, as well as Get Smart and the 2,000-Year-Old Man – documentarian Robert Trachtenberg also turns a spotlight on the Brooks-Bancroft relationship.

For starters, as Brooks tells it, he first saw her during a TV rehearsal for The Perry Como Show. Then, as recounted by Bancroft in a vintage interview: “A guy from way over, from the other side of the theater, said, ‘Hey, Anne Bancroft. I’m Mel Brooks.’ ”

Explaining the significance of his speaking up, Bancroft says, “I want you to know that, in two years, no man had ever approached me with that kind of aggression, because I had just done [the Broadway dramas] Two for the Seesaw and The Miracle Worker, and people were very scared of me, especially men.”

But not this brash young fellow. “This aggressive voice came out from the dark,” recalled Bancroft, “and I thought it must be a combination of Clark Gable and Robert Taylor, Robert Redford. It turned out to be Mel Brooks, and he never left me from that moment on.”

She wasn’t kidding. “He would say, ‘Where ya goin’?’ And I’d say, ‘To William Morris [agency].’ He’d say, ‘So am I.’ He’d say, ‘Where ya goin’?’ ‘I’m goin’ to that delica-.’ ‘So am I.’ Wherever I said I was going, he would say he’s going there. … It just went on and on, the man never left me alone, thank God.”

On another occasion, she said, “I was in love with him instantly, because, you see, he looked like my father and acted like my mother.”

They married at New York City Hall. (Both had been wed once before; Brooks has three children from his 1953-62 marriage to former dancer Florence Baum.) Together they had a son born in 1972, Max Brooks, who, among other accomplishments, wrote the 2006 novel about a zombie takeover, World War Z, now the basis for the latest Brad Pitt movie.

In 1980, Bancroft starred in a drama for the screen that Brooks produced, The Elephant Man. And the two starred together for laughs, in 1983’s To Be or Not to Be, whose high point was their rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” in Polish – though if Bancroft were to have had a theme song, it surely would be Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.” She played the mature seductress in director Mike Nichols’s sharp 1967 movie satire, The Graduate.

In 1998, when she was 66, PEOPLE named Bancroft one of its Most Beautiful. “Anne died at 73,” Brooks, now 86, says in his American Masters tribute. “She could have certainly gone on to 83, 90 it would have been wonderful.”

But perhaps the key to their magic is best explained in the documentary by Nathan Lane, who won a 2001 Tony for playing Brooks’s quintessential protagonist, Max Bialystock, in The Producers.

Quoting Bancroft, Lane says, “You know, we’re like any other couple. We’ve had our ups and downs, but every time I hear the key in the door, I know the party’s about to start.”

Mel Brooks: Make a Noise premieres nationally Monday, May 20, at 9 p.m. (ET/PT) on PBS. Check local listings.

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