CelebVet: Mel Brooks & Carl Reiner, WWII War Buddies Until the End
“I think the only way to get through this crisis is to sing a World War II song, and that song is ‘We did it before and we can do it again,’” sings comedian Mel Brooks (pictured, above), who recently celebrated his 94th birthday during the coronavirus pandemic. He was in a CBS interview with his best friend and fellow comedian Carl Reiner, who passed away at age 98 just days after Brooks’ birthday.
The pair is comedy royalty, with over 50 years of work in film, television, and theater, but they share more than laughs: both men served their country in World War II.
“I’m short. I lived. They shot over me,” Brooks jokes to Conan O’Brien when asked if he saw any battle action. He was drafted into the Army in 1944 at the age of 17 while studying psychology at Brooklyn College. He attended Virginia Military Institute before artillery training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He served as a corporal in the 1104 Engineer Combat Battalion, 78th Infantry Division as a combat engineer. One of his tasks was to diffuse land mines, and he also fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
Brooks was born Melvin Kaminsky to Jewish parents in Brooklyn, NY. He lost his father at a young age and considers that part of what made him turn to comedy.
"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," he says. “Even when I was in the Army I would do parodies,” he tells NPR.
Reflecting on his dad’s military service, in an interview with Men’s Health magazine, son Max Brooks shared this same perspective in the way his dad raised him.
“My father had courage and resilience. He thought on his feet, and under tremendous pressure. He needed to confront his enemies while depending on his friends. He couldn’t feel entitled to anything, even his own life. He had to fight for that, and every scrap of success that followed. And through it all, he remained deeply loyal and passionately grateful to a country that he felt privileged to be born into.”
After his military service, Brooks went on to an extensive career as a film director, known for hilarious movies like “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein,” and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights.” He became one of only 15 people to be an EGOT winner. (EGOT, an acronym for the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards is the designation given to people who have won all four awards, referred to as the "grand slam" of show business). Brooks won his first of four Emmy awards for “The Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris Special” in 1968.
A year later he won the Tony for Best Original Screenplay for The Producers, where he poked fun at the Nazis in the song “Springtime for Hitler.” The film was turned into a Broadway show, which won him the Tony in 2001. And his first of three Grammys was for “The 2000 Year Old Man In The Year 2000,” a collaboration with Reiner.
Brooks and Reiner met in the 1950s when Reiner acted on and contributed sketch material for “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar's Hour.” Besides his work with Brooks, Reiner was best known for creating, producing, writing, and acting in “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” He also wrote Steve Martin’s first film, “The Jerk” in 1979 and later acted in the “Ocean’s 11” film series. He held 11 Emmy Awards and shared a Grammy win with Brooks.
Reiner was born in the Bronx also to Jewish parents and was drafted into the United States Army Air Forces in 1942. He received the rank of corporal by the time he was honorably discharged in 1946. During the war, he entertained the troops in Hawaii, Guam, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima.
In the final years of their friendship, they were as close as ever. As chronicled in Jerry Seinfeld’s Netflix series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”, Brooks went to Reiner’s house nightly to watch the game show Jeopardy and movie rentals.
The pair believed the country can learn from World War II veterans about perseverance through tough times like the current pandemic.
“If we got through Hitler, we can get through this stuff. This is a breeze,” Brooks laughed. “We just have to grin and bear it.”