No one stays married for 41 years unless they really mean it, especially in Hollywood.
Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft really meant it. And 14 years after her death, Brooks still means it.
Concerned that younger generations might not be familiar with the depth of his wife’s talent, he recently curated “The Anne Bancroft Collection,” a Blu-ray boxed set featuring eight of Bancroft’s films, including the famous — “The Miracle Worker,” “The Graduate” — and the lesser known — “The Pumpkin Eater,” “84 Charing Cross Road” — as well as the only film in which the couple appeared together, the comedy “To Be or Not to Be.”
Brooks remains wildly prolific, even at 93. “Mel Brooks Unwrapped” premieres Dec. 13 on HBO; he voiced Melephant Brooks in this year’s “Toy Story 4,” and an animated version of his 1974 classic “Blazing Saddles” called “Blazing Samurai” is slated for 2021.
But “The Anne Bancroft Collection” was made for love.
Which makes it possibly the most romantic holiday gift of the year.
“They were playing ‘The Graduate’ on television,” he said in a recent telephone interview, “and I thought it was really good and that there were so many things she had done that were not as well known.”
His favorite of her roles, he says, was the middle-class, and notably fertile, British woman of “The Pumpkin Eater.” “Harold Pinter was writing the script and Annie loved the character. She had just won the Oscar for ‘The Miracle Worker’ so she called [director] Jack Clayton. He said, ‘You’re not right for it,’ and she said, ‘I can do it.’ So we flew over to England and she auditioned for it. Right after winning an Oscar. And he was stunned.”
Bancroft was nominated for an Oscar for “The Pumpkin Eater,” and Julie Andrews mentions in her book “Homework” how stunned she was when her name was called, for “Mary Poppins,” instead of Bancroft’s.
“I don’t think ‘Pumpkin Eater’ ever got the play it deserved,” Brooks said. “Neither did ’84 Charing Cross Road,’ which was just a stunning performance, or ‘Fatso,’ which was just brilliant. I just felt like audiences should see how great she was.”
Stories abound of the couple’s devotion, most of them funny. Here is one I have heard: In 1989, when Bancroft was starring in “The Mystery of the Rose Bouquet” at the Mark Taper, Brooks called Gordon Davidson, then the Taper’s artistic director. “Gordon,” he said, “do you know what a Taurus is?” “Um, a sign in the zodiac?” Davidson guessed. “No, a Taurus is a car made by the Ford Motor Company, and if you send one to pick up my wife ever again, she’s out of the play.”
“Yeah, I remember that,” Brooks says now, laughing. “It was a bumpy ride. She didn’t like bumpy rides.”
It is pretty well known that when they were courting, back in the 1950s, she was a successful actress and he was a struggling comedy writer, which meant he was broke. So when they ate at a restaurant, she would slip him money under the table so he could pay.
“One time,” he says now, “we went out for Chinese and the bill was like 12 bucks. She slips me a 20 and I, because you know I’m Mel Brooks, I say ‘keep the change.’ When we walk outside, she slaps me and says “are you crazy? Tipping eight bucks on 12-buck check? That’s my money!’”
Brooks says he watches Bancroft’s movies often, “to keep her close to me. And for my son’s sake and my grandson. She sang to our grandson on the day he was born, though she died the same year.”
The only thing missing from the collection, Brooks says, is “The Turning Point.” “It was a beautiful film and she was so good in it, with Shirley MacLaine, but Fox wants to make a Broadway musical out of it so we couldn’t get it.”
He included “To Be or Not to Be” because he had to, he says. Although he does not consider it on par with the other Bancroft films in the collection, it was the only film they had ever found that worked for both of them. “And the fact that she learned Polish to do it made it worth my putting in.”
In the end, he says, he just wants to remind the world of the woman he had the good fortune to marry.
“She was a significant talent,” Brooks says. “We were together five years before we were married, so 46 years. It was a great gift to me, living with her for most of my life. It’s a hard life, the business, and you need someone who is loving and smart and supportive and I had that. God couldn’t have been nicer to me.”
The Anne Bancroft Collection
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