Novelist Max Brooks On His Growing Up With Hollywood Parents
We know you are the son of well-known actors, comedian Mel Brooks and actress Anne Bancroft. What was your upbringing in Hollywood?
Brooks: My childhood was stable. That’s the most important. My father was home every night at 7 o’clock with my mother and having dinner … which I think set the tone for my life, in that my wife and I have dinner with our child at home at a certain time every day.
What do you remember since your childhood? Was your father funny at home?
Brooks: My father wasn’t always funny. I would have to say that 70, 80 percent of the time, he didn’t come home as Mr. Funny Man. He came home as this very stressed, overworked man, self-made man, who had risen himself out of extreme poverty and had built an empire of comedy and was trying to maintain that in an ever-changing world of morphing tastes. So I saw the stress, I saw the panic, I saw the man who was watching studio heads change and friends die off and … the economics of show business change. And he was always trying to stay one step ahead. That’s what I saw. And I think I’m glad I had that … because that taught me that no matter how easy it looks on the screen, it’s a job, and it’s no easier than any other job. …
Can you say that your father was your pal?
Brooks: You have to remember that my father came from a generation where if you put a roof over your head and food on the table, you’re father of the year. My dad also didn’t have a dad. My father’s father died of tuberculosis when my father was 2 years old. So this sort of new-agey notion that a dad is also a pal, that was not in my house.
What I did get from my father was stability. And I’m very grateful for that because, as a lot of my Gen Xer colleagues will tell you, their baby-boomer parents were not home, were out partying, were getting divorce after divorce, were coming home with new girlfriends and saying, “Hey, this is your new mom, I think?”
How did your mother help you navigate your dyslexia? I remember you once mentioned it.
Brooks: Dyslexia in the late ’70s, 1980s was unheard of. Dyslexia — they didn’t even call it a disability back then; it was just “laziness,” “goofing off,” “you’re not trying hard enough.” “You can do it but you don’t want to do it” — that was a big one of my teachers.
And my mother, one of the greatest, most successful actresses of her day, gave up her career, put her career on the shelf, to raise me, to be my educational advocate and to teach herself about dyslexia. … She took, every year, all of my school books that I had to read to the Institute for the Blind and had them all read onto audio cassette so I could listen to my reading list. And if I hadn’t been able to do that, I wouldn’t have graduated high school. I can literally say that not only did my mother give me my life, she saved my life.
The death of your mother, who was so dear to you, was bereavement to all the family.
Brooks: Yes, really it was. And it was my newborn son who helped us mourn her death.
We all got lucky — I did, my wife, my father — because we had a little baby. My son was born two months before my mother died, so he gave us a purpose. We had this brand new life that this little micro village of the Brooks family had to sort of come around and keep alive, with very simple needs — feeding, clothing, sleeping, health, burping. And we could all do that.
And I think that saved all of us. It certainly saved my dad. … He would come over, the baby would be in his lap, and he would fall asleep on the couch with the baby. The two of them would sleep on the couch together, and he would walk the baby around until he burped and he would entertain him. And to this day, my father and my son have this amazing relationship. My father comes over every night and my son can’t wait.