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Once dubbed the West Coast Woody Allen for his cerebral brand of comedy, actor-writer-director Albert Brooks once turned down the Billy Crystal role in "When Harry Met Sally..." (1989) precisely because it read like a Woody Allen movie - a comparison he assiduously avoided. After receiving his start in show business as a stand-up comedian - a route he also wished to avoid - Brooks finally achieved his dream of becoming an actor when he made his first foray into features with a prominent supporting role in "Taxi Driver" (1976). He made his biggest contribution to movies as director, helming his first film, "Real Life" (1978), which many critics lauded as being the first and one of the best mocumentaries ever made. Returning to the director's chair following a sprinkling of small roles on the big screen, Brooks helmed the romantic comedy, "Modern Romance" (1981), before directing "Lost in America" (1985), his sharp satiric look at American materialism that many considered to be his finest work behind the camera. His best work in front of the lens came with "Broadcast News" (1987), playing a sympathetic news reporter - a role that earned him an Academy Award nomination. He returned to directing with the...
Once dubbed the West Coast Woody Allen for his cerebral brand of comedy, actor-writer-director Albert Brooks once turned down the Billy Crystal role in "When Harry Met Sally..." (1989) precisely because it read like a Woody Allen movie - a comparison he assiduously avoided. After receiving his start in show business as a stand-up comedian - a route he also wished to avoid - Brooks finally achieved his dream of becoming an actor when he made his first foray into features with a prominent supporting role in "Taxi Driver" (1976). He made his biggest contribution to movies as director, helming his first film, "Real Life" (1978), which many critics lauded as being the first and one of the best mocumentaries ever made. Returning to the director's chair following a sprinkling of small roles on the big screen, Brooks helmed the romantic comedy, "Modern Romance" (1981), before directing "Lost in America" (1985), his sharp satiric look at American materialism that many considered to be his finest work behind the camera. His best work in front of the lens came with "Broadcast News" (1987), playing a sympathetic news reporter - a role that earned him an Academy Award nomination. He returned to directing with the philosophical and funny "Defending Your Life" (1991), before helming the more underwhelming "Mother" (1996) and "The Muse" (1999). Though his output diminished in later years, including only one film as director in the new millennium - "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World" (2005) - Brooks nonetheless remained one of the most gifted and prolific comedic actors of his generation.
Born Albert Einstein on July 22, 1947 in Los Angeles, Brooks was raised in nearby Beverly Hills by his father, Harry Parke, a radio and film character actor best known for his Greek character Parkyakarkus on Eddie Cantor's radio show, and his mother, Thelma Leeds, a singer and actress who met her husband on the set of the musical "New Faces of 1937" (1937) before retiring from performing soon after. Also in the family were brothers Bob Einstein - a.k.a. daredevil comic Super Dave Osborne - and Clifford, later an advertising executive. Brooks began developing his comedy chops as the class clown at Beverly Hills High School, which he attended alongside Rob Reiner and Richard Dreyfuss. Because his mother wanted him to focus on a steady career, Brooks went on to attend the Carnegie Institute of Technology - later renamed Carnegie-Mellon University - only to drop out after two years and return to his hometown in order to become an actor. But work was hard to come by, which led to stand-up comedy by way of a ventriloquist act called Danny and Dave, in which he was the world's worst ventriloquist - his lips moved every time the dummy spoke.
The act was a hit and led to numerous television appearances, including on "The Steve Allen Westinghouse Show" (1962-68), "The Dean Martin Show" (NBC, 1965-1974) and most notably, "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" (NBC, 1962-1992). Brooks also began opening for several musical acts from the day, like Neil Diamond, Richie Havens, and Sly and the Family Stone. But by this time he was getting further and further away from his desired goal of becoming an actor, despite assurances from his agent that traveling the comedy circuit would lead to such a career. Brooks graduated to touring clubs as a headliner following his first album, Comedy Minus One (1974), which led to performing two or three shows a night - a stressful schedule that began taking its toll on him. His success led to another comedy album, A Star Is Bought (1975), which earned a Grammy Award nomination. Eventually, however, he had a panic attack and nervous breakdown before stepping onstage to perform in Boston. After managing to collect himself in his hotel room, Brooks went on to deliver his routine, but soon left stand-up comedy altogether and started seeing a shrink.
Despite his stand-up comedy career being over, Brooks was offered a permanent hosting gig on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) by producer Lorne Michaels, only to turn the job offer down. Instead, he made six short comedy films - including one where he performed open heart surgery - and left the show amidst disgruntlement with the regular cast. Brooks finally made some headway in his acting career with a supporting role as an annoying campaign worker who senses something wrong with the man (Robert De Niro) his co-worker (Cybill Shepherd) has agreed to date in Martin Scorsese's gritty classic, "Taxi Driver" (1976). Two years later, he took his first shot at directing a feature with "Real Life" (1978), a satirical take on the PBS series "An American Family," in which he starred as a documentarian who films for the typical American family, only to find them incredibly boring and so alters real events to make them more cinematic. Striking a clear balance between humor and social criticism - which remained a hallmark of his later work - Brooks built off his "SNL" shorts to become one of the better mocumentary filmmakers.
Having gained a greater degree of autonomy with his entre as a director, Brooks maintained a steady onscreen presence. Following a small turn as the newly wed husband who dies following an orgasm after sex with Goldie Hawn in "Private Benjamin" (1980), Brooks returned to the director's chair with "Modern Romance" (1981), an extremely funny look at a neurotic man (Brooks) attempting to find love in Hollywood with a bank executive, played by his real-life companion, Kathryn Harrold. After a supporting turn opposite Dudley Moore and Nastassja Kinski in "Unfaithfully Yours" (1984), he directed then-companion Julie Hagerty in his road comedy, "Lost in America" (1985), which brought him an increased legion of fans atop a bevy of critical kudos. The film's meticulous observation of two disillusioned yuppies (Brooks and Hagerty) who liquidate their assets and buy a Winnebago, struck a chord with people who secretly longed to act on the youthful, irresponsible fantasy of dropping out of society. Full of pointed commentary on 1980s materialism, "Lost in America" stood as one of Brooks' finest directorial achievements.
Brooks followed with one of his best acting performances when he played the talented, but luckless television journalist who sweats a lot on screen in "Broadcast News" (1987), directed by friend James L. Brooks. The director's satirical look at the inner workings of a Washington D.C. television news bureau allowed Brooks the opportunity to play a sympathetic character, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor and a significantly higher public profile. Returning to directing his own material, he helmed his fourth feature, "Defending Your Life" (1991), a speculative comedy with Brooks as a self-obsessed, recently deceased executive who, after being unable to learn from his mistakes in life, must face his past in order to continue in the afterlife. Along the way, he falls in love with a brave, deceased woman (Meryl Streep), whose advancement to the next stage is all but certain. Boasting enjoyably broad performances by Brooks, Streep and Rip Torn, the one-joke script eventually wore thin, though in the end the film was enjoyable overall.
After portraying a strident Hollywood producer of slick action films in "I'll Do Anything" (1994), Brooks stared as "The Scout" (1994), a baseball fantasy based on an old Andrew Bergman baseball script which he and longtime collaborator Monica Johnson rewrote for director Michael Ritchie. Unfortunately, that year's Major League Baseball strike, which canceled the World Series for the first time in 90 years, sank the slim commercial chances of a comedy that never quite recovered from its detour to drama. Brooks went back to directing for "Mother" (1996), a midlife-crisis comedy about a twice-divorced sci-fi author (Brooks), who moves back home with his mother (Debbie Reynolds) and brother (Rob Morrow) in order to figure out why he has problems with women. Though earning only $19 million at the box office, "Mother" became the highest-grossing film directed by Brooks to date. Following a turn as a 65-year-old alcoholic surgeon in Sidney Lumet's medical satire "Critical Care" (1997) and a voiceover role as the suicidal tiger in "Dr. Dolittle" (1997), he had a small, but memorable supporting role in "Out of Sight" (1998) as a billionaire and convicted felon, whose loose lips inside prison attract a motley crew - including a charming ex-con (George Clooney) and a violent thug (Don Cheadle) - to his home in suburban Detroit in order to steal a fortune in uncut diamonds.
Three years after "Mother," Brooks helmed, co-wrote again with Johnson, and starred as a Hollywood screenwriter struggling for inspiration in "The Muse" (1999), which also starred Sharon Stone as the titular source of creativity. Also featuring Jeff Bridges and Andie MacDowell, plus a slew of celebrity cameos, including Martin Scorsese, Rob Reiner and James Cameron, Brooks' show business satire was the first of his own films that perhaps demonstrated he had begun losing his edge. Stepping outside of his own image, Brooks received an abundance of critical praise for his turn in director Christine Lahti's unassuming indie debut, "My First Mister" (2001), playing a finicky clothing store owner who embarks on a relationship with a Goth-like, tattooed 17-year-old employee (Leelee Sobieski). After voicing Marlin the Clownfish who searches for his lost son in Pixar's animated phenomenon, "Finding Nemo" (2003), Brooks teamed with Michael Douglas for the rather flaccid remake of "The In-Laws" (2003), playing a neurotic dentist opposite Douglas' die-hard CIA agent. He returned to stand-up - sort of - for "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World" (2005), in which he played a fictional version of himself as he travels India and Pakistan with two State Department officials (John Carroll Lynch and Jon Tenney) trying to figure out what makes Muslims laugh. He next voiced Russ Cargill, the villain in "The Simpsons Movie" (2007), before appearing as the estranged father of Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) for six episodes of the critically acclaimed series, "Weeds" (Showtime, 2005-12) in 2008. Brooks went against type to play the smiling but brutal mobster Bernie Rose opposite Ryan Gosling's unnamed antihero in the indie neo-noir, "Drive" (2011), which earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
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