15 Trivia Tidbits About Albert Brooks on His Birthday
Born Albert Lawrence Einstein and later changing his surname to Brooks — “The real Albert Einstein changed his name to sound more intelligent,” he once joked — the comedian and filmmaker who’s played a version of himself in many a film is, in a lot of ways, the cinematic face of modern anxiety. The embodiment of caustic humor, Brooks seems to adore playing everyman characters who are constantly trying to either fix a problem or discover some true meaning, only for chaos to ensue. And that’s before even getting into his prolific voice-acting career, having played fan-favorite characters in The Simpsons, doing the voice of Marlin in Finding Nemo and even popping up as The Businessman in The Little Prince.
For his 76th birthday, we’ve compiled a list of facts about the impactful comic who once prophesied America’s coming obsession with reality television...
He Wrote Jokes for Michael Dukakis
During the late 1980s, Brooks was hired to write jokes for the former governor of Massachusetts’ presidential campaign. “I was asked to go on the airplane and go to different events,” Brooks told Judd Apatow during an interview for Vanity Fair. “And I actually spoke at a few. I was so disenchanted with him. I thought, ‘I pray he doesn’t win.’ I mean, there were arguments on the plane, and the guys hated him. ‘Can I ask him a question?’ ‘Nobody can talk to him now!’ So I’m thinking, What if there’s a war?”
On His Biggest Comedic Influence
Brooks credits Jack Benny for inspiring him when he first started out in comedy. “Because of his minimalism,” Brooks explained. “And the way he got laughs. He was at the center of a storm; he let his players do the work, and just by being there made it funny. That was mind-boggling to me.”
He Quit Stand-Up After He Froze During a Set
Before going into filmmaking, Brooks was a stand-up comic who would open for rock bands and appear on TV shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show. However, his stand-up career came to an end at a gig in Boston in 1974 when the opening singer, Leo Sayer, showed up dressed as a clown. To make matters worse, Sayer’s fans were also dressed in clown suits. Brooks said that the bonkers sight caused a complete glitch in his brain, and he froze up. “Jesus Christ, it was scary,” he told Esquire. “I had spent years having no fear, and now all of the fear caught up with me. I stopped being a stand-up comic that moment.”
He Has Turned Down a Lot of Successful Movies
While Brooks would go on to impress everyone in the 2011 action drama Drive, an alternate universe exists where such an impression may have occurred much earlier. He, for instance, turned down lead roles in movies like Dead Poet Society, Big and Pretty Woman. He also passed on doing the voice of Manfred the elephant in Ice Age (which eventually went to Ray Romano), and he couldn’t sign up to play Jack Horner in Boogie Nights because he was in pre-production with his movie, The Muse. “I couldn’t stop,” Brooks explained. “I couldn’t shut down what I was doing. But regrets are stupid; they don’t mean anything, and they don’t add up to anything.”
He Made a Movie That Preceded ‘The Good Place’
As Roger Ebert pointed out, Hollywood never made a movie or show depicting the afterlife as a “corporate personnel processing center” before Brooks’ critically-acclaimed film, Defending Your Life came along. “People ask me, do you believe in this?” Brooks told Ebert. “Here’s my answer. I think if there were a lottery about what the next world is like, I’d bet on this. A computer works by discarding all the wrong answers and the remaining one is right. I approached the afterlife the same way. All I’ve ever seen in movies are clouds, and wings, and harps, and angels, and I said damn it! It’s gotta be something, but why is it that?”
His Dad Died Moments After Performing at the Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Roast
Brooks’ dad, Harry Einstein, was himself a comic and radio personality who died of a heart attack moments after roasting the I Love Lucy stars at the Friars Club in 1958. Doctors present at the charity event tried to revive him by using a pen knife to cut him open and massage his heart, but nothing more could be done.
His Novel Was Originally Conceived as a Movie
In 2011, the comic and filmmaker became a novelist when he published his futuristic book, 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America. The satirical book, featuring a future where cancer has been eradicated and the U.S. needs China’s help to rebuild the earthquake-stricken state of California, was initially conceived as a screenplay. Brooks, however, decided to turn it into a novel instead, arguing that it would be too expensive to produce as a film.
The Director of ‘Drive’ Wanted Brooks for the Movie
While Brooks ended up typecasting himself in his own movies, director Nicolas Winding Refn saw the potential of having him play the villainous Bernie Rose in Drive. “When I first met Nicolas Refn, he told me that when he was young, and he saw Lost in America, I scared him when I yelled at my wife,” Brooks has remembered.
Refn sent Brooks the script, and the two soon met up to discuss the part. “I went to (Refn’s) house and, you know, we played this sort of weird game, where he’s asking me, ‘Why do you think you should play this?’” the actor revealed to Uproxx. “It’s like a test, you know? So I said, ‘Well, you know, cast one of the six people that always play it, and then you’ll have an ordinary movie. As soon as the guy comes on-screen, everybody will know what’ll happen.’ And so he liked that answer.”
To show the director that he could totally do the part, Brooks unexpectedly pinned Refn against the wall on his way out, quietly whispering into his ear: “I don’t know how much physical strength you think I have, but I could beat the crap out of you in a fight.”
He Wasn’t Happy With How ‘The Scout’ Ended
Brooks, who co-wrote and starred in the 1994 sports comedy, once revealed that he was extremely unhappy with the movie’s ending and that the studio was to blame. “That movie ended with that kid, who Brendan Fraser played, he pitched one strike, and that was the end of the movie,” he said of the original ending. “So it was just his ability to make the game. And they (the studio) put on a whole game, and they tested both versions in the same multiplex, and the version that you see (on the film now) tested like eight points more, which is meaningless. And I got into a fight with 20th Century Fox. I didn’t work there forever. I mean, I really went crazy. I said, ‘I’m going to be the one who gets the bad reviews, and this is going to do nothing to help this movie!’”
That Time Keith Moon Almost Got Him in Trouble With the Law
At one early point during his career, while traveling around with rock bands, Brooks befriended Harry Nilsson and John Lennon. The three of them would hang out together and sometimes join other musicians’ parties, which led to Brooks having a chaotic encounter with the drummer of The Who.
“The Who was staying in Century City, and Harry said, ‘Come over. Keith is here; we’re having a thing,” Brooks said. “I had just done a Mike Douglas in the afternoon and flew back from Philadelphia. And I come walking down the hall, and the housekeeper says, ‘Oh, you were on Mike Douglas — you were wonderful.’ I go in the room, and in about 20 minutes, Keith Moon threw the television out the window. It was 16 stories up. And now the room is destroyed, and I’m going: I was recognized — I got to get out of here! How can I get out of the Century Plaza without being seen? Because I know in court she’s going to go, ‘The guy on The Mike Douglas Show!’ You know?”
His Comedy Initially Caused Confusion With Some Folks
“When I played Albert Brooks in Real Life, I learned how confusing that gets because people didn’t know me very well then,” Brooks has said. “I was reading reviews like, ‘This Albert Brooks should never be allowed to make another film, and he doesn’t know how to handle a family. How dare he be so rough with children.’ And I’m going, ‘Holy shit, don’t people get it?’”
His next film, Modern Romance, would cause similar initial confusion, with the studio at one point demanding that he add a psychiatry scene to explain why “the guy with a Porsche and a good-looking girl” was unhappy. Brooks refused, and the studio retracted their support following the movie’s release.
His Work on ‘The Simpsons’ is Always Improvised
When asked about the improvisation that goes into his Simpsons characters, Brooks said that he ad-libs most all of it: “They want me to make up as many lines as I can. That’s sort of the fun of doing it. I come up with every line I can think of for that.”
Rob Reiner Is Making a Documentary About Him
In May 2022, Variety reported that The Princess Bride director is busy filming a documentary about his high school pal and former housemate. The doc (currently titled Albert Brooks: Defending My Life) will feature heavyweights like Larry David, Sarah Silverman and Chris Rock. “He (Brooks) is a good friend of mine. We met in high school,” Reiner said, referring to their years at Beverly Hills High. “This is a pleasure for me because I have always looked up to Albert and, in a way, been intimidated by him. He’s brilliant. He’s a genius. There is nobody like him. He is a unique one-of-a-kind comedian. I’ve always wanted to make a film about him to let people know what I know about him.”
His Comedies Have Had a Major Influence on Horror Filmmaker Ari Aster
The director of horrors, including Hereditary and Beau Is Afraid, has often looked to Brooks’ comedy films for inspiration. Aster once said that Midsommar was directly influenced by Brooks’ 1981 comedy, Modern Romance — “it’s my favorite breakup movie ever”— and in 2020, he wrote an article for Criterion in which he discussed Brooks’ “Uncomfortable Comedies” and mentioned Mother, the movie that features Debbie Reynolds as a passive-aggressive mom. Aster, of course, is a fan of giving us complex mothers.
Pixar Pitched Marlin From ‘Finding Nemo’ to Brooks Using One of His Own Movies
Brooks once said that someone from the studio called his agent and asked to show him a clip of Marlin. Only, it was Marlin speaking in Brooks’ voice. “So I went into a darkened theater, and I watched this fish give a speech from one of my movies (Defending Your Life),” he remembers. “I thought this is so creepy that I have to do it! It was very clever on their part.”