On Sunday, an audience packed the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater in New York City for an evening with one of Hollywood’s most iconic actors/directors/writers/comedians: Albert Brooks. The hour-and-a-half Q&A was peppered with clips from his acting projects, stories about his coworkers and A-list friends, and – of course – a healthy dose of humor. The session was followed by a screening of Brooks’ latest film, 2011’s Drive.
As excited onlookers settled into their seats, the lights dimmed and the infamous opening prologue of 1983's Twilight Zone: The Movie played. The hilarious exchange between Brooks and Dan Aykroyd garnered plenty of laughs, and the creepy zinger at the end delivered.
With that, Brooks (along with a moderator) ascended the stage to animated applause. He was first asked why he decided to start his career in the comedy world.
“Well, I would suggest – if people want to get into comedy – name your kid Albert Einstein," he replied. "That was the name I was born with, so I learned early on to be defensive. The laughs sort of fell to me early.”
“I never wanted to do comedy,” he continued. “I was funny, but I didn’t want to do it for a living – I wanted to be an actor, I studied to be an actor – I did years of Summer Stock, then I came back to Los Angeles when I was like 20 and I couldn’t get any acting parts. So I had an agent who said, ‘Hey, I can get you these national television shows. You’re funny, be a comedian!” And five years later, I was doing three shows a night in Philadelphia.”
And how did Brooks make the leap from stand-up comedy to acting? It’s a very funny story.
“What sort of made me stop doing stand-up all together is that I opened once for Sly and the Family Stone,” he laughed. “So I’m in Seattle, and I go up there and the audience for him – it was like he was. They were just so loaded on every imaginable drug. And I’m supposed to go on at 7:30 and he’s supposed to go on at 8. And I’m in a little motel two blocks from this arena, and I swear to God at a quarter to 7 there’s a knock on my door and it’s his manager and he says to me, ‘How long do you do?’ And I said, ‘This is a tough audience, I dunno – 20 minutes.’ He said, ‘What’s the longest you can do?’ And I said, ‘Why?’ ‘Sly is in Ohio.’
The audience burst into laughter, and he continued, “I went out there and they threw beer bottles at me. My leg was bleeding! And that was it – I never did stand-up after that.”
To introduce the first clip, from Martin Scorsese's 1976 classic Taxi Driver, Brooks explained he landed this first acting gig because the director had seen him on television. As he set up his character, who works in a campaign office with Cybill Shepherd, he joked, “I liked her, she didn’t like me – a recurring theme for the rest of my life.”
After the scene, Brooks showcased his fantastic Taxi Driver-era Scorsese impression. “I kept asking Martie Scorsese, you know, like during a lunch break, ‘Do you think this movie’s going to be a big deal for me?’ [makes raspy, excited noises a-la Scorsese] Martie Scorsese was at the – he’s probably in better health now than he’s ever been – but at that time he lived in an inhaler. I mean, he just, you know [breathes in and out really fast].” The audience went wild.
The second scene featured Brooks as Goldie Hawn’s doomed newlywed husband in 1980’s Private Benjamin.
Of his small (but vital) role in the film, Brooks said, “Your agent says, ‘You want to fuck Goldie Hawn and die?’ The thing that I remember from that movie – it was the sweetest thing – is that Goldie Hawn’s mother, she came to every day of filming of the wedding, because I think she wanted Goldie to marry a Jew. And it was only going to happen in that movie. She cried every day!”
Around that same time, Brooks also began his foray into directing; he talked about balancing his duties behind and in front of the camera.
“I was getting all of these – from Dead Poets Society to Big to the Richard Gere part in Pretty Woman … but once you start making your own films and you start on that cycle where you have to raise the money … especially if you’re directing – and if you stop at any part, you lose the momentum, you can’t keep a crew … you’ve got to strike while the iron’s hot. So, there were lots of great calls that I could not have taken because it was most important to me to make my own movies.”
Luckily, Brooks' perhaps best-known role, that of Aaron Altman in 1987's Broadcast News, was offered to him between his own directorial projects Lost in America and Defending Your Life. He described how he met the film’s director/writer James L. Brooks at one of Rob Reiner and Penny Marshall’s Friday night gatherings, and how the director had him in mind for the part. He actually pitched the movie to the actor by saying, “Hey, I’ve got a great part where you don’t get the girl!”
While discussing the film’s “slice-of-life” authenticity when it came to journalism, and its status as a classic, Brooks cited his infamous on-camera scene, saying, “By the way, I didn’t see the debate last night but I’m on Twitter and this morning I signed on and there were like 600 people that said, ‘George Stephanopoulos is sweating just like Albert Brooks!’ So it, you know, it became an important movie.”
After showing the famed “I buried the lead” scene between Brooks and Holly Hunter, the moderator asked if he, Hunter and William Hurt got along as well off-screen.
“I don’t hang around with either of those people very much, seriously,” he responded. “I mean, Holly and I spent three weeks in Washington, we got CBS credentials, we went out in the field with Bob Schieffer, and that was an amazing experience. But once the film started – you know, the truth is that Holly’s falling in love with William Hurt. [laughs] Maybe they spent time together! Every time I called her she said she’d be right back!”
Of the fourth clip, from 1994’s I’ll Do Anything, in which Brooks played a no-nonsense Hollywood producer, he expounded upon the rumor that his role was modeled on Joel Silver. “I’m not legally allowed to say anything,” he said, coyly.
And when asked if he’s ever had any interaction with the person whom he can’t say he based the part on, Brooks said, “I think he hated me for like 14 years. I saw him a couple years ago at a Fourth of July party, and he was – you know – I said, ‘What, are you still angry?’ [mimics man’s response] ‘By the way, Jim [L. Brooks, director of I’ll Do Anything] has been doing very poorly.’ He liked Drive – we made up. It wasn’t really Joel, it’s – you know – it’s a producer. I just did what I was told.”
After playing the opening of 1994's The Scout, which Brooks co-wrote, he was very frank about his feelings regarding his struggles with the studio. “The thing I hate about that movie is the ending,” he divulged. “This is where you lose battles in Hollywood. Twentieth Century Fox made them put on a Rocky ending … and I was so upset. I yelled so much, I didn’t work at that studio for years. And I remember they tested it – they went to a complex, and they tested the ending we wrote and the Rocky ending in two theaters – they were running simultaneously. And you’re out in the lobby and you’re going, ‘I know it’s not gonna happen, but please make that other ending not do as well.’ And, you know, the bad ending won by eight points. And it was in the movie. And The New York Times, you know, they said it was good but why would Albert Brooks write such a corny ending?”
Brooks discussed being completely transformed by make-up before the next clip – a scene from 1997’s Critical Care – and went on to talk about director Sidney Lumet’s style.
“Sidney Lumet rehearsed for a three-week period, and then you were lucky to do more than one take,” Brooks said. He never wanted to do more than one take. That, to me, was so foreign. So you know, we’d finish it and he’d say, ‘Great everybody,” [Brooks mimics interrupting the director] ‘Wait wait wait wait wait – can I do it again?’ And he would say to the whole crew, 'Al-bert wants to do it again!' And then I got convinced that by the third take he wouldn’t even roll the camera. [laughs] But he told me ‘I’m mad as hell’ was one take, so I figured, all right, if that’s one take who am I to ask.”
After viewing his appearance in a prison scene from director Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 film Out of Sight, Brooks admitted, “I begged him for the Albert Finney role in Erin Brockovich, but I couldn’t get it. But he’s great! He uses all these pseudonyms … does his own cinematography, his own editing, his catering. [laugh]”
Of the last scene, from 2001’s My First Mister, Brooks lamented the bad luck that likely kept the film from being seen, saying, “I really liked this movie – it was a little schmaltzy at the end. But if you talk about timing – this movie came out a week after 9/11 in one theater across the street – what was the theater that had the anthrax scare? [audience member yells, ‘The Guild!’] So it came out in The Guild! It was an exclusive release in the theater that had the white powder. You just have to laugh at that.”
Those eight clips led to a discussion of director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, in which Brooks plays the key villain (and for which he won a National Society of Film Critics Best Supporting Actor Award the day before the Q&A).
In regard to finally playing a bad guy, Brooks said, “It took a Danish director to make that happen, because I know I have that side of me. I went after the – I think it was like the second Mission: Impossible that Philip Seymour Hoffman played. … I wanted that part, but I couldn’t convince an American director. But Nicolas Refn was Danish, and I don’t think he knew who I was. He said that when he was younger, he went and saw Lost in America and got scared when I yelled at Julie Hagerty. [does a Refn impression with accent] ‘You scared me to death!’ [switches back to his own voice] ‘Okay, good!’
“So I went to his house and we had a discussion and … I said, ‘Well you can cast one of the six people who always play this part, but then you’ll have a cliche movie and everybody will know what happens as soon as they come on screen.’ [mimics Refn voice] ‘Yes, I think that, too, I think so!’ And then before I left – he had this front door with this little foyer – and I thought, ‘Should I do this? It’s a cliche.’ And I thought, ‘No, I’m gonna do it.’ I pinned him up against the wall. [audience erupts into laughter] I grabbed his collar and I choked him. And I said very quietly, ‘I’m physically a very strong man, I just want you to know.’ Now the Danes are very white to begin with [laughter] – he turned clear.”
When asked about some of his particularly violent scenes in the film, Brooks said, “The truth is that Nicolas – he’s a 40-take guy. And none of that stuff is fun after twice. Because you’re covered in what they use for blood, which – I’d rather they use real blood – ‘cause whatever this is, the stuff doesn’t come off for days. And, you know, if you do it wrong you hurt a guy, and they want you to do it as hard as you can, and so you do that for three, four hours.”
Before closing, Brooks also divulged some information about his upcoming role in Judd Apatow’s This Is 40.
“I play Paul Rudd’s father,” Brooks said. “Which was, to me, the most difficult part I ever played in my life, because I just didn’t think of myself as having a 40-year-old child. My children are younger. And I kept saying to Judd, ‘You know, should I age?’ He humored me and I did this complete gray wig – it looked like Jeff Bridges with long hair.”