A bevy of Hollywood heavyweights were on hand Thursday night (June 6) to honor a comedic cinematic genius when the American Film Institute bestowed the 41st Life Achievement Award upon Mel Brooks.
At a private dinner at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood (the highlights of which will air on TNT on June 15), Billy Crystal, Cloris Leachman, David Lynch, Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro, Martin Short, Larry David, Carl Reiner, Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel were all on hand to toast the comedy legend.
Short opened the evening with a rousing song-and-dance performance incorporating melodies from Brooks’ films, interspersed with a monologue. “The word genius is used a lot in Hollywood, so I might as well call Mel one,” he joked.
O’Brien and Kimmel praised Brooks for not only being a paramount filmmaker, but also being the consummate late-night talk show guest, with Kimmel’s speech veering into a faux-eulogy. “We are going to miss you so much, Mel,” he teased. “You were one of the greats. Rest in peace, my friend.”
Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Whoopi Goldberg, Jerry Seinfeld and Gene Wilder all appeared in video segments praising Brooks, while also poking fun at the way he’d spoofed some of their films. Introducing a package of clips from “Blazing Saddles,” Eastwood waxed philosophic about the Hollywood western, before concluding, “This is what Mel Brooks did to it.” (Lucas and Spielberg followed suit for “Spaceballs” and “The History of the World: Part 1,” respectively.)
Martin Scorsese, a past recipient of the honor, presented Brooks with the award, placing him in the same category as the Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello.
“Mel has made his own tradition of greatness, and it’s that tradition — drawing from the past, honoring it, toying with it, vamping on it, extending it to places wise men, very funny men previously feared to go – that’s what we’re celebrating here and honoring tonight,” Scorsese said. “Mel has always made his own way, and he brought us all along for the joyride.”
In the end, it was Brooks’ night and when the legend accepted the award, he stole the show with a hysterical speech, even getting back at Kimmel. “I’m not gonna die,” he said, before vowing to appear on “Conan” next time as payback.
It wasn’t all jokes, though, as Brooks grew serious on his love of film. “Movies saved my life,” he said. “They rescued my soul. No matter what was bad or wrong, it could be wiped out on Saturday morning.”
“The 2013 AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Mel Brooks” will air on TNT on June 15 at 9 p.m. ET.