Psst! Albert Brooks Isn't Kin to Mel Except in Comedy—he Was Born, and Sort of Is, An Einstein
04/16/1979 at 01:00 AM EST
He came into the world a one-liner—Albert Einstein—the son of Harry Einstein, who played the radio comic Parkyakarkus. By 19 he had changed and begun to make his own name—Albert Brooks—on a Steve Allen TV show. On Saturday Night Live he created The Three of Us, a prescient parody of a TV series about a guy living with two girls—an idea that later found flesh in Three's Company. Charles Grodin declares Brooks "a national treasure." And Albert's old girlfriend Linda Ronstadt has said that Brooks "turned me into a human being." "That's right," Albert confides. "When I first met her she was a Volvo. I said, 'Linda, as a car you're not going to work out.' "
The two are still close but also didn't work out. "I'm on a slower kind of track," explains Brooks, too modestly. He's currently, at 31, director-writer-star of the devastating movie spoof Real Life. Playing an obsequious documentary filmmaker, Brooks worms himself and a TV crew into the home of a Phoenix veterinarian (Grodin) and his wife (Frances Lee McCain). Recording their every move—the wife's trip to the gynecologist, the husband's fatal act of malpractice on a prize horse, as well as his own meddlesome participation—Brooks' cinema hilarité draws the highest possible praise: a yelp of protest from Pat Loud.
Mrs. Loud is, of course, the former California housewife whose marital crackup and son's homosexuality were exposed nationally in PBS' 12-week 1973 sociological study An American Family. "It's all being dredged up because of Real Life," complains Pat. (For what's happened to the Louds, see following story.) Her son Grant did like the movie, though, and in any case Brooks, an unfailingly humane satirist, counters: "The film isn't about the Louds. The first question their lawyer asked when he called was, 'Are there any homosexuals in this picture?' That's where their heads were at."
Albert came from a histrionic California household himself. His mother was singer Thelma Leeds. "Obviously," he recalls, "there was a lot of shtick going on in our house. I was the class clown, the school clown, the city clown, the clown of the year. I guess many people thought of me as a clown." That was a distinction because his Beverly Hills High crowd included Rob Reiner, "Ricky" Dreyfuss ("No, maybe I shouldn't call him Ricky. Richard Dreyfuss. Dr. Richard Dreyfuss," jokes Brooks) and Joey Bishop's son Larry.
"We'd say, 'Albert, you're funny. What you do best is make people laugh,' " remembers Reiner (Brooks' roommate before he married Penny Marshall). "But Albert wanted to be a serious actor." Even after rechristening himself (he claims "the real Albert Einstein changed his name to sound more intelligent") and dropping out of Carnegie Tech's drama school, Brooks half resisted the comedy route. "It meant Vegas, opening act, lounge. It just didn't have any dignity." But by the time the issue came to a crunch in 1974, Brooks had become a TV variety and talk show standby (more than 25 appearances on Tonight) and was on a promo tour for his first album, Comedy Minus One. "I was doing an interview in Boston with a disc jockey who said, 'Jonathan Winters went crazy; you think that's going to happen to you?' and I said, 'It's happening right now.' "
Returning to L.A. abruptly mid-tour, he met Ronstadt at a party. "I was going with Linda just before big things started happening for her," says Albert. "We liked each other because we had the same fear of performing." They were together two years, under the same roof for one.
His career slumped momentarily, but then Brooks regrouped for a straight dramatic role as the campaign manager in the movie Taxi Driver and won a Grammy nomination for his second album, A Star Is Bought. He still drives a Honda Civic and lives in a rented two-bedroom place off Benedict Canyon that lacks pool, pets or plants. "His place is all mechanical equipment like cassette machines," says Real Life co-writer Monica Johnson, one of the few to penetrate Albert's privacy. "He's got one egg in the refrigerator, laundry all over. It's kind of sad—this genius roaming around in a cave. I looked in his closet once," she continues, "and there are two plaid shirts, a plaid bathrobe and a clown suit. It's a very arresting sight."
Secretive (even his friends don't know the occupation or last name of the lady named Bonnie he's dated for two years) and solitary ("Sometimes I don't get out of bed all day"), he doesn't smoke, drink or eat meat. "I'm a bland freak," he says. "I love bland foods." According to Real Life producer Penelope Spheeris, "He is not a happy person. The damn thing about Albert is that he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders." Spheeris, who worked previously with Lily Tomlin and Richard Pryor, says that's "because comedians are quite a bit brighter than other actors—they're the thinkers of this business."
"Nobody would ever take comedy seriously before," observes Brooks, adding, "I think the term 'comedian' has come up in the world in the last five or six years." Indeed, along with Lily and Richard, Woody Allen, Steve Martin, not to mention his old Saturday Night colleagues, Brooks is one of the reasons.