It's like a scene straight out of The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who also happens to have been one of James L. Brooks' favorite authors:
A young man — a boy, in this case — is living in a fourth-floor walk-up in New Jersey. It's a small two-bedroom apartment on a hill, a block away from the palisades. The boy was Brooks.
"You could look across from the window," he remembered, “which you can't do anymore, because they've built up the palisades. But I could stand at my window and see the skyline of New York. And I used to just stare forever. I don't know how many hours I spent just staring out the window at New York.”
Imagining the day when he might make something of himself in that fearsome, distant skyline?
"Right," said Brooks. "Someday you're going to lick me, New York!"
He laughed slightly, turning poignancy into a quip — which, in a way, is what James Brooks has done with his life, although the early years of this three-time Academy Award-winning, 12-time Emmy-winning master of comedy are better described as tragic, rather than poignant.
His father, Edward Brooks, abandoned the family just before James entered the world. He came back when the boy was one. Then he left again. Then he came back again. And left again. So it went until young Jim turned 12, when his father fled the family for good. Dorothy Brooks continued sending her husband's shirts to the laundry for six months just to pretend the guy was still at home, or coming back. Jim lay awake nights fretting that his father hadn't left enough money for his mom and sister to subsist on. Meanwhile, his mother heroically worked 60-hour-weeks as a saleswoman, bringing home not quite enough money to support the children. She suffered a stroke at 57 while waiting on a customer, and died. Her son, then 22 years old, has long maintained that his greatest regret in life was not being able to help his mother materially.
"My mother certainly held us together," said Brooks. “I was raised by women, because my mother and sister, Diane, who was eight years older, really raised me. So I was around women a lot, but my father, when he was home, used to take me with him to bars. So I used to be a kid at the corner of a bar, for hours on end, in a men's society. The one thing I never saw was an integrated male-female society.”
Given such a Dickensian upbringing, it's really small wonder that Brooks — who brought the world Taxi, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Lou Grant, and (with creator Matt Groening) The Simpsons — never permitted himself to feel successful until fairly recently in life.
"I didn't set out to become a great success. I just wanted to be self-supporting," the 57-year-old writer/director/producer said from his Gracie Films office (named after Gracie Allen, an idol). “It was too great a luxury to have that kind of agenda; too fanciful. It just became less difficult over the years in dealing with what was happening with me as real. In other words, I think about eight years ago I was able to say I was a writer without blushing and looking down.”
It's hard to imagine that someone with Brooks' resume ever had trouble thinking of himself as a writer. He's certainly had enough validation of his craft. This is the man, after all, who wrote (and produced and directed) the features Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News, two of the best-received films of the 1980s. It's even harder to imagine when you consider that writing has been a primary focus since he was a kid, dashing out stories to entertain his parents, or for his school paper.
"I always wrote," he said. “I must have been 14 or 15 when I started sending out short stories to magazines — The Saturday Evening Post and The New Yorker.” (He got some encouraging rejections.) “I remember one piece was a sort of ersatz P.G. Wodehouse piece. And another was the worst allegory ever written. I had just learned what ‘allegory’ meant, and I was afraid the editor wouldn't get it, so instead of writing ‘The End,’ I wrote, ‘End of an Allegory.’”
It was the beginning of an allegory that might be entitled, "How Not to Be a Public Relations Executive." Or a jeweler. At one point, Brooks was a student at New York University contemplating a future in public relations. ("I didn't know what it meant. I knew it included some writing. I dropped out.'') At another, he was working in a factory, making costume jewelry and putting buckles on belts. ("It lasted a week. I couldn't make bracelets the same size.")
His next job wasn't much more challenging: a CBS page in New York City. He presently filled in for a copyboy in the newsroom, however, and before long was pounding out radio news copy. Next, the young man went west to take a position in documentary film writing for David L. Wolper Productions in Hollywood, where he was promptly … laid off. This less-than-glorious rise took a fateful turn when he met a TV comedy writer at a party — and the writer got him his first big break: reworking a script for a TV comedy. The comedy: My Mother The Car. The writer: his future partner, Allan Burns.
Yes, it's true. My Mother the Car launched James Brooks — at least on an invaluable apprenticeship in the late '60s, when he wrote scripts for The Andy Griffith Show, That Girl, and Hey, Landlord. It was his work on That Girl, improbably enough, that afforded a shot at writing a pilot for — and ultimately creating — the first project he is proud enough to list on his press bio: Room 222. It edged out Sesame Street for a Best New Program Emmy (with help from his friend Burns, who wrote several episodes). Room 222, which involved an African-American teacher in a racially mixed high school, signified a growing trend in television toward more sophisticated premises. Television comedy, in particular, was about to change, and Brooks was to help define it.
"We came along just as the back was broken on high-premise comedy," he said. “In other words, The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres, and very fanciful shows about people who didn't have problems in the regular sense of the word … There was this one man, Bob Wood, who at the time was president of CBS, who just, with a stroke of a pen, suddenly just cancelled a bunch of top-10 shows! And he just changed the shape of comedy. I don't think he's very often given credit, but he just did that. And he put on All in the Family; he put on us.”
By "us," at this point, Brooks was referring to what is considered by many to be the greatest sitcom ever, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The writer had met Grant Tinker and his wife, Moore, well before the advent of MTM Productions, when he rented a Hollywood apartment from the couple years earlier. Tinker, head of program development at Fox when 222 was produced, told Brooks he had a commitment for a series starring Moore, and asked if he and Burns would like to create it. (The normally modest Tinker once allowed himself to tell an interviewer that pairing them up was "a stroke of genius.")
It was the beginning of the most productive period of Brooks' life, and possibly, he'll tell you, the happiest. Not only did Mary give people a good reason to stay home on Saturday nights, but it gave Brooks the kind of creative free reign he had long sought — presaging a remarkable stint in TV that led to Rhoda, Lou Grant, and Taxi. He speaks about the period with unabashed wistfulness:
“TV was my college, it was my everything, it was my community … I still tell everybody that there's no better job on earth than doing a half-hour show that's working. The self-expression, the impact, you know, the sense of completion, community — it's just sort of remarkable. The inmates do run the asylum, period. Once a series is working, everybody backs away and you really run your universe. Next to novels — and I guess it's no longer true of novels — this is the place where a writer gets to run his show.”
Much of Brooks' writing drew from his past. His mom was fond of telling a famous family story about getting a fit of the giggles at a funeral. This became what was chosen by TV Guide as the best sitcom episode in history, Chuckles Bites the Dust, the Mary show in which Mary gets the giggles at a clown's funeral. An incident where young Jim went to visit his father in the hospital and mistook a cadaverous man for the long absent pater familias turned up in an episode of Taxi. Brooks' reluctance to spend money informed the Ted Baxter character on Mary. But Brooks is also adept at spontaneous invention:
"Jim is the single most instinctive person I've ever worked with," said his MTM partner, Burns. “He has this visceral thing about comedy, this fertile comedy mind. He leaps out of his chair when he's looking at something that's not working with ideas about how to make it work, and pitching 16 ideas at once, just to get it rolling. He just has these bursts of energy that are a little scary.”
Mike Reis, who helped put The Simpsons on the air, once told Time of such a moment. Writers were stuck for jokes in a Simpsons episode in which Homer works for Apu at the Kwik-E Mart: Jim said, "Oh, great, and Apu will say, 'There are only two phrases you have to know, I assure you: “that is the full-size box of com flakes" and "shoot if you must, I don't know the combination to the safe.””
It was during the halcyon MTM years that Brooks took to hanging out with a lot of other funny people — including Albert "No Relation" Brooks, who would eventually star in two James Brooks films — at the San Fernando Valley home of Rob Reiner and Brooks' dear friend, Penny Marshall, whom he first met when she read for a part on Room 222.
"Jim used to come to the house a lot," Marshall remembered. “Everyone was preoccupied with work, but also were lighter of heart and spirit. We laughed more than people do now; we weren't as frightened. Maybe because we didn't realize you're ahead while you're going through it. As a writer, Jim was more into ensemble work, and he wrote women better than anyone. He wasn't afraid of his emotions — he just gave them to girl characters. He still writes women great. Look at his movies, like Terms of Endearment. Between my brother (Garry Marshall) and Jim, I was encouraged to direct, do anything. Without their encouragement, I wouldn't have done anything. Jim was a mentor.”
Later, when Marshall was doing Laverne & Shirley and Brooks was doing Taxi on the Paramount lot, Marshall would sometimes call on her mentor to critique the run-throughs. They had become almost brother-and-sister close; he’s someone she can talk to about "ups and downs, fears … " She once phoned him while he was in the middle of shooting Broadcast News to seek some pearls of wisdom, and inadvertently provoked hilarity. “I said, ‘Do you ever get worried you've lost your instincts?’ prompting Brooks to erupt, ‘How could you say that to me in the middle of shooting! That's not the kind of thing you tell a person who's shooting a movie!’”
If Brooks is stingy with self-confidence, and stubborn about allowing himself to feel secure in his work, he is also stubborn about persevering. Terms of Endearment was rejected by almost every studio in town before he got a go-ahead. Lesser men would have bailed.
"I don't have that move in me," he said. “I don't have that choice. I get pretty obsessed with something. I always think that it's an illusion that you're serving yourself and living your own career. You end up just enslaving yourself to a piece of work, and it won't let you go. Sometimes you wish it would.”
One piece of Brooks' work that he didn't mind being enslaved to was Taxi. "We really appreciated how good we had it," he said. “They were just great times. You know, some of the ‘Latka’ [Andy Kaufman] shows were just so great to do because you got to invent a religion, invent customs, etc. The Reverend Jim was a character where we had permission to do almost jazz riffs, and that was great fun to write. You learned so much just from hanging with the actors every week. And we were passionate about that show. We were cancelled, and Grant (Tinker) picked us up for NBC, and we got an extra year out of it.”
There were "failures." The Associates, starring Martin Short and Joe Regalbuto, lasted 13 episodes. The Tracey Ullman Show, which some critics called revolutionary and brilliant (and Brooks called "off-Broadway" TV) wasn't around long — but gave birth to The Simpsons, which started out as a 25-second Ullman bumper.
"The Simpsons was on-the-job training," said Brooks. “I was working with people who had done animated shows, but I had never done it. And it became so wonderful. I was enormously active with the show for the first three years, and I still keep a hand in. The great thing that happened with The Simpsons, and that happens with any show that's working, is that when you hit one out of the park, you have a chance to have a classic, classic episode. The Simpsons has a whole collection of those.”
Yes, the man has had some daunting moments. His very worst, he'll tell you, was during the previews of I'll Do Anything, at the time a musical feature starring Nick Nolte. Audiences flatly rejected it as a musical, and Brooks had to frantically recut, minus songs. Remarkably, it then received excellent notices. His best moment? This is a surprise — or perhaps not, given the complex, unpredictable Brooks psyche:
"I think my best moment was the pilot of The Associates, strangely," he said. "Because the show had been impossible all week. And then the pilot went incredibly well at the last possible moment, with changes made all the time. There was just, this moment."
Another kind of best moment came during the MTM years, when the young writer met and married his wife, Holly, in an encounter that plays right out of a light romantic comedy:
“We were flying from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, and I just walked back and I saw her. And I think I said something amazingly clever, like ‘Cleaning out your purse, huh?’ And then, just a half hour later, we were holding hands and I was saying ‘I feel like we're on our way to Hawaii on our honeymoon.’ And x-number of years later, we were.”
X-number of years later, they have four kids: Amy, Chloe, Cooper and Joseph. Nowadays, Brooks seems to have permanently left behind the hands-on daily grind of TV work in favor of features (he's just finishing his next, Old Friends, starring Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, and Greg Kinnear, which he wrote/produced/directed.) In his off-hours, he is found with family "doing slobber time, which I'm real good at," at home in Malibu, or maintaining a lifelong love affair with books. ("Reading," he said, "saves my life sometimes.") Of being inducted into the Hall of Fame, the big-time sports fan (and not-too-successful child baseball player) once again turned a touching moment into a quip: "Being in a hall of fame? It makes me feel athletic," he said, "for the first time in my life."
Oh, and there's one more place you are apt to find James L. Brooks. Every once in a while, just to clear his head and get some writing done, he leaves L.A. and heads east to an apartment on the upper west side of a city he used to stare at from that New Jersey walk-up window, long ago. Of course, from the window of this apartment, he can't see that fearsome, distant New York City skyline. He's part of it, now.
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating James L. Brooks's induction in 1997.