LOS ANGELES — Robert De Niro and Morgan Freeman never worked with Mel Brooks, and the Oscar winners came to a ceremony in his honor to let him know they resent it.
Brooks received the American Film Institute’s 41st Life Achievement Award on Thursday, and Freeman and De Niro were among a galaxy of stars who paid tribute to the man behind Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and The Producers.
DeNiro asked whether there was a casting-couch process he could participate in, and Freeman quipped, “I’ve never even been on the same bus as Mel Brooks.” Still, they thanked him for the decades of laughs.
Martin Short opened the program with a song-and-dance routine set to a medley of melodies from Brooks’ films.
“The word genius is used a lot in Hollywood, so I might as well call Mel one,” Short said.
Billy Crystal, Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Cloris Leachman, David Lynch, Larry David, and Carl Reiner also honored the 86-year-old filmmaker at a private dinner at the Dolby Theatre that had the energy of a good-natured roast.
“We are going to miss you so much, Mel,” Kimmel said. “You were one of the greats. Rest in peace, my friend.”
David blamed Brooks for his idle years as an aspiring comedian.
“Mel Brooks didn’t get me into comedy, he kept me away from it,” David said, recalling how he was intimidated by Brooks’ talent. “I spent years doing nothing because of him.”
Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Whoopi Goldberg, and Gene Wilder were among those lauding Brooks via video.
“I don’t think there’s any man anywhere who’s like you,” Wilder said. “I love you, Mel.”
Silverman and Reiner also pledged their love to Brooks.
“I hail you, king Kaminski,” Reiner said, using Brooks’ real surname.
Past recipients of the AFI honor include Elizabeth Taylor, Kirk Douglas, Eastwood, Spielberg, Lucas. and Martin Scorsese, who presented Brooks with his award.
Scorsese put the Oscar and Tony-winning talent 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.”
Brooks was almost all comedy as he claimed his prize. He directed an expletive at Kimmel, declaring, “I’m not gonna die.”
But he dropped the funny stuff to thank the institute for recognizing him and to share his lifelong 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.”
TNT will broadcast highlights from the ceremony as a TV special June 15.