Here’s a list of some of the parts Albert Brooks has turned down over the years. Richard Gere’s role in ”Pretty Woman.” Tom Hanks’ in ”Big.” Billy Crystal’s in ”When Harry Met Sally”…. Lorne Michaels once offered him a job as the permanent host of ”Saturday Night Live,” but Brooks passed on that, too. Not that he has any regrets. Not one. Not for a minute. Well, maybe a few. ”There was a time when I was probably too cautious about my career,” Brooks concedes, carefully eyeing the slab of salmon a waiter has just deposited in front of him during lunch at a Beverly Hills bistro. ”Maybe I could have taken more chances. But, you know, when Garry Marshall came to me with ‘Pretty Woman,’ there was no Julia Roberts. It was just this silly script about a prostitute. And at the time I was offered ‘Big,’ I wanted to dig my teeth into a grown-up character. I didn’t want to play little kids. But I’m getting better at this sort of thing,” he says. ”I’m taking more chances.” So it seems. This month, Brooks will leap boldly into the mainstream with two of the most commercial films of his career. On May 23, he’ll hit theaters with his first 2,400-screen release, costarring with Michael Douglas in ”The In-Laws,” an update of the ’70s comedy about a doctor (originally played by Alan Arkin) whose new relation turns out to be a CIA agent. A week later, on May 30, another potential blockbuster will bring Brooks to the masses, or at least to tons of toddlers. He’ll be voicing the lead in ”Finding Nemo,” the latest digital ‘toon from Pixar (”Toy Story”; ”Monsters, Inc.”). Do the math, and Brooks will have a presence on some 5,500 screens, making him almost as hard to miss at the multiplex as that Neo guy.
Of course, Brooks, 56, hasn’t exactly been invisible until now. As a comic in the early ’70s, he became part of ”Tonight Show” history by getting Johnny Carson to laugh so hard he had to grab the curtain behind him to steady himself. He’s had some notable successes as an actor as well, like earning that Oscar nomination for his turn in 1987’s ”Broadcast News.” True, the six features he’s directed haven’t broken box office records, but they have won him a band of hardcore fans, including one named Stanley Kubrick (the two became phone pals for a while — but more on that unlikely pairing later).
”I think he’s a comic genius,” gushes Douglas, who pushed hard for Brooks’ casting. ”He wasn’t the only name to come up. A lot of bigger names were mentioned. I’ve been a fan of his for years, but not everybody in Hollywood is aware of what Albert can do.”
Here, then, is another list — a look at some of what Brooks has done over the years, along with his commentary on what it was like to do it.
TAXI DRIVER (1976) Martin Scorsese gave Brooks his first big-screen break, casting him as a campaign worker for the politician Travis Bickle wants to assassinate. ”The character wasn’t really written in the script,” Brooks remembers. ”So Marty and I sat in a hotel room with [screenwriter] Paul Schrader and worked it out. After we finished the movie, Schrader came up to me at the cast party and said, ‘I want to thank you. That was the only guy in the script I didn’t know.’ I said to him, ‘That’s the guy you didn’t know? You knew every pimp and murderer, but the guy who gets up and goes to work every day — him you didn’t know?”’
REAL LIFE (1979) Brooks made his directorial debut with a social satire predicting the rise of reality TV 20 years before it happened. ”It wasn’t that prescient. It was a comedy based on the [1973 PBS] TV show ‘An American Family.’ But it’s still amazing how much has come true from that movie. Even some of the technology has come true — except for those helmets we wore with the camera chips in them. Those haven’t happened yet.”
MODERN ROMANCE (1981) Brooks, directing again, cast himself as a neurotic film editor who repeatedly breaks up with his girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold) and then obsessively tries to reconcile. ”We had a test screening and it didn’t go well. The [studio heads] were angry. It was like I had shot a child. They called me in and read me the cards. ‘He’s got a good-looking girlfriend, a fast car — what’s his problem?’ They wanted to add a scene in which my character goes to a psychiatrist and explains what’s bothering him. But I honestly didn’t know what was bothering him. I was depressed, but then one day I was sitting at home and the phone rings. It’s Stanley Kubrick. He had seen the movie and wanted to know how I did it. That’s the first thing he said — ‘How did you make this movie? I’ve always wanted to make a movie about jealousy.’ I said to him, The guy who did ‘2001’ is asking me how I did something?”’