To The Top

People Magazine by PAM LAMBERT

Back in the summer of 1995, Albert Brooks began searching for a woman to play the title role in his new movie, Mother, a comedy about a middle-aged writer (Brooks) who, after two divorces, tries to straighten out his life by moving in with his mom. Doris Day turned him down, saying that at age 72 she was through with films. Nancy Reagan, 75, met with Brooks but felt she couldn’t spend the time away from her ailing husband. Then Brooks got the idea to ask Debbie Reynolds, 64, star of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and mother of his friend Carrie Fisher. After hearing her read one scene, recalls Reynolds, Brooks said, ” `You’ve got the part.’ I said, `Albert, you shouldn’t take me on just one scene. Shouldn’t I read two?’ And he said, `See, you’re bossing me around already.’ ”

No doubt about it: the casting clicked. Critics have embraced Mother, and the buzz in Hollywood is that Reynolds, who already has earned a Golden Globe nomination, may win an Oscar–her first–for a role that allows her to bare a steely edge beneath her famously perky exterior. Brooks, 49, has himself nibbled at the perimeter of fame–in two of the films he wrote and directed (1985’s Lost in America, with Julie Hagerty, and 1991’s Defending Your Life, with Meryl Streep) and in Broadcast News , for which he received a 1987 Oscar nomination. His cult status has held steady since 1979’s Real Life, a spoof of the Loud family chronicles on PBS. But Mother might just be the movie that catapults the filmmaker into the mainstream.

Not that he’d suddenly be carefree if that happened. Offscreen, Brooks can often seem even more prone to angst, overthinking and neuroses than his tortured movie persona. At times he appears one with his character from Broadcast News, the TV reporter who asked, “Wouldn’t this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive?” During interviews, Brooks frets about the tape recorder suddenly shutting off. (“You know, I’ve done them before and nothing got on the tape.”) On the set he can obsess. “He’s always worried that he will be treated second-best–that his trailer isn’t as nice as Bill Hurt’s,” says pal Polly Platt, a Broadcast News producer. “But he’s so open about it that he takes something that would be almost unbearable and he makes you laugh.”

Even Brooks’s eating habits are strange. Rob Reiner recalls watching Brooks devour a favorite meal of chicken soup and a turkey sandwich doused with ketchup. Says Reiner: “He would dip the sandwich into the soup, thereby dislodging a good portion of the ketchup into the soup. When you have a meal with Albert, you get stunt pay.”

Brooks’s life has been a comedy act since he came into the world with the name of Albert Einstein. His late father, Harry Einstein, comic Eddie Cantor’s zany sidekick, couldn’t resist the gag. As a youngster, Brooks competed for laughs at the dinner table with Dad and two older brothers–one of whom, Bob, went on to become daredevil comedian Super Dave Osborne. (Brother Clifford is an L.A. advertising executive.) “We all seized every opportunity to make humor out of what was going on,” says Bob Einstein. “I think my mom must have left the table an average of twice a month.”

When young Brooks announced his plans to go into showbiz, he remembers that his mom, Thelma, urged caution. “She used to say, `Have something to fall back on,’ ” says Brooks of his 85-year-old mother. “Fall back on?” he answered. “I’m the funniest kid in the class. Why do I have to fall back on anything?” Reiner agrees. “Albert was the only guy at age 16 who could make adults laugh,” says the director, who met Brooks more than 30 years ago at Beverly Hills High, where the budding comic appeared in school plays with classmate Richard Dreyfuss. “He’d come to our house, and my father [comedian Carl Reiner] would be convulsing from his routines.”

In 1968, Brooks dropped out of what is now known as Carnegie-Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, where he had spent two years on an acting scholarship, and took his shtick on the road. Rechristened Albert Brooks, he quickly became a regular on The Tonight Show and released two acclaimed comedy albums. By the mid-’70s he was hot enough that producer Lorne Michaels approached him about hosting a new show–Saturday Night Live. Brooks declined, agreeing instead to contribute a series of short films. “Fame isn’t the goal,” Brooks says, looking back on his decision. “It’s better to be known by six people for something you’re proud of than by 60 million for something you’re not.”

Despite his onscreen image as a loser at love, Brooks’s real-life leading ladies have included Linda Ronstadt, with whom he lived for two years in the ’70s. (“I was not a musician and she was not into what I did, but she thought I was cute.”) Brooks also dated Modern Romance costar Kathryn Harrold and his America spouse, Julie Hagerty. Last year mutual friends introduced the perennial bachelor to his soulmate: Kimberly Shlain, a 30-year-old artist and Web-site designer. Brooks readily imagines a cozy life together with Shlain and a couple of kids in his three-bedroom, Santa Fe-style home in the Hollywood Hills.

But even as he warms to the idea of family, he has his agonizing doubts. “The first thing you say when you get up every morning won’t be, `What am I going to do today?’ ” says Brooks. “Instead it will be, `Where’s Billy? Has he fallen in the pool?’ “