What, Him Worry?

Tea Leoni, Adam Sandler, ...
Image credit: Spanglish: Bob Marshak

That enough character conflict for you? Not for Brooks. He also percolates a romantic triangle up through the simmering feuds. Dutiful father and husband John Clasky (Adam Sandler) is a chef who has just been declared the best in the country. He feels an instant bond with Flor because she's a great parent, yet he wants to be loyal to his own patience-trying wife, who's not the best with kids. Who'll prove true and who won't? ''Being moral,'' says Brooks, warming to the movie's ethical conundrums, ''is living with the danger of being immoral and passing the test.''

Judging from semi-finished scenes Brooks unspools in his editing room, audiences and critics are in for a big surprise at Sandler's dramatic chops as père Clasky, a character by turns touching, funny, and heartbreaking. (High point: John looks his troubled spouse in the eye and says, with no trace of humor, ''You are a terrible wife.'') Brooks thought of hiring Sandler after seeing him in Punch-Drunk Love and says the kid-loving guy you see on screen in Spanglish is more the real Sandler than the angry doofuses he's played in lowbrow hits like The Waterboy. ''Once in a while, the thing you love about a guy on screen is true of him in life,'' says Brooks. ''Jack Nicholson is that interesting and unpredictable. And Adam, he's one of the best guys I've ever met.... One of the best sons, brothers, friends. You want to take notes, because of the way he conducts himself.... Adam is somebody who, when you wonder why he's happy that day, it's because his mother's coming to visit.''

Jim Brooks lost his own mom when he was 22 years old and she was 57, from a sudden stroke. He lost his father, in a sense, before he was born: Mr. Brooks senior abandoned Mrs. Brooks when he learned she was pregnant with their second child. He took off, later sending a postcard saying ''If it's a boy, name him Jim.'' Is it any wonder pain informs this guy's sensibility?

Brooks dabbled in newswriting and documentaries after dropping out of NYU, eventually migrating to L.A. He became a freelance comedy writer, scoring gigs on My Mother the Car and The Andy Griffith Show. Anybody out there remember his first work as a series creator, Room 222? The 1969-74 high school comedy-drama featured My Big Fat Greek Wedding's grumpy dad, Michael Constantine. From there, Brooks scored The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and he never had to think about talking cars again.

What Brooks found in series TV was more than a place to hone punchlines. He made the medium a playground for his amazing ability to dream up prickly personalities and put them in funny-thorny situations beyond the normal comfort zone — or reality level — of most shows. (Go ahead, try naming a hit half-hour sitcom before Mary Tyler Moore that was built around supporting characters as believably unlikable as egomaniac anchorman Ted Baxter, insecure landlady Phyllis Lindstrom, or sex-crazed Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens.) ''He would go further than anybody,'' says Judd Hirsch, who anchored Taxi as genial driver Alex for five seasons. ''He would think of the most embarrassing situations you could imagine in human life, and allow it to happen on stage. He would dare to write it.'' Prime example: an episode in which Alex goes to visit his estranged father in the hospital and winds up having a heart-to-heart with the wrong patient. ''Jim eventually told me that [the situation] came from his own life,'' says Hirsch. ''I was shocked...[but] that's one of the funniest things that happened on that show.''

As Brooks moved into feature films post-Taxi, his gift for darker-tinged tragicomedy took wing. How did he spin his longer, two-hour scenarios after all those years in the TV grind? According to Albert Brooks, a friend since the early 1970s (and, despite the name thing, no relation), it seemed to start with lots and lots of phone calls. ''He would call and just talk about what was going on in his brain,'' says the man who shvitzed us a river as a flop-sweat-plagued wannabe anchorman in Broadcast News. ''A lot of times [it would also] be about the part, so it would kill two birds with one stone.'' As Albert remembers it, the big sweating scene was inspired by a perspiration-soaked real-life CNN newsreader he happened to see in the wee hours one morning. He told Jim — and into the script it went.


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