One of the more interesting things about Albert Brooks is that he has been in the public eye since 1967 and in all that time has done only nine films. Four of them he wrote and directed himself.
So how come? Why don't we see more of Brooks on the big screen? For that matter, why don't we see more of Brooks on the small screen?
"Well," he said, 'I've done four of my own films in 12 years, and it takes a lot of time. I put about four years of creativity into the first three. At the same time, I put in four years of sitting in hotels listening to people who said they were interested and were not.
"I suppose I could make more films as an actor, but most of them are about cops," he said. "I guess I could have played Arnold Schwarzenegger's pal in a movie. I've gotten my share of summer-movie offers, but others protect me from that."
The newest Albert Brooks movie (he wrote, directed and stars in it) is "Defending Your Life," a comedy in which he is an ad man who dies when he runs his car into an oncoming bus.
He doesn't, however, go to heaven. Instead, he goes to a kind of pre-heaven station, Judgment City, where he discovers he must defend his life. He must prove in a courtroom that he acted with courage during his lifetime. If he wins his case, he will be allowed to move on to the next heavenly station where, presumably, there will be more tests.
"The idea came to me over a number of years," he said. "My
father died when I was 12, so I had a head start on wondering
about where people go. Death is going to happen to everybody, and so many life-after-death films are about clouds and wings. I felt I wanted to do something else, and this is it, a movie that contains bits and pieces of my life.
"I began working on it three years ago. The script was 300 pages long. It was like a book. Of course, I was doing other things at the same time. 'Broadcast News,' one of them. It's sort of like sperm. One idea gets through and gets the egg."
In "Defending Your Life," when the ad man gets to Judgment City, he meets a girl, played by Meryl Streep, who is something of an imp, a characterization a bit removed from other roles Streep has played.
So how did Brooks get her to do his film? How does a man who has done only four of his own films in 12 years manage to land one of Hollywood's most popular stars?
"Well, she and Carrie Fisher are friends," said Brooks. "Carrie thought we might get along so she arranged a dinner to which she invited both of us, and when we met, I told Meryl about the film I was planning.
"She asked if there was a part in it for her, and I said, yeah, sure, Streep wants to do a part in my film. Then I said, hey, wait, there is a role, if you're interested. She said she was, and that was it. Meryl seems unapproachable, but she is remarkably approachable. She's a regular person. She is really very funny funny."
Brooks' father was Harry Einstein, the radio comedian who was known as Parkyakarkus. Einstein had four sons. "I'm the youngest, so I don't fit in anywhere," said Brooks, who was named Albert by his father, maybe as a joke.
It wasn't, however, to Brooks, who changed his name when he got into college. "I got a lot of heat on that, so I changed it," he said. "I changed it to Brooks because the name was in the family and because Finney was already taken.
"I was funny as a kid. I was told that the first words that came out of mouth were a joke. I was always curious. I never accepted things."
Brooks was introduced to the television audience in 1967 when he did "The Steve Allen Show." That was followed by appearances on "The Dean Martin Show," "The Ed Sullivan Show," "Hollywood Palace" and "The Tonight Show."
Sometimes, he worked with a frog, a trick frog that would do no tricks, no matter how much Brooks coached it.
Brooks' first film was the 1976 "Taxi Driver," and that was followed by "Private Benjamin," in which he was Goldie Hawn's husband for one night. Parts in "Twilight Zone" and "Unfaithfully Yours" and "Broadcast News" followed, and then there were the three (now four) "Brooks movies."
"I prefer to do them myself because if I hand the scripts to someone else, they won't be what I want them to be," said Brooks. "I do it for a reason.