Actor and comedian Albert Brooks plays a murderous Los Angeles gangster in "Drive," an action film noir that opens in theaters Friday and stars Ryan Gosling as a seedy stunt driver. But Brooks jokes that he thinks his acting role this year -- as actor Paul Rudd's father in Judd Apatow's upcoming comedy, "This Is Forty" -- is more of a stretch.
After Apatow called him and asked him to consider the role, Brooks says he told the director, "No one is going to believe me as that, Judd. Paul Rudd and I look like brothers. 'No, people will believe you,' OK, well, let's make an old gray wig and I'll limp. 'No, don't do that.'"
Brooks is 64, but he seems more active than ever, with new films and his first novel, "2030." Rolling Stone's Peter Travers writes that "Brooks' performance, veined with dark humor and chilling menace (watch him with a blade), deserves to have Oscar calling."
"Drive" is a real departure from the funny man's typical role, with scenes full of engines roaring down open highway stretches, sleazy apartments and blood-stained shirts. Brooks plays Bernie Rose, a Jewish gangster.
"I'm not a bad guy until I'm forced to be a bad guy, but I'm capable of doing dangerous things," he said of the role. "Things that I've never been asked to do in a film before."
It's an unusual choice for Brooks, known primarily for making people laugh, whether as a stand-up comedian or in various roles as everyman neurotics in "Lost in America" (1985), "Defending Your Life" (1991) and "Mother" (1996), all of which he wrote and directed.
He's played a fish -- Nemo's dad, Marlin -- in Pixar's "Finding Nemo" and, of course, most iconically, he played TV news reporter Aaron Altman on the losing end of the style vs. substance struggle in the acclaimed 1987 film, "Broadcast News," for which he was nominated for a best supporting actor Academy Award.
Born Albert Einstein in Beverly Hills, Calif., Brooks had comedy in his blood. Father Harry was well known for his Greek-babbling radio character Parkyakarkus, appearing on Eddie Cantor's radio show and in films. His brother Bob Einstein -- also known as "Super" Dave Osborne -- plays Marty Funkhouser on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
Brooks' dad died when he wasn't yet 12, but he recalls learning the lesson that comedy can be a living. Most importantly, he remembers laughing.
"I remember dinner tables where my dad was doing silly things with his food to make my brothers and I laugh," Brooks said. "My mother was very upset. As opposed to both parents going, 'Stop it!', one parent was doing it. And so that sort of makes you somewhere in your mind go, 'Oh, you can do this and get away with it.'"
Brooks insists that the "Bernie Rose" character wasn't a stretch for him; he was trained as a serious actor, studying drama at Carnegie Mellon, but he found it tough to find work early on.
"I had an agent who said, 'Look, you get on the 'Steve Allen Show' doing comedy, you'll get all the acting you want,'" Brooks said. "Of course, five years later, I was in a club in St. Louis, it was snowing into my hotel room and I hadn't gotten any acting jobs. I'd just gotten more comedy. So he wasn't quite accurate."