Mel Brooks, director, producer, writer and actor, is in an elite group as one of the few entertainers to earn all four major entertainment prizes: the Tony, Emmy, Grammy, and Oscar. His career began in television writing for Your Show Of Shows and together with Buck Henry creating the long-running tv series Get Smart.
He then teamed up with Carl Reiner to write and perform the Grammy-winning 2000 Year Old Man comedy albums and books. Mel won his first Oscar in 1964 for writing and narrating the animated short The Critic, and his second for the screenplay of his first feature film, The Producers, in 1968.
Many hit comedies followed, including The Twelve Chairs, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie, High Anxiety, History Of The World Part I, To Be Or Not To Be, Spaceballs, Life Stinks, Robin Hood: Men In Tights, and Dracula: Dead And Loving It. His film company, Brooksfilms Limited, also produced such critically acclaimed pictures as The Elephant Man, The Fly, Frances, My Favorite Year, and 84 Charring Cross Road.
For three successive seasons, 1997-1999, Brooks won Emmy Awards for his role as “Uncle Phil” on the hit sitcom Mad About You. He received three 2001 Tony Awards and two Grammy Awards for The Producers: The New Mel Brooks Musical, which ran on Broadway from 2001 to 2006.
The Producers still holds the record for the most Tony Awards ever won by a Broadway musical. He followed that success with The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein, which ran on Broadway from 2007 to 2009, and both musicals continue to be performed and enjoyed by audiences all over the world.
In 2009, Mel received The Kennedy Center Honors, recognizing a lifetime of extraordinary contributions to American culture. His most recent projects include the Emmy-nominated HBO comedy special Mel Brooks And Dick Cavett Together Again, a follow-up HBO special Mel Brooks Strikes Back! and a career retrospective DVD box set titled The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection Of Unhinged Comedy.
Here, he talks about Mel Brooks: Make A Noise, an American Masters profile chronicling his illustrious career. The PBS special premiered May 20. This month, Mel will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Film Institute at a gala tribute airing on TNT.
Hello, Mr. Brooks. I’m honored to have this opportunity to speak with you.
Thank you, Kam. Hey, what the hell is Kam short for?
It’s short for Kamau, an African name.
I’m so sorry to hear that. I thought it might be short for my last name, Kaminsky. I was hoping you just took my last name and shortened it to become part of the family.
No, I took the name back in the ‘70s during my brief career as a jazz musician. You started out as a jazz musician too, right?
I did, I did. We were both jazz musicians, so it’s like we already know each other. In the early ‘40s, before I went off to World War II, I was in a little five-piece group that played at those Borscht Belt resorts in the Catskill Mountains. One night, the comic at the Butler Lodge got sick, and his boss, Pincus Cohen, begged me to perform in his place. I told him, “That name is redundant. Pincus and Cohen, you don’t need ‘em both. We know you’re a Jew.” (Laughs) He said, “I’ve watched you doing rehearsals. I can tell you’re a funny guy.” I knew all those dopey jokes, so I went up on stage, and that’s how I got into comedy. I was only about 15 at the time.
I’ve been to the Catskills a couple times. Do you remember the Nevele?
The Nevele! It’s still there. That was a big place, a real hotel, not like the bungalows that Jews rented for the whole summer. In Yiddish, those cottages were called “kuchalein,” which translates to “cook alone,” meaning you do your own cooking. Those places always had a little playhouse that would seat about 200 people. So, I’d get booked to play them for around 50 bucks, which was a pretty good salary for one night.
Where did you get the inspiration to make a musical comedy about Adolf Hitler? And how did you manage to get backing for a picture as bold as The Producers?
Those are two good questions. I kinda backed into the number “Springtime For Hitler.” I worked for a guy who lived in his office. He wasn’t supposed to. But he had laundry hanging, a hotplate to make coffee, and he slept on the couch. I can’t tell you his name because he has grandchildren. But he was a great guy.
I was like [the character] Leo Bloom. I had a job working 15 hours a day for him, doing anything he needed. For instance, I put cards in barbershop and other store windows advertising Tito Guizar, a Mexican balladeer, who periodically played Town Hall. That’s where I got this story. He would raise more money than he needed to put on off-off Broadway plays, and he’d keep some of it to live on.
Let’s say the play cost $2,500 to produce. He’d raise $3,000 and, if it did okay, he’d skim the difference off the top for living expenses. I once asked him, “Why don’t you put on a $100,000 play and raise $1,000,000? You know every little old lady in New York. You could get the money.” He used to screw wealthy widows on the cracked leather couch in his office. True story. He was just like Zero Mostel’s character.
You know what he said to me? “You’re going to go places. I don’t think that big.” But that was the seed of an idea for a play. And then I backed into Hitler after I asked myself, “What if somebody did do that, raised a million for a $100,000 play?” It would have to be a flop, because if it were a hit, they could never pay all those backers off. There came the idea that you can make more money with a flop than with a hit.
Then I had to figure out what would be a surefire flop, and I brainstormed for days and days until I came up with Hitler. I thought, “Nobody’s going to stand up and cheer for Hitler, especially not in New York with so many Jews.” When I realized a scene of just him with his generals wouldn’t be festive enough, I decided it had to be a musical. And that’s when I wrote the song “Springtime For Hitler.”
Bobby says: You married one of the most brilliant actresses of the 20th century, Anne Bancroft. Is there a biopic in the works? Or at least a behind-the-scenes documentary about her outstanding performances in The Miracle Worker and The Graduate?
So far, no. To be honest, Bobby, it’s certainly still too painful for me to be involved with it at all.
Ray says: Hey Mel, how did you land such a beautiful wife? Was it your charm or your humor?
I don’t know. I once asked her that. She said, “I never encountered anybody with so much energy. It’s daunting just to be with you.” When we were first married, she was a star and I was nobody. I had been writing for Sid Caesar’s Your Show Of Shows, which became Caesar’s Hour. Lawrence Welk was on at the same time and, strangely enough, he got the ratings, and we went off the air in 1959.
So, I was basically out of work for a couple of years when I met Anne on February 5, 1961. She was on The Perry Como Show, and I was collaborating on a Broadway musical called All American with Charles Strouse, the great composer who wrote the music for Bye Bye Birdie, Annie and All In The Family. I wrote the book, and he wrote the score. I thought it was a pretty good show but it never really made it.
Anyway, he was playing piano for Anne at The Actors Studio where she was presenting a song as Eliza Doolittle from My Fair Lady, and he invited me to accompany him to a dress rehearsal. She came out on stage in a beautiful white dress. She was gorgeous! My tongue was hanging out. When she finished, I shouted out, “Hey Anne Bancroft! I’m Mel Brooks. I think I love you.” Everybody stopped and looked, and I ran over to her and we talked. She said, “I have your new record. You’re a genius!” referring to the 2000 Year Old Man comedy album Carl Reiner and I had just released.
Afterwards, she said she had to go somewhere, and I made believe I had to go there, too. For the next week, I would find out from friends what restaurants, clubs and theaters she’d be frequenting, and I’d show up, and ask, “What is this, Kismet?” until she finally said, “Okay, you can stop the BS. Let’s hang out together.” It was all good. We were literally in love and together from that day until she passed away on June 6 in 2005. We had a nice, long run.
Harriet says: How did Anne speak to and influence your projects?
Harriet, she was incredible right from the first time I met her. I was writing The Producers. She immediately became my sounding board. I didn’t trust anybody else. I’d write something and show it to her. Then she’d mark it up with “This is brilliant!” or “Never let this go!” and once in a while she’d say, “This stinks!” (Chuckles) She was really responsible for getting the best out of me, like the trainer of a racehorse.
Jimmy says: Mel, what made your marriage sizzle for so many years?
I can’t, Jimmy. What is it, magic? Magnetism? Meant to be? Who the hell knows! We were very lucky. Fate may have had a hand in it.
Jamaal says: Do you have any plans to do some new 2000 Year Old Man skits?
Thank you for that question, Jamaal. However, I’ve become the 2000 Year Old Man now, and I have a 2000 Year Old Man brain. When I originally wrote it, I was in my 30s. I was young, and hip, and smart, and could think fast. I’m no longer there. Things have slowed-up incredibly. Synaptic connections are taking me to strange places in my brain. I think I probably could eke out one more. Carl, who recently turned 91, is hot to trot, but I’m not sure.
Bernadette asks: What was the hardest film to shoot because of laughing breaking out on the set?
Blazing Saddles was pretty damn funny. The crew was constantly cracking up and ruining takes. So, finally, I sent my assistant to Woolworths to buy a thousand white handkerchiefs. I gave one to everybody on the set. I told them, “If you feel like laughing at something, you stick one of these in your mouth, bite on it, and laugh through it.” Anytime I wasn’t sure whether a scene was working or not, I’d look over my shoulder, and if I saw a lot of white handkerchiefs, I’d know it was funny. That became my litmus test. The crew’s laughing could’ve ruined the picture, Bernadette, but we saved it with the white handkerchiefs. It also turned out to be a great way to test to see if something was funny.
Roger Klein says: You are a great filmmaker. You are to movies what the Rolling Stones are to rock and roll.
I was never recognized as a movie director, Roger. Never! They always talk about my being a great writer and comic, and an important producer. But I’ve never been saluted as a filmmaker, except by a few colleagues like Alfred Hitchcock. He once said to me, “Nobody appreciates your directing skills. High Anxiety is brilliant! The back lighting!” He thought of me as a wonderful director, but no one else did.
Did it bother you?
I never really got that upset about it because I was doing what I wanted to do. If you can do what you want to do in this life, the rest is gravy. Instead of going to work, you’re going to enjoy every day.
And he was just as snubbed.
(Laughs) Yeah, he was nominated for an Academy Award a number of times, but he never won one. And he might have been the best director who ever lived.
What are some comedies that really make you laugh?
Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story, Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, and Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last. Those are really my favorites. I thought The Hangover was really funny. But the sequel just exploited the first.
Get Smart is still my all time favorite tv show. Was there ever a funnier sitcom?
I don’t know. Buck Henry was very, very talented, and together we came up with some incredible ideas. He invented the “Cone of Silence.” And I think I invented the cell phone, because I dreamed up having Maxwell Smart talking on a shoe telephone.
You set a very high standard for revamping old films, with To Be Or Not To Be, Young Frankenstein, and The Producers. Do you have your sights on another old classic that you care to discuss?
There’s a good-looking old lady who lives in Cincinnati that I have my eye on, but I’m not sure as far as show business. (Chuckles) Maybe musicalizing The Twelve Chairs, one of my overlooked films, for Broadway. Or Blazing Saddles. They both cry out for music, and they both have good stories.
Why do you think Blazing Saddles remains as fresh as ever?
What makes it last so long is that there’s a black sheriff that everyone in that world of 1874 wants to see dead right away. But he endures and gains the respect of the townsfolk, especially the Waco Kid [played by Gene Wilder]. That’s the engine that drives it, and that’s why it’s still around. It’s around because there’s a tremendous amount of focused emotion in that movie.
When I interviewed Quentin Tarantino about Django Unchained, he attributed the demise of the Western to Blazing Saddles. He said that you had parodied the genre so effectively that no one could take them seriously anymore.
(Laughs) I don’t know. Maybe he’s right. But I wouldn’t take credit for that.
What do you think of his movies?
I love Quentin for what he does. He doesn’t give a [bleep]. Freedom…fantasy moviemaking. In Inglourious Basterds, he’s got Hitler and Goering and Goebbels all in a theater in France and he kills them all. With Django, I would have been a little upset if Abraham Lincoln was run over by a Buick on 43rd Street. But coming from Tarantino, I accepted it. He’s a genius who should be respected for his work.
Harriet says: The Critic is one my favorite works of art by you. How about getting it back out there so people who didn’t see it in 1963 can get a look at it on its 50th anniversary?
Ooh, well thank you Harriet for being aware of it, for enjoying it, for getting it, and for understanding it. And, as a matter of fact, The Critic is in The Incredible Mel Brooks box set.
Have you ever considered working with Monty Python alumni? I think that would trigger a comedic cosmic shift!
We should’ve gotten together because Blazing Saddles and Life Of Brian were on the same bill at the Baker Street theatre in London for three years straight. And they actually sent me a check. I couldn’t believe it.
How does playing yourself on Curb Your Enthusiasm compare to some of the amazing characters you’ve played like Moses and President Skroob?
I have no judgment and no perspective. When I’m playing myself, I dissolve into the character as a person, so I can’t really criticize my performance. I don’t know whether I’m good or bad. But when I’m playing Tikon, the Russian servant in The Twelve Chairs, I would say, yes, that’s a fine performance. And when I was Goddard Bolt in Life Stinks, I think I was pretty good. It was close to me, but not me, in the performance. I also think I was wonderful singing “The Inquisition” in History Of The World.
In preparing for this interview, I went back and watched a lot of your appearances on Johnny Carson. They were phenomenal!
He was a great catalyst. He’d get the best out of you. And he was a great audience, too. Carson was the best.
Patricia says: You have been influenced by tap dancers like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. How can tap regain the status in movies that it once enjoyed?
That’s a very good question, Patricia. When people ask me, “What’s your favorite movie?” I’d like to say Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion to make myself sound like such an intellectual. But my favorite movie is actually Swing Time with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and then maybe Singin’ In The Rain.
My very favorites are American musical comedies of the ‘30s, and tap dancing was my favorite dance form. To see Astaire tap like a maniac with such grace and charm was very magical. It was very balletic. How can you forget the Nicholas Brothers? They’re very hard to beat. Or Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Shirley Temple’s duet up and down the steps. So, I agree with you Patricia. Tap is a glorious aspect of show business, and I’ll see what I can do about bringing it back.
What prepared you the most for your career in showbiz?
I think the Show Of Shows, because I didn’t spread my wings and do my movies until I had nine years of seeing the best comedy of its day with Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca, Howie Morris and Nanette Fabray under my belt, and, of [course], working with writers like Neil Simon, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart. That set the stage for my going out on my own.
What is the best advice you can give to young people who would like to follow in your footsteps as a filmmaker?
I have no advice for anybody. Something impels you, and you have to keep going. Something mysterious drives you, and you’ll have to take a thousand no’s before you get your first yes and they let you do your stuff.
What could you tell us about your collaboration with Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein? With such a brilliant cast, was it a collaborative effort or primarily carved out by you and Wilder?
It actually came from Gene Wilder’s head. One day when we broke for lunch out in the desert during the shooting of Blazing Saddles, I saw him scribbling on a legal pad and on the top it says “Young Frankenstein.” And I said, “What the hell is that? What’re you doing?” And he explained to me his idea and asked me if I’d collaborate with him on it. I said, “Sure.”
As far as the casting, there was a guy named Mike Medavoy who had in his stable of actors Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman. The only ones he didn’t have were Madeline Kahn and Teri Garr.
Wesley asks: For better or worse, how do you see comedy changing on the screen over the past half-century?
That’s a good question, Wesley. I wish could answer it. Comedy is too vast a subject. I don’t know what it is. It’s reaching a place in us that is unrestrained. That place where we can no longer be a proper part of society, and just have to laugh. If you have the ability to reach it in yourself, you’ll reach it in others. But how it’s changed, I don’t know. All the sitcoms have gotten very sexual, but not necessarily funnier.
I agree wholeheartedly, Mel. Thanks for being so generous with your time, and for sharing so many anecdotes, insights and remembrances.
It was my pleasure, Kam. Nice talking to you.
To order The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection Of Unhinged Comedy, visit Amazon.com. For more information on Mel Brooks: Make A Noise, go to pbs.org.