A ridiculously interesting interview with Mel Brooks
By Ivor Davis
Nothing is sacred when Melvin James Kaminsky hits town.
Kaminsky, better known as director, producer, writer, actor and outrageous comic Mel Brooks, comes to the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza on March l9, when his groundbreaking, off-the-wall, 1974 movie Blazing Saddles will be screened. Late critic Roger Ebert described the film as “a crazed, grab-bag of a movie that does everything to keep us laughing except hit us over the head with a rubber chicken.”
And when the lights come up, the man himself — in person — will be unleashed.
Be warned to expect the unexpected.
Over the past 60 years Brooks has plied his very funny trade turning out sidesplitting comedies that have skewered every cinematic genre known to man: westerns (Blazing Saddles), horror films (Young Frankenstein), sci-fi movies (Spaceballs), Hitler (The Producers), legends (Robin Hood: Men in Tights), not to mention world history in The History of the World Part I in which he plays five roles — plus writing, producing and directing the flick. Even Alfred Hitchcock got the Brooks treatment in “High Anxiety.” And along the way Brooks collected a bagful of prizes: Oscars, Emmys, Grammys — and on and on.
“Mel is involved in controlled madness on his movies,” observed actress Madeline Kahn, a regular in many of his movies.
John Trembler, producer of Brooks’ live performances, puts it this way: “I’m totally in awe of him. He’s a unique force of nature with the energy of a man half his age.”
Trembler notes that Brooks’ passion never wanes: “He likes to come to the theater at the beginning of the movie — sit in the wings and listen to the audience. Then he shakes his head in disbelief because they are still laughing 40 years later.”
The other day I talked on the phone to the peripatetic Brooks, known also for his five Grammy-winning comedy albums, stemming from The 2,000-Year-Old Man, which got its start way back in l961.
The auteur director — who amazingly turns 90 in June — sat in his West Lost Angeles office, surrounded by a roomful of trophies (Oscars, Emmys, along with assorted framed movie posters) and let it fly.
How does it feel to get back in the saddle in Thousand Oaks when you are pushing 90?
Brooks: I never got out of the saddle. I’ve been busy. I’m going back to my first love, which is live theater. I started on the Borscht Belt when we did three or four items a week in a musical review, a play, then amateur night. I was always busy onstage doing something. Writing sketches beginning on Broadway in l952 in a show called New Faces with Eartha Kitt, Paul Lynde and Carol Lawrence. I still get goosebumps when a Broadway orchestra strikes up.
What can we expect at Thousand Oaks?
I kind of talk a lot. … It’s a wandering trip through my life. The story of a poor kid from Brooklyn, how I came to be, stories of being in the army (as a combat engineer in World War II) hearing a German platoon singing across the river — and me singing back “Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goodbye),” (the Al Jolson song) to straighten them out, stories about the TV show Get Smart and with the incredible Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, writing Your Show of Shows with Carl Reiner and Neil Simon.
I understand making Blazing Saddles wasn’t a cakewalk for you.
I quit the film once. Richard Pryor was to be Black Bart, the sheriff, but the studio said no. Richard was having drug problems and wasn’t a proven star. But he persuaded me to do it without him. He said he wouldn’t get paid if the movie was canceled. He helped me find Cleavon (Little) and said, “I’ll be good and get the laughs — but there’s no way I would scare those rednecks shitless like Cleavon could.”
But didn’t your problems really begin when the film was finished?
When my movie opened at the Avco in Westwood, audiences loved it and ran up and down the aisles. They laughed from start to finish. But Ted Ashley, the head of Warner Brothers, had his new fiancée with him and was embarrassed by what he had seen — particularly at the cowboys farting around the campfire. He had a conniption fit. “It’s vulgar and disgusting and we can’t show this under the Warner badge” he said.
Then he grabbed me by the ear and threw me in the manager’s office — and handed me a legal pad. “The farting scene has got to go. You can’t punch a horse. You can’t hit an old lady. And you can’t use the N-word.” Then he gave me a list of 26 other scenes that he said must go. Out. Out. Out. I knew if I cut those we’d have a 15-minute film. I wrote it all down and then after he walked out, I crumpled up the pages and tossed them in the wastepaper bin.
John Calley, another studio executive who was running the movie division, turned to me and said, “I like your filing system.” Then he saved my life. He said, “The audience rocked from the opening scene. We must give it a try in New York and Chicago.” So I kept everything in — and the film went on to make gobs of money.
Tell us about that legendary campfire scene.
Blazing Saddles allowed me to be the lovely Rabelaisian vulgarian that I am. I mean, those cowboys farting around the campfire allowed me for the first time to really exercise my scatological muscles. So we had a bunch of guys eating a lot of beans and delivering a mighty symphony orchestra — music in the wind!
And what about your Indian chief speaking Yiddish? Surely another first for a Western.
I didn’t want to do the cliché’d Indian sounds. … “Hi Yoyo” — and that sort of stuff. I was thinking that no one knew Yiddish so why not use it. My grandmother used to speak Yiddish to me when I was a kid in Brooklyn. At early screenings I saw that when there’s Jews in the movie house balcony, there’s thunderous laughter when the chief speaks.
Did your mother, Kate, speak Yiddish?
No. She came from Kiev but spoke with an Irish accent.
Irish? You’re kidding?
No. She went to grammar school in New York in l915 — and all the teachers and politicians spoke with an Irish accent. It stuck.
What’s your recipe for making funny movies?
My credo is, if it doesn’t make you laugh, it won’t make them laugh. Comedy is real. They will laugh if you do. If it’s funny, the world laughs.
Talking of laughs in movies, what about your smash-hit Broadway musical The Producers — which came 34 years after the movie opened. Like Chaplin, you lacerated and lampooned Hitler.
It’s part of my heritage. No Chaplin, no Mel Brooks. You learn from the greats of the past. In Great Dictator, Chaplin plays this little Jewish barber who is mistaken for the Führer. He is beautiful, doing that ballet with the balloon as the globe of the world.
And so you borrowed a leaf from the Chaplin playbook?
Yes. When Producers first came out, the critics said it was totally tasteless. Peter Sellers, the genius English actor, loved it and out of his own pocket paid for ads in the Hollywood trade papers, saying it was the funniest movie he’d ever seen. And the film was saved. Before that you couldn’t get arrested….
Do people toss your own popular movie lines back at you?
In New York on the street they do.
What are their favorites?
“It’s good to be king,” from History Part I. “May the Schwartz be with you,” from Spaceballs, and Marty Feldman’s line as Igor, the bulging-eyed, hunchbacked servant who greets a guest with, “Walk this way.”
What’s your favorite movie?
That’s like asking which of my four kids I like best. Nobody would understand, but it’s The Twelve Chairs with Frank Langella, Ron Moody and Dom DeLuise. My best movie, in story, feeling and heart. And cinematography.
How do you keep active?
I am energized by what I do. Half an hour before my show I have a pumpernickel bagel — the thin half only — with cream cheese and seedless raspberry jelly and a glass of Ovaltine with cold, nonfat milk. I’m ready.
How did you cope when your actress wife Ann Bancroft died in 2005 after a 41-year marriage?
I wasn’t able to cope. I was just … shattered. She was my soulmate. What helped were my four children (Brooks now has two grandchildren), each and every one of them came to my side along with dear friends like Carl Reiner. I was able to stand up straight and march forward.
Mentioning your 2,000-Year-Old Man partner, I see Carl turns 94 in March. Do you still see him?
Maybe three times a week. We have dinner and watch black-and-white movies.
What drives you?
I’m always doing something. I just played the Kennedy Center with this show and now I’m doing Thousand Oaks. I’m re-energized … up and flying around the stage. It’s very important. That’s my fuel, the basis of my energy. The laughter that comes flying back. Sometimes the energy is so big that if I wore a hat it would blow away.