At 95, film-maker and comedian Mel Brooks has won every award in showbiz, including Emmys, Grammys, Tonys, an Oscar and a Bafta Fellowship.
But as he reveals in his autobiography, out later this week, he grew up in the heart of New York’s garment industry and says: ‘Movies saved my life.
They rescued my soul.’ Here, he tells how he owes his success to superstars including Peter Sellers and Liza Minnelli . . .
One night, at about two in the morning, I was awakened by pebbles being tossed against my bedroom window. I opened it to see what was going on. When I did, I got hit with a few.
There, down on the street, was Dustin Hoffman. Before I could say: ‘What the hell are you doing?’ he shouted: ‘Come down! We have to talk.’
He wasn’t famous yet. He actually lived on my block in Greenwich Village, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. This was 1967, and I’d just signed Dustin to play a demented, Nazi-loving playwright in a musical comedy I planned to call Springtime For Hitler.
Pictured: Mel Brooks stars as Dr Frederick Bronski in the 1983 film To Be or Not To Be
It was by no means certain this film was getting made. I’d had a success with a cartoon called The 2,000-Year-Old Man, but this was my first movie script and I’d never directed before. I was also writing the songs, despite a complete inability to read music or play an instrument.
Plus, as the actor Gene Wilder, a close friend, gently pointed out to me: ‘The world isn’t ready for a comedy featuring Adolf Hitler.’
It took nine months to find the money. Gene was right — the name Hitler put people off. Universal were interested, but only if I changed it to Springtime For Mussolini.
But I found a producer crazy enough to risk half a million bucks on it, if I could come up with the other half a million. So the last thing I needed was to lose a major member of the cast before I even started filming.
How Mel Brooks grew a SIXTH finger
When I was asked in 2014 to put my own hands and feet in that famous sidewalk cement, outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, I asked the prop masters from The Walking Dead TV series to build me a sixth finger on my left hand.
I like to imagine some of the millions of tourists who come to put their hands on the concrete will shout: ‘Hey! Did you know that Mel Brooks had SIX fingers on his left hand?’
I slammed my window shut, pulled on some clothes and stamped outside to see Dustin. He said: ‘You won’t believe this. I just got a call from Mike Nichols in LA. He wants me to fly out tomorrow to do a screen test.’
I said: ‘For what? Mike Nichols is in Hollywood doing The Graduate with my wife, Annie.’
‘Yes. That’s it, that’s it! He wants to audition me for the lead, opposite Anne Bancroft.’
I told him to go audition. ‘I’m not worried. No offence, but you’re not the handsomest guy in town. The minute they see you they’ll send you flying back into my arms.’
Boy, was I wrong.
Two days later he called to tell me he got the part. He had already signed a contract with me, so legally I could have stopped him, but I wished him luck . . . with one small caveat: ‘You’re going to be playing opposite my wife — don’t fool around.’
Sometimes in showbusiness something bad happens but then you take a good bounce. I took that good bounce and got Kenny Mars, who would turn out to be a truly memorable Franz Liebkind.
In the end, the distributors banned the name Hitler in the title. The cinemas just wouldn’t show it, they said. Reluctantly, I changed it to The Producers.
But for our first sneak preview, at a thousand-seater called the Cherry Hill Cinema, practically nobody showed up anyhow. The distributors hadn’t spent any money to promote the screening.
The movie might have been flopped right there, if it hadn’t been for Peter Sellers. He saw it by accident.
Every Saturday night he would rent the famous Aidikoff screening room in Hollywood for a movie night. One week, he was meant to see an early film by Federico Fellini called I Vitelloni, but the projectionist, Charles Aidikoff himself, couldn’t find the print. Sellers said: ‘Well, do you have anything else for us to see? Anything!’
Mel Brooks won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for The Producers in 1969
Aidikoff said: ‘I have a pre-release copy of a Mel Brooks movie, but I was told not to let anyone see it. So I can’t run it.’
‘Run that Mel Brooks movie or I’ll kill you!’ said Peter.
Later that night, he called my producer in New York (where it was about 3am) and told him: ‘I just saw your movie and I want you to know how incredibly funny it is. Show it everywhere! Make a thousand prints! Flood every screen in America! It’s a great, great comedy.’
Peter was so enamoured that he personally paid for a big industry ad in Variety that read: ‘Last night I saw the ultimate film . . . Brilliantly written and directed by Mel Brooks, it is the essence of all great comedy combined in a single motion picture.’
So at our next preview, at the Fine Arts Theatre in New York, I got there at 10am and there were queues around the block.
I won an Oscar for The Producers and, naturally, I took it to my mother, who was living in Florida at a building called The Presidential.
She had a regular Friday afternoon tea and cookie session with friends and she wanted her famous son’s awards decorating the top of her TV set. I knew the Oscar would have pride of place in that collection.
One day I pulled up outside of The Presidential in our rented Lincoln Town Car to pick up my mom for dinner. When I got out, a guy in a chauffeur’s cap threw a question at me: ‘Who ya got?’
I didn’t know what he was talking about . . . and then I realised that I was parked next to another black Lincoln Town Car. ‘Who ya got? Who ya driving?’ he asked.
I didn’t want to lie to him. I said: ‘Oh! I’m driving Mel Brooks.’
He said: ‘Mel Brooks? Wow. Is he a good tipper?’ I said: ‘The best!’
That was a good year, but the greatest was probably 1974. For me, anyhow. For Richard Nixon, not so much.
My 1974 started with Blazing Saddles in February and ended with Young Frankenstein in December.
Even though it was a wild comedy, Blazing Saddles had a great engine underneath it. Whenever I taught comedy to film students, I told them crazy comedy alone doesn’t work. If you want the laughs to last, there’s a secret you must follow: you have to have an engine.
Pictured: Mel Brooks with Robyn Hilton performing in Brooks' 1974 film Blazing Saddles
In Blazing Saddles, about a black sheriff who rides in to save a town full of bigots, racial prejudice is the engine that really drives the film and helps to make it work. Except I wasn’t sure it could work. A satire about racist cowboys in the 1970s was even more controversial than a musical about Der Fuhrer.
I told the writers: ‘Write anything you want. We will never be heard from again. We will all be in jail for making this movie.’
None of us knew anything about Western films, except that as kids we loved them. Every morning we had bagels and Nova Scotia lox from Zabar’s on Broadway for breakfast. Except for Richard Pryor, a comic genius and a serious drinker, who took his coffee laced with a shot of Rémy Martin.
We wanted Richard to play the sheriff, but Warner Bros. refused. They were afraid of his erratic behaviour.
I found somebody who was made for the role, born to play it, a Broadway actor who was handsome, sophisticated and winning — the truly talented Cleavon Little. After he read one page of dialogue I grabbed him, embraced him and said: ‘Cleavon, don’t ask for too much money and you’ve got the part!’
For his sidekick, the Waco Kid, I wanted to cast either a well-known Western hero or a well-known alcoholic — or if I was lucky, maybe a combination of both.
One day, when I was having lunch in the Warner Bros. commissary [canteen], I saw John Wayne at a table across the room. What a stroke of fortune it would be to get the Duke himself to play the Waco Kid. So I held my breath, walked over and introduced myself.
I met him at exactly the same table at the same time the next day. He had the script in his hand, and he said: ‘Mel, this is one of the craziest and funniest things I have ever read. But I can’t do it. It’s just too dirty. My fans will accept almost anything, but they won’t take dirty. But I’ll tell you this: when it opens, I’ll be the first in line to see it.’
So I turned to the Oscar-winning Gig Young, who was devastatingly emotional in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
I knew he could be the Waco Kid. But he had a reputation of hitting the bottle now and then. His agent assured me he’d been on the wagon for more than a year and was totally trustworthy.
I hired him — but on the first day’s shooting, in the jail scene, Gig threw up all over the set. The studio doctor said he had delirium tremens, or severe alcohol withdrawal, and was much too sick to perform for the next few months.
It was a Friday night, and I knew what I had to do to save the picture: I called Gene Wilder and begged him to save me. He said: ‘I’ll be on a plane tomorrow morning.’
Pictured: Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little star in Brooks' 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles
Warner’s head of production, John Calley, was also an invaluable aide. I’d often come to him and ask something like: ‘John, is it too crazy to beat up an old lady in a Western bar fight?’
And he gave me this memorable piece of advice that stayed with me all through my career: ‘Mel, if you’re gonna step up to the bell — ring it!’
There was one scene that I was almost afraid to include: the campfire scene, in which, like they do in every Western, the cowhands sit around drinking black coffee from tin mugs while they scrape a pile of beans off a tin plate.
But in the classic Westerns, you never hear a sound. I had to risk my life and tell the truth. Surely there had to be one little sound from all those beans.
I remembered John Calley’s motto: ‘If you’re gonna step up to the bell — ring it!’
And boy, did I ring it. The air was filled with the unmistakable sounds of nonstop flatulence. I may have been risking my career, but what good is a career if you don’t risk it from time to time?
One of the problems I had on set was constantly reshooting because of laughing from the crew. So I went out and bought 100 white handkerchiefs. I handed them round and said: ‘If you feel like laughing, don’t! Stick this handkerchief in your mouth.’
I turned around once in the middle of shooting a scene and saw a sea of white handkerchiefs in everybody’s mouths. I thought: ‘I’ve got a big hit here.’
One of the white-handkerchief-in-the-mouth scenes actually got me. We were shooting Young Frankenstein, later the same year, and I was struggling not to burst into laughter. I’d given all the handkerchiefs out and now I really needed one myself.
The scene was the one in which Gene [as Dr Frankenstein], Teri Garr as Inga the lab assistant and Marty Feldman as Igor are at the dinner table, in the depths of depression because their monster won’t come to life.
Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle as Frankenstein and the Monster in Brooks' Young Frankenstein
I was already at breaking point, after the three of them came to the door of a castle in Transylvania and hammered on it with its gigantic iron rings. ‘My God,’ said Gene, ‘what knockers.’
‘Vy, thank you Doctor,’ said Teri in her ludicrous German accent.
So now they were sitting and not eating, and Teri said: ‘You haven’t even touched your food.’
Gene responded by sticking his hands into his beef stew and boiled potatoes and saying: ‘There! Now I’ve touched it. Happy?’
I held it together until we cut, and then I disintegrated.
By the time I made Silent Movie in 1976, some of the biggest stars in Hollywood were willing to work with me, even though they knew I’d make them look ridiculous.
Burt Reynolds relished it. I didn’t have to persuade him — he just said: ‘Why don’t I play myself? A big, egotistical movie star!’
He actually had ‘BR’ monogrammed on everything in his house — shirts, ashtrays, towels, even his door handles. I suggested, in keeping with his ego, we put his name in two-foot-tall letters right on top of his house. He loved the idea.
We also added a running gag where he couldn’t pass a mirror without stopping to adore his own wonderful face.
I spotted our next star in the commissary again. I was having lunch with the writers, Barry, Rudy, and Ron when Liza Minnelli sat down at the next table.
Without being invited, we all moved to her table and never stopped talking about our crazy silent movie until she agreed to do it.
We used that real-life set-up in the movie. Marty, Dom DeLuise and I are in suits of armour as Knights of the Round Table, eating in the commissary. We spot Liza and try to get to her table . . . but it’s not an easy thing to do in armour and chainmail.
The scene was hysterical. Liza kept breaking up in the scene by laughing every time one of us fell down, and we kept that in the final cut.
Our ultimate star cameo was the great Paul Newman. I found out that he loved a beer called St Pauli Girl. So I sent him ten cases of it, together with a letter that explained why I wanted him to be my guest star.
We knew that Paul was an avid racing driver, and we explained that we wanted to do a motorised wheelchair chase. It was ambitious and a little crazy if not actually dangerous. But he went for it!
Paul wrote back to say that I didn’t have to send him those ten cases of St Pauli Girl beer to get him on board — but he wasn’t going to return them, just in case my cheque bounced.
Shooting that chase was mayhem. Paul could race that wheelchair faster than any of us could keep up. Marty kept crashing — he’d disappear, you’d hear a smash and then his Cockney voice came floating back: ‘I’m all right, love!’
These days, my movies are on pretty much constant rotation on cable channels. But there’s nothing like seeing one in a theatre, on that huge silver screen — the invention that saved my soul and gave me such a wonderful ride.
Many times, I have shown Blazing Saddles or The Producers to an audience and then come out to answer a few questions. One of the best was: ‘Mel, what’s your secret to a long life?’ ‘Don’t die,’ I said.
Boy, that really landed. I still think that the best thing in the world is saying something funny, and then having an audience explode with laughter. I will never grow tired of that. It’s magical.
Adapted from All About Me! by Mel Brooks published by Century, £16.99. To order a copy for £15.29 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Promotional price valid until 11/12/21. © Mel Brooks 2021.