Mel Brooks on how to play Hitler, and how he almost died making Spaceballs
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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Mel Brooks has done many wonderful comedic things as a writer, director, and producer. Just for starters: Blazing Saddles, History Of The World: Part I, Young Frankenstein, The Producers, Spaceballs, Robin Hood: Men In Tights, The Twelve Chairs, and so on. He’s played roles in many of his productions, done voiceover work, and cropped up in an array of other projects, including sitcoms and short films. It’s all captured in the Shout Factory box set The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection Of Unhinged Comedy, which Brooks describes as “for grandsons to give their grandfathers for Christmas.”
Young Frankenstein (1974)—Various voices (uncredited)
Mel Brooks: By the way, we always confuse. We called the monster “Frankenstein.” We never knew it was the doctor’s name, we just thought that was the guy with the bolts sticking out of his neck; his name was Frankenstein. I made this wonderful movie with the great Peter Boyle playing the monster. You know, everyone was good. Teri Garr was great. She put in words like, “No, no, you mozzen’t!” She threw in “you mozzen’t,” m-o-z-z-e-n-t. And then Cloris Leachman, Frau Blücher [whinnies], you know, with the horses. Leachman was never better. Marty—I mean look at this cast! Marty Feldman was Igor and Madeline Kahn was Elizabeth, his fiancée. It all worked. It’s all written. There’s nothing ad-libbed. I wrote that line when Gene Wilder—he was never better, I think—Gene Wilder, says to Marty Feldman, to Igor, “Let’s get the bags.” And Igor says, “Okay, you take the blonde, and I’ll take the one in the turban.” It was very hard to shoot that because the minute he said it, everybody broke up. Madeline broke up; Gene broke up. And it was very hard to shoot scenes with Cloris; she would say things slow and steely. And you had to hold on, you know, bite your lip. I mean, she was penetrating and crazy. But anyway, that was the first time I used the white handkerchief.
The A.V. Club: What do you mean?
MB: I knew there was going to be laughing. The first time I used it was during The Twelve Chairs. There was too much laughter; I couldn’t shoot. So I went out and bought 100 white handkerchiefs and said, “Stick this in your mouth.” And then, with Young Frankenstein, I bought 200—it was a bigger crew, a lot of people. I said, “If you’re not in the scene, take this handkerchief, and when you feel you’re going to laugh, shove this in your mouth.” And every once in a while, I’d be shooting a scene and I would turn, and I could see a sea of white handkerchiefs. So I said, “Okay, this is going to be funny. This is good.”
AVC: As far as Young Frankenstein goes, you weren’t really in that film, right?
MB: Yeah, I wasn’t allowed to be in it. That was the deal Gene Wilder had. He says, “If you’re not in it, I’ll do it.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Why was that?
MB: He says, “You have a way of breaking the fourth wall, whether you want to or not. I just want to keep it. I don’t want too much to be, you know, a wink at the audience. I love the script.” He wrote the script with me. That was the deal. So I wasn’t in it, and he did it.
Blazing Saddles (1974)—“Governor William J. Lepetomane” / “Indian Chief”
The Producers (1968)—“Singer in ‘Springtime For Hitler’”
AVC: You were in Blazing Saddles with Gene Wilder.
MB: Yeah, but I was kind of a peripheral character. I wasn’t central. I lent color and a brushstroke of insanity to the film. I didn’t interfere with Cleavon Little or Gene Wilder in that.
AVC: Was that the first movie you portrayed Hitler in?
MB: Blazing Saddles? No.
AVC: So it was The Producers?
MB: It was The Producers, which was [originally] Springtime For Hitler; it did very well with the same 19 people that are my fans. It’s a cult film. It’s never really broken out, except as a Broadway musical when you couldn’t get a ticket to it. But as a film, it’s still like a cinema-club kind of film, you know? It was very popular in Germany, under the table. There was, like, some key club that you had to join to see Springtime For Hitler. Obviously there’s always been a countercurrent, some underground movement, against the Third Reich and Hitler.
AVC: You’ve portrayed Hitler several times. Is there a difference in the ways you choose to play him?
MB: Every time that I’ve portrayed Hitler, I’ve portrayed him a little differently. I mean, the first time I portrayed him, I think I did something way back for Barry Levinson and Rudy De Luca, who created a show called Peeping Times for David Frost. It was like a take-off of 60 Minutes, or 20/20, one of those. And they said, “We have found rare footage, home movies of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun.” [Pauses.] It’s a strange thing; I play Hitler as a concerned human being. I mean, there’s a lot of humanity in him. [Laughs.] They’re eating lunch, and Eva kills something, just slaps on the table. And I’m like, “What did you just do?” She said, “Oh, I just killed a bug.” I said, “You just took its life? You just boom, over? The bug was just crawling around enjoying its life, and bang! You just killed it? You don’t care?” And she said, “No! It’s a bug. Nobody cares.” I said, “Ask its family! Maybe the family cares.” It was really great. It’s there [on the DVDs], it’s in Peeping Times. Take a look at it.
AVC: So how has your portrayal shifted over the years?
MB: Well, not much. I mean, honestly, it’s Hitler. There’s a German accent, and there’s a little mustache. He doesn’t know that he is not a nice guy. He doesn’t suspect for a minute that he’s not a nice guy. He has Blondie, his dog; he has Eva Braun, who loves him. He’s got a lot of flunkies that adore him. In the movie of The Producers, Dick Shawn says, “Where’s my Joe? Where’s my little Joe?” He loves [Nazi propaganda peddler] Joe Goebbels. Joe says, “Hey man! We just invaded England.” Except he sings to make it look real good, you know. “We invaded.” “How’d we do?” We won, baby, we won!” It was adorable. Dick Shawn was absolutely fabulous as the wacky kind of hippie who auditions and plays Hitler. He was great.
Spaceballs (1987)—“President Skroob”/“Yogurt”
AVC: On the DVD, you mention this was probably your most financially successful film to date.
MB: Well, it never stopped selling! Blazing Saddles is funnier—not that Spaceballs is unfunny, it’s pretty funny. But [when asked], “Why would Spaceballs do so much better than all the other films?” I said, “Because it’s a fairy tale, and it’s a love story.” Instead of just fathers and sons, like… Let’s say Wicked, the Broadway show. Why is it so successful? Mothers and daughters. A lot of shows on Broadway work because of mothers and daughters. The Lion King, mothers and daughters. But those few things on Broadway that’s my stuff, like Young Frankenstein, are fathers and sons. Spaceballs is fathers and sons, of course, because it’s me. And because it’s a fairy tale with a princess and a guy who turns out to be a prince in the end and marries her, there’s a love story. But it turned out to be mothers and daughters, too. So I got the whole family in that one. I got a lot of freaks, a lot of weirdoes who like to see little pert people with golden faces. I also played President Skroob, which is “Brooks” backward. And I played just plain Yogurt, you know. I just played the two characters.
AVC: Why those two?
MB: Well, I really didn’t just want to be the bad guy. And President Skroob is really evil; he’s really a bad guy. So I say, “Oh, I’ll play a good guy, too. I’ll play this magical guy Yogurt. Just plain Yogurt.” They say, “Yogurt the magnificent, Yogurt the wise, Yogurt the marvelous, Yogurt the incredible, Yogurt the unbelievable.” And I said, “Stop, stop, I’m just plain Yogurt.” Just to get my laugh on plain yogurt. It works. When I had a long talk about these characters, I wanted to explain to the crew that I wanted mothers and daughters to go to it and see it, as well as fathers and sons, which was my usual audience. And I accomplished it. It worked. I didn’t think it would. I had no idea it would work as well as it did. But, you know, it pays the rent. It’s nothing but Spaceballs.
AVC: Do you have any specific memories of directing while wearing that gold paint all over your face?
MB: Well, except for a life-threatening rash, it was fine. My eyes broke out because of the fumes of the gold paint. It was right in the middle of shooting it. I just kept taking Benadryl and all that stuff to fight the allergy. It was really terrible; it was dangerous.
AVC: They couldn’t find any non-toxic gold paint to use?
MB: They said it was non-toxic—they assured me. And it was toxic. [Laughs.] I’m supposed to chalk it up to show business, but I nearly died.
AVC: That sounds like a very slow assassination technique.
MB: Yes, yes it is. It’s like, two cubes of sugar, one cube of arsenic every day in your coffee. Until it catches up with you.
AVC: Praying you’ll become famous and make a movie where you paint your face gold. Then, they strike.
MB: Exactly. But anyway, I decided I wanted to be as close to the original as possible. And it was. It was fairly faithful. There were some great switches, like, the princess wears this strange hairdo, covering her ears, like there was in Star Wars, except it turns out to be that they were earphones, and she just put them on.
AVC: That’s a real thing now, by the way. People sell headphones that look like the Princess Leia buns.
MB: Incredible. I wasn’t allowed to do any merchandising. Even though my character said, “Merchandising, merchandising, the thing that really makes money.” I wasn’t allowed to do that. My deal with Star Wars was “no action figures.” Because mine were like, Dark Helmet. Rick Moranis was in this giant helmet head. No merchandising. I said okay.
AVC: Was that because George Lucas had sold merchandise, and the studios were apprehensive about a similar deal?
MB: Oh, absolutely. Fox and Lucas were making a fortune, and this really, you know, was stealing. [Laughs.] I stole a lot, and I satirize it, but the script was different. And [George Lucas] loves it. He loves the film. I was very wise. You know what I did not to have any real trouble? I called Lucas and I said, “I want you guys up in San Francisco—at the ranch or whatever—to do all the post-production of the movie. And he said, “Oh, great, great.” So, there may have been five million bucks in post-production on that, and special effects, etc., that Lucas handled. So, it was wise, you know? I was playing ball with the people who could have said no. [Laughs.] He wouldn’t have sued me anyway. He’s not that kind of guy. He wrote me a lovely note saying me how much he loved the picture. He said it’s dangerous comedy. He said, “I was afraid I would bust something from laughing.” Which is a lovely note.
The Ed Sullivan Show (1961)—“The 2000 Year Old Man”
MB: The 2000-year-old man was born at a break during Your Show Of Shows, when cameras were down or something. We were sitting around, and we had to wait another two or three hours. There was a line to some very important electrical cable to the cameras that was down, and they had to fix it. So we’re all sitting around in the writers’ room, in the green room, waiting for things to happen. It was a Saturday afternoon. And Carl Reiner came at me with a wire recorder. It was not even a tape recorder. The first one was a wire. And he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am here with the man who claims to be 2000 years old—is that true, sir?” And I said, “No, no, I’m not yet. I’ll be in October. This is May; on October 16th, I’ll be 2000. I’m just 1999.” So he went on—he just kept talking! That is the genius of Carl Reiner. I thought it was over. And he said, “Sir, so wait a minute, is it true that you were actually at the site of the crucifixion, you saw Christ crucified? How did you feel about that?” And I said, “Terrible. It was terrible.” Everybody in the room got very excited. “Did you know Christ, did you know Jesus?” I said, “Sure. I had a little candy store, he came in the store almost every day, with the sandals, and the 12 guys, a thin lad. They never bought anything; they asked for water, I gave them water. It was very hot where we were in Jerusalem.”
Anyway, it went on and on like that. He kept asking me questions. But we had no thought of recording it, of making an album. At that time, I think—there weren’t too many [comedy albums]. Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart. [Mike] Nichols and [Elaine] May weren’t out yet. I had no thought. I just thought of myself as a writer. At that point, I thought I graduated from a Borscht Belt comic to a bona fide writer on television, and I wasn’t going to go back to shtick and bits. And there I was, doing shtick and bits with Carl.
So finally—we did it at several parties, some on Fire Island and some at Ocean Beach. Everyone thinks Fire Island is gay. There’s Cherry Grove and the Pines, two gay communities. And then there were four or five huge—like Ocean Beach and Fair Harbor—enormous family [communities], and we were at the Ocean Beach one. Carl and I went to a party every Saturday night, and we would perform for an hour, “The 2000 Year Old Man.” I never knew, ever, what he was going to ask, which was the best. I was scared and frustrated, but I always came up with something. He chased me like a little rat into a corner and he’d say, “How do we know you are 2000? Prove it!” “Everything was written on a boulder.” “What language did you have?” “Rock talk, you know.” He said, “Well, give me an example.” He’d never let up. “Rock talk,” I’d say. “‘What are you doing with that rock?’ ‘Put that rock down.’ ‘Don’t throw that rock at me.’” So, I mean, he really chased me into comedy.
AVC: When you did it live on The Ed Sullivan Show, did you improvise in the same way?
MB: Every time we did television, we stuck to a script, more or less. I improvised between, but we knew we had three or four questions and answers that were going to work. We knew we didn’t have the time to think and create on our feet like we did at parties and stuff. There were no constrictions at parties. But when you are on television, you don’t have a lot. We had to get what we thought were our four best jokes out there. And we did. We did some standard stuff that we knew was going to work—“I never touch fried food,” or something like that. And there was Ed Sullivan in the wings, making “speed up” gestures. Not even listening, or caring, just making those, “Get off, go, go, go!” You know those gestures. So we looked at each other, and we deliberately—instead of three and a half minutes—did six and a half minutes. He was purple. His face was… We never got another gig on The Ed Sullivan Show.
AVC: You mentioned that your aspirations were to become a TV writer. Did “The 2000 Year Old Man” give you a glimpse into what it would be like to be on TV yourself?
MB: That was it; that turned a corner, you’re right. I said, “I like performing. I’m going to continue to perform.” I thought that was the year I’d be performing as a wonderful little Jewish old man character. That would be enough. I didn’t know I’d be doing parts in movies; I had no idea. And I did like writing better than anything. Writing was the most fun because it was unfettered, and you could chase your visions.
AVC: Well, improv is sort of a perfect blend of writing and performing.
MB: Yeah. And I’m surprised I never ended up at Second City or one of those, in a group, you know. They were so wonderful. I grabbed [John] Candy and Rick Moranis out of that group, and I used them for my biggest hit, Spaceballs. They were wonderful.
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2004)—“Mel Brooks”
MB: I thought that was incredible. And I never came up with the switch, with the great, great switch. Larry David came up with that.
AVC: That you would “Producers” The Producers, casting Larry David to purposely tank the production?
MB: Yeah. The Producers. Knowing how bad Larry David was, that we were finally going to be rid of this albatross around our necks, could never sing, couldn’t dance or be funny. [Laughs.] He came up with that, with the whole arc of that season. It was absolutely brilliant.
AVC: How did the process start? Did he approach you with the idea?
MB: He is absolutely the—he told my son, who wrote two seasons on Saturday Night Live, Max Brooks. Max came to the set [of Curb] when I was there. And Max said, “I’m in a quandary, I’ve written a book, and they want me to go on tour.” He wrote a book called The Zombie Survival Guide, which, it turned out, has sold close to two million copies. I mean really. [Laughs.]
AVC: He was ahead of the curve with the whole zombie thing.
MB: Yeah, he was. The only one in front of him was George Romero. He’s always going to George Romero tributes. Max is always there. “I’m sorry I stole your crown,” or whatever. Anyway, Larry David told us a great story: Max had a problem because he had this book, and Random House needed him to go on tour. In those days, you couldn’t just sit and have wonderful interviewers talk to you, or be on the phone. You had to go to book signings. So he was really troubled about it… and he couldn’t get anything on [the show]. Max had brilliant stuff. He had one of those announcements—when you have a medicine, they’re forced to announce that there might be certain negative side effects like headaches, dizziness, vomiting, you know. Max added to headaches, dizziness, and vomiting, “sudden bouts of anti-Semitism.” [Laughs.] And he said, “I couldn’t get that one on.” They said, “Well, we didn’t think it’s that funny.”
So [at Curb] he said, “I don’t mind all the rejections, but I do want to go on the tour.” And Larry said that when he was a writer on Saturday Night Live, one day he was so annoyed, he was so unhappy, like Max… he quit. “I’m not coming back. I leave, I hate this show, fuck you, I’m off. I’m gone.” So Larry David left as a Saturday Night Live writer, and then he had, you know, regrets: “Oh, what have I done? It’s a job; it’s money. I’ve got to pay my rent.” So a friend of his said, “Just go back on Monday, like you never said it.” So he did. He went back. Somebody said something to him, and [he replied] “What, are you kidding? Quit? I love this place!”
MB: And they accepted it. Anyway, Max did decide to go on tour, and he was fired from Saturday Night Live, which I thought was a good thing, so he could pursue his own career as a writer and not as a submitter. That’s why he wasn’t really a writer on that show. He said, “I was just simply submitting comedic material every week, I would submit something that would be turned down.” Every once in a while, they would let a joke in. It was tough. Literally 18 writers. And all of them like puppies in a cardboard box, trying to get to their mother’s teat. Very difficult, you know. Anyway, it worked out because then he wrote another book called World War Z, which is about to come out as a major motion picture starring Brad Pitt. I don’t know if it will reflect what Max has written. The book is, I think, magical and brilliant, really mind-blowing. I think movies need more action and more emotions and thought. So it might be a little different from the book. But as long as the title is there, he is very happy about it. I’m sorry. I digressed. But you get more out of digressions than you get from the mainstream; I want you to remember that. Heisler, remember! Brooks said it! You get more stuff out of digressions than you get out of following the script. Write that down! And digressions is d-i-g-r-e-double s-i-o-n I think i-o-n-s-s. I think there might be two S’s at the end. Digression.
AVC: So Curb—
MB: I had several meetings with him. I don’t know, maybe I was trying to sell something, and my appearance would help me sell it? But I was trying to make something. I’m not that good-natured; I’m not that good-hearted. I don’t like to go on talk shows just to have the world see Mel Brooks in a nice white jacket and a black shirt. Which I think I will wear on Jimmy Kimmel tomorrow. Yeah, I think that’s what I’ll do: I’ll wear a white jacket and a black shirt. Maybe I’ll wear a gold chain with a cross. There’s a lot of people that aren’t Jewish. I might rethink that.
AVC: You’ve got to court the different audiences.
MB: Yeah. Anyway, [David] just kept talking me into it. I didn’t want to do it. I said, “I’ll do it if you give me Paul Mazursky and Rudy De Luca as my cohorts.” I knew I could have some fun with Larry David, I didn’t know how much. But I knew I could have a lot of fun with Rudy De Luca and Paul Mazursky, because they’re free-wheelers. He said, “Sure, they could be other backers of the show.” Of The Producers that I was going to be doing. Okay, great. So that worked. It all worked. What I love about that show is that you’re free to do and say anything. And every once in a while, you strike gold—you just do enough and save the gold nuggets, and the show becomes wonderfully, magically entertaining.
Mad About You (1996-1999)—“Uncle Phil”
AVC: What about your Emmy-winning appearances on Mad About You?
MB: I don’t know why I won Emmys for them. I have no idea. They let me go, too. I was never stripped down by Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt and the people on the show. I knew what my job was, I knew what my character was, and what my job was within the show, within the three times I'd appear. Within that, I asked Paul if I could ad-lib—could I, if something comes upon me while we’re shooting, could I say it? He said, “Absolutely.” I said, “I might throw you off.” He said, “Don’t worry about that.” And I did try to throw him off and say some crazy things at different times. And they never expected me to comb my hair in a bizarre and weird fashion, which I did. I just showed a crazy, nervous Jewish uncle who had thoughts, sometimes from outer space, but it was fun. It was fun every time I did it. I think I did it three or four times. And most of the times, I won an Emmy for it. [Laughs.] You know what I think maybe happened, psychologically? I’m Mel Brooks. “Oh my God, I want to thank him for The Producers or Blazing Saddles or High Anxiety. I want to thank him, I don’t know how. He’s up for an Emmy? Give it to him!” That’s why I think I got the Emmy. I don’t think I got it for my performances. I’ve won more awards than anybody alive. And I think it’s because they enjoy my movies.
AVC: It’s kind of like when Martin Scorsese won an Oscar for The Departed—not that The Departed is a bad film, but there were so many others he made.
MB: Yeah. The Aviator was better. I mean, he’s made so many. All his films were better than that. [Laughs.] Every one he did. Mean Streets was better than The Departed.
AVC: What’s your own relationship with sitcoms? The pilot for Inside Danny Baker is in the box set.
MB: Which was rejected. Completely. I’d show you the script. We filmed it; it was good. I thought it was good, I mean. I even begged Whitey Ford—because it’s about this little kid, Danny Baker, who has dreams of glory. He wanted to be a Major League pitcher. We got Whitey Ford to be part of the show.
You know what I wanted the box set to be? A potpourri of everything: success, failure. I wanted it to be the truth. Sometimes you hit a home run; sometimes you strike out. And I just wanted, especially young comedy writers, to see that you have to be dogged. You have to just go on, no matter what. So it’s not always the best.
AVC: It’s cool to see things like “The Critic,” which some people would have never seen, had it not been unearthed and put into the box set.
MB: Oh yeah, a lot of it. That’s a good word; a lot of it has been “unearthed.” A lot of stuff that’s rare, that has been done once. My Son, The Hero, nobody ever heard of that. Redoing a voiceover for an Italian epic. I mean, that’s crazy.
AVC: And there were commercials that you did for the Bic Banana.
MB: Yeah, crazy. You’ve got to salute Shout! Factory. They’re comfortable finding antique bits, rare bits, wild bits, and putting them together in box sets. They’re wonderful.
Life Stinks (1991)—“Goddard Bolt”
Dracula: Dead And Loving It (1995)—“Dr. Abraham Van Helsing”
AVC: Life Stinks was the last film you ever starred in, is that correct?
MB: Yes. I was the star. The last film that I made was Dracula: Dead And Loving It. Leslie Nielsen was the star, and I was one of the other stars. Me and Harvey Korman. But you’re right. I think Life Stinks was Mel Brooks, all the way. I was the main character; it was my story.
AVC: Why that movie? What made you want to cast yourself in that role?
MB: I didn’t know that there would be a bigger depression coming 12 years later. [Laughs.] I thought  was the nadir, the depths; I thought this was equal to the 1929 Depression. People were living in cardboard boxes, and I wanted to show that. I wanted to live in a cardboard box, and I wanted to go from riches to rags. And see if a man who’s a billionaire can get some sense of other human beings, and actually care for them. I think the hidden beauties in the Mel Brooks repertoire of movies are The Twelve Chairs and Life Stinks.
AVC: How so?
MB: The Twelve Chairs is about the same thing. It’s all about money or love. We know we need money, we know we have to get money, we know we have to hurt others to get money. But we don’t know until maybe it’s a little too late in life that love is the most important thing. Love, friendship, affection, bonhomie, whatever. Those are the only things that really count: to love and be loved. And both of those movies say that. Pronounce that.
Do you know the other movies that were made that were like that movie? Sullivan’s Travels, you ever heard of Sullivan’s Travels? It’s all about a movie director who decides to say something about the Depression, and decides to be a bum and live in hobo camps. He runs into a lot of problems, and at the end—he had wanted to make a very serious movie about it, like Greed or one of those fabulous movies—he realizes in his travels that making comedies is better than anything, because people laugh and they feel good, so he’s really contributed something to humanity. I saw the movie, and I loved the movie, and I wanted to make something like it about the current state of the world, and New York and L.A.—this takes place in the streets of L.A., it’s really miserable—and see whether there is any joy you could cling to, like a raft. And there is. I found Lesley Ann Warren, who plays a bag lady, and Howard Morris and Teddy Wilson, the black guy. I found a little family I could really cling to and survive with. And it was very important. I don’t think it made a penny. But I needed The Twelve Chairs. The trouble is Pavlovian. “What are you saying, Mel?” I’m saying when they expect The Producers—
AVC: By “they,” do you mean the audience?
MB: The audience. They see the name Mel Brooks, they want something really funny. They don’t want to be moved; they don’t want to be taught any lessons. [Laughs.] So, Twelve Chairs, which I think is a great movie—I took a small part in it—didn’t do well financially. But, it’s right up there. It’s with my oeuvre, and people who see it send me letters. I get more letters for Twelve Chairs and Life Stinks than I get from any other movies, because people actually agree with the philosophy, or were moved, or they love the movie.
AVC: That’s wonderful.
MB: And that’s the reason Steve Heisler is interviewing. No, I’m just kidding. When I formed Brooksfilms, and I made Fatso—I produced Fatso; then I produced The Elephant Man. And the story of Frances Farmer [Frances], then 84 Charing Cross Road, then The Fly and The Doctor And The Devils. These are remarkable movies. Remarkable. But I realized something: “Keep Mel Brooks out of it.” I just called it Brooksfilms, and I used that sparingly at the very beginning and end of the movie. I never appeared in them. I kept trying to get Mel Brooks away from them. I’m very proud of those movies. Some of them, like The Fly, made a fortune, the Jeff Goldblum one, the first horror movie I ever made. But I was very careful—I said Pavlovian—to keep Pavlov out of it. Because Pavlov fed dogs, and when he fed the dogs, he rang a bell. And when he rang the bell, whether he fed them or not, the dogs salivated. He was absolutely a brilliant scientist. It’s the same thing with comedy. If you put Mel Brooks, it’s ringing the bell, and the audience really expects something outrageously funny. Like the French mistake in the middle of this cowboy film. They want something insane. You can’t do Twelve Chairs and make money if you use your name, and you can’t do Life Stinks if you use your name. I should have had it directed by [Steven] Spielberg, and then I would have won an Academy Award.
AVC: It sounds like there are projects you do simply to make people laugh, and there are pet projects.
MB: There’s a lot of things that I’ve done to stick into this box set. You never have it this good. I think people should bargain. They shouldn’t just buy the set, it's a little expensive right now. But they should say—I’ll give them dialogue, I’m a good writer. You can tell most of the people that I said, they should say to the clerk or the people in the store or Amazon, “Can you do any better?” And maybe they will, who knows? It’s like $89! I don’t think you should pay full price for this. Frankly, I think it’s worth $69. That’s my own opinion. But see what you can do; maybe you can get it for $79. It’s worth it. If you get it for $79, you won’t be cheated.
If you like comedy, and you’re interested. For instance, at the end of each disk, it’s Mel and His Movies. It’s like Cinema 101. If you want to be a filmmaker, if you care about movies, if you’re serious about movies, you’ve got to have it. And I’ve got stories about Hitchcock in it. [Laughs.]
AVC: In modern comedy, there’s less of a dichotomy between pure laughs and doing something that’s meaningful. Those lines are blurring, and it’s a really exciting change.
MB: The thing is to be brave and move the audience with you, instead of cater to the lowest common denominator, you know, slipping on a banana peel and falling on your ass. You got to move the audience a little further ahead in terms of their appreciation of what is comedy. It’s complicated.
AVC: Dracula: Dead And Loving It was your last film. What made you decide to stop after this one?
MB: It’s a real world, and I was seeing that at this point, Mel Brooks pictures were not doing as well as, let’s say a Judd Apatow picture. I said, “Well, maybe it’s time to do something else instead of just making more movies.” I thought, and I thought, and I thought, and I said, “I shouldn’t make another movie. I should follow a different road and a different vision.” And the new yellow brick road took me to Broadway. I was once again Mel Brooks and won more Tonys for The Producers with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick than anybody else had ever won on Broadway. So I was Mel Brooks again. And I was giving the world the best of me. I was giving them the songwriter in me, as well as the comedian, as well as the producer. And I’ve had great successes on Broadway. I’ve had The Producers and Young Frankenstein, and I may do a version of Blazing Saddles, a musical-comedy version of it. I’ve never stopped working.
AVC: A lot of comedians nowadays are very open about their past, and discuss some darkness that drew them to comedy. For some, comedy comes from a place of insecurity and anxiety, very heavy stuff. What’s your take on that? What was there at the very beginning that drove you to comedy? Was it dark?
MB: That’s a good question, about what was the determining factor. What ignited the rocket that sent you up into the vast regions of comedy, and why? I would say, for me, that philosophical treatise about having black beginnings and wanting love to compensate for that, wanting audiences and wanting attention—I say, “Au contraire.” Completely opposite. I want the continuation of my mother’s incredible love and attention to me. I was the baby boy. There were four boys. I was 2 years old when my father died, and my mother had to raise four boys. She must be in heaven, because in those days you washed clothes, you washed diapers. There was no income, and she had to take in home work. My Aunt Sadie brought her work that made these bathing suits and stuff, and ladies’ dresses. And my mother would sometimes do bathing-suit sashes all night. She got $5 or $6, and it was a lot. She could feed us, you know? But certainly she’d feed four boys for that day. It was amazing. But she loved me a lot. I don’t think I learned to walk until I was 5, because she always held me. [Laughs.] She’d say, “You can do anything, good or bad. You’re the best kid.” So I say, “Au contraire.” I think my surge forward into show business and getting audiences to love me was to continue gathering that affection and that love. It’s the opposite of a dark place. I came from a lovely, sunny place. Even though we were poor, you don’t know it. When you’re a kid, you don’t know it. I love franks and beans. I wouldn’t have eaten anything else! I didn’t know that was poor people’s food. [Laughs.] I didn’t know there was such a thing as steak. I knew there were French fries. There was chicken. Things were good.
My mother used to make [lunch for me] when I played with the kids in the street. She’d slice a Kaiser roll and fill it with tomatoes and butter on both sides, salt and pepper. And she’d put it in a brown paper bag and throw it down, and I’d catch it. I’d sit on the curb with Benny and Lenny and whoever, I had my lunch, and I loved it. It couldn’t have been anything better. Except one day I missed. And the brown paper bag, which held the Kaiser roll with all the tomatoes, the sliced tomatoes, and butter, and salt and pepper, smashed on the sidewalk. [Laughs.] So I just carefully peeled it away, peeled the brown paper bag away from it, and held it, and ate it. I began crying, because it was the best thing I had ever eaten in my life. The butter and the tomato had penetrated every crevice of that Kaiser roll. To this day, there will be nothing better.
I never realized we were poor, even though we really were. It was like the last apartment on the fifth floor. We had a family meeting once. I think I was, let’s see I’m trying to figure out. I was about 5, so it was 1931. We were sitting in the kitchen. The kitchen was everything. My mother had her bedroom, and there were four boys sleeping in one big bed. My brother had his own cot, so there were three and one. And my mother said, “I want to see the world.” I was 5. I thought, maybe she wanted to travel? I didn’t understand. None of us understood what she meant. She said, “All I see are cats. I see wet wash hanging on lines, and I see cats. I don’t want to see trees. I don’t want to live in the yards. I want to see the world. The apartment opposite us is open. We pay $16 a month. It’s $18 a month, and it’s on the street, where I can see the world. I can see into the courses and carts of people, whatever.” Whatever was on the street she could see, which was real action. And my brother Irving said—it was like a Clifford Odets play—“By God, we can do it.” So I ran for telephone calls, being only 5. I would call Mrs. Bloom to the phone. And Lenny would go to Sadie’s plant and work extra hours. Irving quit school and went to night school, and in the day he worked at one of mother’s garment-center places. And we all managed to bring in something so that my mother could move—all of us could move—to the front. And there was actually another little alcove, so we had more sleeping room. It was a wonderful story.
When I was very young and working for Sid Caesar; I was only 22 or 23. I called my other my brothers. I said, “I don’t want to tell mom what I’m making. She might have a heart attack and die. But I’m making over $150 a week.” Normal salary then was $57, $58 a week. I said, “So you guys, you’re off the hook.” They were still contributing to my mother’s household. I said, “Forget it. I got it. I’ll take care of it. Things are good.” That was a great day. I was making $50 a week with Sid for the first two years I worked for him. Then when the show went into a second season, I was given billing—“additional dialogue by Melvin Brooks,” or something—and $150 a week. So it’s a great story.
And later, my mother said, “Sadie and I want to live in Florida.” I said, “Okay.” [Laughs.] So they moved; this is true. They moved down to Florida. I was well-known then, you know? I became Mel Brooks. So they moved to Florida. I said, “Tell me about the apartment.” She said, “We’re living in a building, in a beautiful building, and I’ve got all of your awards on the television set. And once a week, I have the neighbors and friends come through and see them.” [Laughs.] Like a showing of my Oscar or whatever I had. An Emmy or this or that. And all my awards.
AVC: You keep saying that over and over again: “I became Mel Brooks.” What do you mean by that?
MB: Oh, that’s a good question! I’m not going to answer it. It’s none of your business. But it’s a good question. [Laughs.]
AVC: As long as it was a good question.
MB: No, I’ll tell you. I meant successful, doing what I wanted, and getting paid well. That’s the difference. Emerging as a known person, your personality in the business.
AVC: Did you feel any different? Did you feel as if it was a persona?
MB: No. It was just the magic.