At 95 years of age, media mogul Mel Brooks shows no signs of slowing. Hulu has recently ordered up a season of History Of The World, Part II, a variety series sequel to his 1981 anthology. Next year will see the release of Blazing Samurai, an animated (presumably kid-friendly) film inspired by his classic Western spoof, Blazing Saddles. Now the comedy legend has released a memoir, All About Me! My Remarkable Life In Show Business, a film-by-film, joke-by-joke chronicle of his life and career. What was Brooks’ first Borscht Belt job? What did he direct Gene Wilder in before The Producers? Read on…
For Mel Brooks, music and movies were always intertwined. He developed his first shtick at the age of 8, singing “Puttin’ On The Ritz” in the voice of horror movie icon Boris Karloff. He fell in love with musical comedy: Cole Porter on Broadway, Marx Brothers matinees, and his favorite film of all time, Top Hat starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. These performances taught him about rhythm. “Rhythm is the ability to know where the top of the vocality, the vocal message, happens,” he writes. “It’s a rim shot, it’s a whack, depending on what kind of comedy you’re into.” All of his movies contain a song and dance number, including Young Frankenstein’s famous tuxedo and top hat performance to “Puttin’ On The Ritz” by Frankenstein and his Monster, who was most famously portrayed onscreen by Karloff. Brooks reveals that it was Gene Wilder’s idea to include the scene. “I was afraid it might have made the screenplay border on being unbelievable. I insisted that it was too silly,” Brooks writes. “I have never been so wrong in my life.”
Brooks was 41 years old when he made his directorial debut with The Producers in 1967. Up until then, he writes, “I failed on large scales and small ones.” He started out as a Borscht Belt busboy, working his way up from the sour cream station to acting as a “pool tummler”: waking up sleepy, poolside hotel guests from their post-lunch naps. He’d do jokes, impressions, pretend to kill himself by jumping into the pool with rock-laden suitcases. “Sometimes they’d wait for a hundred and fifty crazy faces before I got my first laugh,” Brooks concedes. “Failure is like corned beef hash,” he continues. “It takes a while to eat. It takes a while to digest. But it stays with you.” When it came time to make The Producers, the film’s bankroller told Brooks to find some directing experience first. He helmed a pair of commercials for Frito-Lay and cast his fortuitous discovery, Gene Wilder.
Movie productions are full of what-ifs. What if she had taken that role, or he had directed instead? Mel Brooks’ oeuvre has produced some intriguing parallel-universe possibilities. While considering making The Producers, Universal Pictures producers suggested “Springtime For Mussolini,” instead of Hitler. “Mussolini was a much more acceptable dictator,” Brooks jokes. And Dustin Hoffman almost suited up in a Nazi uniform to play Franz Liebkind, but dropped the role to film The Graduate instead. Warner Bros. vetoed Richard Pryor for the role of Blazing Saddles’ Sheriff Bart, over concerns of “erratic behavior”—he would settle for a writing credit. While John Wayne turned down the role of the Jim, The Waco Kid, because the script was “too dirty” for his fans. For a bit role in his rarely seen but worthy second film, Brooks once again couldn’t secure his first preferred actor and made do with casting himself as the dimwitted Tikon, leading to lead and supporting roles in all his future endeavors.
It’s hard to believe that Brooks released two of the biggest (and arguably best) comedies of all time in the same year, 1974: Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Those blockbusters gave him carte blanche over the next decade-plus. And though his later films never scaled such box office heights again, his Brooksfilms studio did produce un-Brooksian hits like David Lynch’s The Elephant Man and David Cronenberg’s The Fly. His smash Broadway musical The Producers, won a record-setting 12 Tony Awards, earning Brooks his EGOT. As he raps in History Of The World, Part I, it’s good to be king.
Between all the career highlights, All About Me! is a love letter to two of the most important people in Brooks’ life: his wife, Anne Bancroft, and BFF, Carl Reiner. Brooks writes of falling in love at first sight and admits to being unable to marry Bancroft until he earned enough money with Get Smart. Later, he cast her as romantic foils in Silent Movie and the sweet, underseen To Be Or Not To Be. Brooks met Reiner on Sid Caesar’s Your Show Of Shows before teaming up to record the first of five 2000 Year Old Man improv albums. “To be clear,” he writes, “Carl Reiner isn’t the best friend I ever had—he’s the best friend anyone ever had… If you don’t have anyone in your life like Carl Reiner, stop reading this right now and go find someone!”