Mel Brooks Talks Storytelling, Hollywood Friendships, And . . . Zombies?
Originally posted on Forbes.com
Mel Brooks has been taking audiences along for his ride for decades. The director of memorable comedies like Blazing Saddles, The Producers, and Young Frankenstein was also the executive producer of films like The Elephant Man. He is one of only 14 people to win Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award, and will be given the 41st AFI Life Achievement Award at a gala tribute on Thursday, June 6, 2013. He is also pretty good at telling great stories, or as he put it “I don’t do stuff for the audience, I do stuff for me, and the audience usually comes along with me.”
So it was no surprise during our chat who was in control of the conversation. It was also no surprise that I didn’t really care.
And that was one of the first questions I asked him . . .
T: In the upcoming American Masters special Mel Brooks: Make A Noise (May 20th on PBS), I noticed how outright manipulative you are. But nobody seems to mind; people are just willing to come along for the ride.
M: Yup, I think you are right. Smart observation. [Laugh] It is a skill. I could have been a great psychiatrist. I am a student of human nature and I know how to flatter. I know the secrets of how to get people to come along on these crazy rides with me. And it works. But look, I have been lucky. Look who I have had to work with. I have been so dammed lucky to get a Madeline Kahn, a Harvey Korman, a Marty Feldman, Richard Pryor, Dom DeLuise, and a Gene Wilder. I have just been incredible lucky. I have had the chance to weed out the real actors, find the real human talent. That all comes from Sid Caesar, you know. He was my springboard.
T: Yes, you were a writer and collaborator with him on his Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour. I was going ask if you are still in touch with him?
M: Yes, he sent me sailing into show business. And I am ever grateful for him. He will be 91 in September and he’s kinda bed-ridden, but about every Friday I drive up to see him, so we can, you know, spend an hour or so. Sometimes I just go up and give him a kiss. We talk, we bind. I get him excited and get to talk to him about his years on Broadway and television for so long. Sometimes he sings along with me ‘I got 5 dollars and it is burning a hole in my pocket.’ [Laugh] We just sing and he gets to forget that he is going to be 91. It’s heartbreaking to see him in his condition, but it happens to us all and we have to face it. I love him, I do. He’s one of a few people in my life that I honestly love. Sid is one of them.
T: Well, you have had the same effect on people in your stable of actors. There is a great story about you and being a first time director for The Producers. You have Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. Both very different personalities, but you find ways to get the best out each of them. Like Gene Wilder ‘wired’ on coffee.
M: [Laugh]. That was a pleasure. It was for this scene where he has to be hysterical. I gave him like a dozen chocolate bars and tell him to drink a pot of black coffee. He says ‘but I don’t drink coffee.’ I made him drink it and it was like 5:30 at night and we do the scene and ‘Take’ 1 was enough. He even admitted that he did an incredible scene. But, the next day he comes in all bleary eyed and says that he didn’t sleep a wink. It was the coffee. I got the scene but I have to be careful because I am such persuasive person and I just don’t want to cause that kinda chaos in a person’s life. ‘Melvin, you have to be careful, God is watching.’
T: As you worked with all these great people in your career, you have never been much of a stand-up, joke teller. For you it was about stories. I think you called them “life sketches” from your time as a writer for Sid Caesar.
M: Yes, hmm, I know what you mean. Stand-up is usually ‘joke humor.’ You get a laugh for like 10 seconds. Then it is gone. But real humor based on real life means something to the audience, it gets a longer laugh and it stays with you. These stories stay with you. Really life is funnier than just reciting or relaying a joke. Characters and storytelling mean a lot more to me. That is where Brooksfilms comes from.
T: How so?
M: Well, I had to keep the name Mel Brooks off the screen because the audience would expect a ‘Mel Brooks’ movie. So when we did that great story The Elephant Man, if it were a ‘Mel Brooks’ movie, they would have expected a rainbow colored trunk or something. [Laugh] So, I could tell these great stories like The Elephant Man or Frances Farmer in Frances, or Jeff Goldblum’s magnificent performance in The Fly. I was painful aware that I could not direct them, so I produced them.
T: Did you ever feel a victim of your own success? Ya know, being ‘funny man Mel Brooks?’
M: Nah. You know, for a while maybe, but then I realized that it’s their problem, not mine. It is what you are expecting. Anne (Bancroft) and I would have people over for a dinner party and on the ride home they would say ‘Ya know, that Mel Brooks is just not that funny.’ Like they were expecting me to be ‘on’ all the time. Life is more challenging than that. Like there was this one time where my son Max as a teenager was trying to stir some stuff up and came down to a dinner party dressed in full SS regalia, all black with the boots and everything. I was a bit shocked as ya know, there were a bunch of Jews at the table, but Anne – without missing a beat – said ‘Max, epaulets, really? Isn’t that a bit much.’ The room just cracked up and she handled it beautifully. I was just embarrassed.
T: Max has made quite a name for himself, correct.
M: Max never disappoints. And I am not just talking about his work. He wrote The Zombie Survival Guide and then went on to write World War Z, which is being turned into a movie this summer with Brad Pitt. But I am talking about him as a son. As a person, he is just a nice, sweet supportive guy. He never disappoints as a son.
T: So, last question? Any unrealized projects for you? Ya know, like (Director Stanley) Kubrick wanted to do “Napoleon” forever. Anything you want to do next? Burning desire.
M: That’s it. I want to do Napoleon. I mean we are the same height and everything. I just want to know what he was doing with his hand in his pocket? What was going on in there? No, seriously, I . . .maybe I will do Blazing Saddles The Musical. If I see something I like, I will stick with it. There is still plenty to do and plenty to live for. Sometimes I get strawberry cheesecake to look forward to[Laugh]. Wait, before we go . . .So this is going on Forbes right? Lots of bankers and finance people?
T: No, but every once and awhile, I am told that the future is in ‘plastics.’ (reference to a great line from The Graduate, starring Mel’s late wife Anne Bancroft).
M: [Laugh] Ha, Good one.
I think I just made Mel Brooks laugh!!
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Mel has a busy year ahead of him:
The new film American Masters Mel Brooks: Make A Noise will premiere nationally on PBS on May 20, and will be released on DVD by Shout! Factory on May 21. The film features never-before-heard stories and new interviews with Brooks, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Cloris Leachman, Carl Reiner, Joan Rivers, Tracey Ullman, and others.
On July 2, Mel Brooks’ legendary 1968 Oscar®-winning film The Producers gets its first Blu-ray release, also from Shout! Factory. The Producers: Collector’s Edition is a Blu-ray/DVD combo set that features a new HD transfer and includes a reversible wrap featuring original theatrical art, the documentary “The Making Of The Producers,” a 2012 interview titled “Mel And His Movies: The Producers,” the original theatrical trailer, a deleted scene, and a sketch gallery.
Also available is The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy, a 5-DVD/1-CD set that is a veritable treasure trove of all things Brooksian, released late last year by Shout! Factory.
Mel will be honored with the 41st AFI Life Achievement Award, the highest honor for a career in film. The award will be presented to Brooks at a gala tribute on Thursday, June 6, 2013 in Los Angeles, CA. His films have been recognized by the American Film Institute as among the funniest American movies of all time, with three films in the top 15 of AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs list: BLAZING SADDLES at #6, THE PRODUCERS at #11 and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN at #13.