In a world gone mad, Mel Brooks, now 90, is determined to get people back on his laugh track. Earlier this year, members of the Writers’ Guild of America voted for the 101 funniest screenplays of all time. Brooks was the only writer to have three scripts he wrote or co-wrote in the top 12: his Oscar-winning original screenplay for The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein.
On Sept. 1 at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, after a screening of Blazing Saddles, Brooks will discuss why the classic western sendup is still a riot 42 years after its theatrical debut. If that weren’t enough, a coffee table book of Young Frankenstein will debut this fall.
Brooks is one of precious few to capture the EGOT, taking home Emmy, Tony, Grammy, and Academy awards. Like Don Rickles, Tony Bennett, and his close friend Carl Reiner, who co-created the 2000 Year Old Man bits, Brooks represents an era of show business that will pass when they do. But until that day comes, this old man river of laughs just keeps rollin’ on.
What did Warner Bros. executives think when they first saw Blazing Saddles?
Mel Brooks: They wanted to bury me and the film. The head of distribution told the owners not to release the picture but they only did because it was already booked in theaters and they didn’t have a picture they could replace it with. Only John Calley, an extremely filmmaker-friendly executive at the studio, championed it. The rest of the executives wouldn’t acknowledge me on the lot even when Blazing Saddles became a huge money maker.”
Why did they hate the film so much?
I actually got notes from the studio head in vivid detail who said, “Lose the fart scene, cut out any racial and ethnic jokes, edit scenes where a horse and an old lady get punched,” and my favorite note: “Can you reshoot Black Bart with a white actor?” If I had made their changes the film would have been just 14 minutes long! I stupidly threw all their notes in the trash. Imagine the book I could have written on them today. Then I had a screening on the lot for anyone who worked there, so the executives couldn’t think I was faking the results. The screening proved everything the big shots hated was funny beyond belief, and yet the big shots didn’t believe the comic tastes of their own employees. I only got my first royalty check recently, which meant it took all these years to show a profit. Hopefully my next check will be in three figures!
And Richard Pryor, of course, was your first choice for Black Bart.
The studio didn’t want him because they said he was unreliable due to his personal problems. I fought hard for Richard and was going to quit the film but he told me not to because he needed his screenwriter fees to pay his mortgage. Then we had a long and expensive search to find the right actor for his part. When Cleavon Little auditioned, Richard was in the room and gave me a signal that he was our man!
What other help did Pryor give you on Blazing Saddles?
When I was getting so much pressure to change the script due to it being offensive to blacks, Pryor stuck behind the work. He said the script, which three other people wrote besides us, was hilarious and if it was compromised in any way then we weren’t going to make the movie we all believed in.
But didn’t you cut one big line from the final edit?
Yes. For some weird reason, and I still can’t explain why… well, there’s a scene in Madeline Kahn’s dark dressing room where she’s below frame making Cleavon very happy. She tells him with satisfaction how big he is, and his initial response, which I cut, was: “You’re sucking on my arm!”
What’s the biggest misconception about Blazing Saddles?
That we shot it in black and white, then we later colored each frame with big crayons.
Do you think Blazing Saddles would ever get made in politically correct 2016?
How do you feel about Hillary and Trump running for president in 2016?
I don’t do political humor. It’s too passé.
Who makes you laugh today?
Dave Chappelle, Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, Nick Kroll, John Mulaney, Maya Rudolph, Zach Galifianakis, Louis C.K., Melissa McCarthy, and Harpo Marx.
What have you learned about pitching projects in today’s Hollywood?
Never go to a studio executive’s office. If you go there, you have a big NO awaiting you. If they come to your office, you’ve got a 50/50 chance for a green-light for your project.
What was your most unusual pitch meeting?
I went to Alan Ladd Jr., who was running Fox at the time, and pitched him Silent Movie. Even though Young Frankenstein had made him a lot of money, Laddie was very reluctant to do the picture. He said between the slapstick in that film and a non-talkie, it seemed like I really wanted to return to vaudeville, so he said no. I quickly told him I could get Anne Bancroft, Liza Minnelli, Dom DeLuise, Marty Feldman, Marcel Marceau, Paul Newman, and Burt Reynolds, who was the hottest star in Hollywood at the time. I was lying of course, like I’m doing to you now, but Laddie said he’d make the picture if I got all of them. Newman loved the idea of driving a go-kart and not having any dialogue to memorize. I paid Reynolds $25,000 for a day’s work and then told him I need him for three more days. Burt was having fun taking a shower with Dom, me, and Marty in the film, of course, I think—so he stuck around.
Didn’t you have a strange meeting when you tried to pitch Young Frankenstein to Columbia Pictures?
The short version is they wanted to make it but wanted to make it for $2 million less than its small budget—money Fox made just on the 40th anniversary DVD. My last words at the meeting were, “And we’re going to make it in black and white.” As I’m walking down the hall I realized I was being chased by 30 executives telling me I had no green-light if I wanted to make it in black and white. And this was when Blazing Saddles was making millions of dollars daily, money that somehow disappeared immediately when I asked Warner Brothers when I would receive a royalty check.
With truly unlimited source material, why didn’t you ever make a sequel to History of the World: Part I?
Nobody asked me to. The film made good money. I’d enjoy doing a sequel to that and Spaceballs. There’s still so much you can satirize in both movies.
Do you feel any of your pictures are underrated?
The Twelve Chairs. It was a nice, sweet film with a funny performance by Dom DeLuise—his best, I believe, other than when my wife Anne Bancroft directed him in Fatso. My favorite film nobody saw is Life Stinks. I play a multimillionaire who makes a bet with a peer that he can survive on the streets as a homeless person. You root for this guy and you laugh with him, not at him. You know, basically all my films are about greed versus humanity. I never want people to leave one of my productions feeling depressed. If you come out of the play The Producers humming “Springtime for Hitler” and having a smile on your face, then I’m a happy man. Do you realize the last time I was at Radio City Music Hall was when The Producers won more Tonys than any play in history?! That place is bigger than some New England states. I’m going to be there with Blazing Saddles Sept. 1. I may be a 2,000-year-old man but I can still see empty seats. Since I’m not getting paid for this fantastic interview I’m giving you, then do your best to help me fill those seats. Is that too subtle?!
OK, but only if you answer one final question: Is it true that Dustin Hoffman was going to receive his first starring role in The Producers?
YES! Dustin came to my house late one night and threw pebbles at the windows of my upstairs apartment. Even then I knew better not to eat with an actor or give them my phone number. Dustin told me he had to drop out of my film, a movie I had spent years trying to get financing for, because he was going to Los Angeles to star in The Graduate. I yelled at him so loud it woke up my fellow renters. I screamed, “You mean you’re deserting me to spend the summer in Hollywood making love to the love of my life [Bancroft]?” Then I gave him my blessing by adding, “Good choice!”