At 90 years old, comedy legend Mel Brooks has become accustomed to losing friends and collaborators. His longtime comedy partner, Carl Reiner, is still kicking at 94, but over the years, he has had to say goodbye to numerous comedic performers who helped make his films unforgettable.
Zero Mostel. Madeline Kahn. Harvey Korman. Marty Feldman. Peter Boyle. John Candy. His beloved wife Anne Bancroft. And now, Gene Wilder.
Wilder starred in Brooks’ first film The Producers as the nervous accountant Leo Bloom. They shared an Academy Award nomination for writing Young Frankenstein, in which Wilder portrayed the title role. And when Brooks was in desperate need of an actor to replace real-life alcoholic Gig Young as fictional drunk The Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, Wilder came to his rescue.
Before news broke of Wilder’s death on Monday, Brooks was scheduled to sit down with Jimmy Fallon on Tuesday to promote a new book he wrote with Judd Apatow about the making of Young Frankenstein. What was meant to be a celebratory interview took on a more meaningful resonance, but this being Brooks, was no less funny because of it.
Surprisingly, it took the two men a few minutes to get around to talking about Wilder’s life and work, but once they did Brooks was eager to share stories about not only their working relationship but their friendship as well.
“You know, he was sick. And I knew it. And he was such a dear friend. And I expected it,” Brooks told Fallon. “I expected he would go, but — I don't know, when it happens, it's still tremendous. It's still a big shock, you know? I'm still reeling from that. No more Gene. I can't call him. He was such a wonderful part of my life, you know?”
Brooks recalled first meeting Wilder when the actor was starring in a production of Mother Courage with Bancroft. When he went backstage, Wilder asked him, “Why are they always laughing? They are always laughing at me. Why are they laughing at me?” Brooks replied, “Look in the mirror, blame it on God.”
This humble refusal to admit that he was an inherently funny person persisted for the rest of Wilder’s life. In one of his last major interviews in 2013, he said, “When people see me in a movie and it’s funny, then they stop and say things to me about ‘how funny you were.’ But I don’t think I’m that funny.”
Brooks clearly knew how funny Wilder could be from the moment he met him. He promised him the role of Bloom in The Producers while he was still writing it, but Wilder never thought anyone would give him the money to finance a film that culminates with the song “Springtime for Hitler.” When, “miracle of miracles,” he finally did get the money and told Wilder, the actor “burst into tears.” Brooks called it a “wonderful moment.”
It was during the filming of Blazing Saddles that Wilder proposed the concept for Young Frankenstein to Brooks. As the filmmaker recalled, the pitch was, “What if the grandson of Victor Frankenstein was a serious, brilliant surgeon and wanted nothing to do with the people that were responsible for making the monster and animating, reanimating dead tissue? And he's fighting it, but it's in his blood.” He thought it was a “terrific idea,” so they decided to write it together and assemble one of the greatest comedy casts of all-time.
As a final tribute to Wilder, they played a nice long scene from the film for the audience and Tonight Show viewers at home.