Tag Archives: Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks Talks ‘Blazing Saddles,’ Broadway and Battling the Blues With Laughter

mel brooks head shotMel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” is the funniest movie ever made. Just ask Mel
Brooks. He is quite certain of it, and of course, millions of us who can cheer
ourselves up some by dropping a line of authentic frontier gibberish agree. The
humor half-life of the comedy bits contained in the film is such that, 40 years
later, we still laugh at the mere mention of schnitzengruben or a laurel and
hearty handshake. Yes, 40 years. And on May 6, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
and Mel are commemorating the occasion with a 40th anniversary Blu-ray release
of the movie, complete with a new featurette, “Blaze of Glory: Mel Brooks’ Wild,
Wild West.” Sitting in his office, the esteemed funnyman takes time to talk
about how he got away with the comedy that scared the #@$! out of Warner Bros.
executives — and gives his thoughts about Twitter, late pal Mickey Rooney and
the power of laughter. What a nice guy!

Q: I wonder if you could get this movie made today. In the “Blaze of Glory”
documentary you talked about the number of times Richard Pryor said, ‘Use the
N-word here, use the N-word there. Use it twice there … ‘

A: Yeah, I didn’t want to use the N-word so much, but Richard forced me to. He
said something really interesting. He said, ‘You know, the N-word is used
properly in two basic ways: One is when bad people use it, and we’re sure they
are bad people because they use it. We don’t want them to succeed or prosper, we
want them to fail and we want the black guy to succeed because they used that
word. And the second use is as a term of affection among the brothers. It made a
lot of sense. I was going to use it three or four times, I ended up using it 16
or 17 times because of Richie.

Q: And you originally wanted him to star in addition to working with you on the
screenplay?

A: I wanted him to be Black Bart, to be the black sheriff. But Warner Bros.
wouldn’t do it. They said, ‘He’s been taking drugs and we don’t know. We don’t
want to take a chance.’ Two years later he was the No. 1 comedy star in the
country. But they wouldn’t do it. So I was going to quit, and Richard said,
‘Please. Direct the movie. Don’t quit. We’ve written a great movie here, said a
lot of wonderful things. If you leave, it just ain’t gonna be the same movie.’
So I said, OK. And when we were auditioning, you know, for our Black Bart, we
both saw Cleavon Little and we jumped in the air and said, ‘That’s the guy!’
Richard said something interesting. He said, ‘I’ve got a mustache, and I’m
coffee colored. I could be Cuban. But Cleavon is really black. He’s gonna scare
the s— out of the West.’

Q: You got a little emotional in the documentary, talking about the late,
wonderful Madeline Kahn. Is looking back on all this an emotional roller coaster
for you?

A: Oh no, it wasn’t a roller coaster. It’s really a resting place for sweet,
wonderful memories of what I did then and that life then. That wonderful plateau
of happiness in my life. You know, my wife [Anne Bancroft] was still with me,
still alive. Harvey Korman, Cleavon, Richard — all the people that left, you
know? It was a great, wonderful time in my life. I’ve gotten through many, many
battles with all these losses. I watch the movie and my heart sings. I love it.
I wrote it, and even so, I laugh a lot.

Q: Sure, and you had all these talented people bringing their best to the party
also, like Gene Wilder as The Waco Kid and Madeline Kahn playing Lili Von
Shtupp.

A: You know, [the American Film Institute] had a list of the 100 greatest
comedies, it was like five or six. I said, ‘What are you, crazy?’ It’s No. 1 all
the way.

Q: I totally agree. So, is it time for those questions again about Broadway and
‘Blazing Saddles.’

A: I think about it. I’ve got a couple of tunes. I’m thinking about The Waco
Kid and the Black Sheriff doing a duet, something like, you know, ‘You’re Just
in Love’ — you know, the Irving Berlin song? You don’t get it, you’re just
black. (Sings) Why do people hate me, why am I an outcast, why do they treat me
without any respect? And then the counterpoint would be, ‘Well, you’re just
black.’ A cute song for that.

Q: How far along are you? Is this something we can look forward to?
A: I’m toying with it. We’ll see. There’s no big rush. I’ve got a couple of
tunes in it already — one of them is the ‘Ballad of Rock Ridge,’ which is a
lovely song. And then Madeline’s great song: ‘I’m Tired.’

Q: Have you had your eye on anybody around today that could play those roles?
It would be hard to cast, wouldn’t it?

A: No. There’s always somebody, always somebody good that’s going to come
around. I won’t say any names now because I don’t know when I’ll finish it and I
don’t know when I’ll cast it. But it’ll be a new guy who rides into town with a
shiny badge, and that’s the guy, you know?

Q: “Blazing Saddles” had so much to say about racism. And now your son, Max,
has this graphic novel out about ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ — and Will Smith
snapped up rights. You must be so proud.

A: I am, I am! It’s a little-known fact about the 369th black regiment in World
War I that the American army didn’t want to use except as truck drivers and
cooks and bottle washers. The French took them in as a fighting unit and they
ended up winning the Croix de Guerre — they were an incredible unit. It’s a
beautiful book.

Q: Somebody told me that Carl Reiner says you have a Twitter account, but can’t
use it. Is that true?

A: The truth is, I don’t use it much. But I used it the other day to salute
Mickey Rooney. Once in a blue moon I use the Twitter, but I don’t use it too
often. People use it to say ‘I brushed my teeth. I think I missed one.’ You
know, you get a lot of gossipy nonsense, so I’m careful how I use it.

Q: What did you say about Mickey?

A: We were at the racetrack together. I posted the last picture he ever took.
You know, we’re going to miss him a lot. He was the complete talent. Nobody was
more talented, nobody, than Mickey Rooney. He could sing and dance exquisitely.
He could act — he could tear your heart out, as you know if you saw ‘National
Velvet.’ And he was funny and peppy.

Q: You’ve been quoted in the past that there might have been some anger in your
humor, having lost your father at two years old. Now, do you find that humor
helps you through this time that — well, I know I’ve lost some friends and it’s
hard to lose so many people in your life.

A: Humor can conquer over anything. Laughing blows the dust off your soul.

Q: What is on the front burner for you right now?

A: I have been a secret producer. I did about eight or 10 movies hiding my
name. Nobody knows I’m connected to them. They’re called Brooksfilms. They’re
very — there’s ‘The Fly’ with Jeff Goldblum, ‘The Elephant Man,’ there’s
‘Frances’ with Jessica Lange as Frances Farmer. I made ’84 Charing Cross Road’
with Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft; ‘The Doctor and the Devils’ Jonathan
Pryce and Twiggy. That is my next project: I am putting them together in a box
set! And I’m finally taking credit for them with a little oval picture of me,
Mel Brooks. I was afraid to be associated with them because of my mad comedy.
Some of these pictures were quite profound and serious. They should be out in
two or three months.

Q: One more thing: What’s the best recipe for staying positive?

A: Thank God every time you wake up and realize you’re alive. OK, I’m up!
Things are going to be OK.

How George Clooney Became Prince of the Ball

Interesting, the story behind George Clooney becoming this year’s honoree at Barbara Davis’ gala of all Hollywood galas, the Carousel of Hope Ball.

The socialite philanthropist, whose event draws dozens of A-list stars and power players each year, tells us that she got to know Clooney just after he put together the January, 2010 Hope for Haiti telethon.

Medical personnel on the scene in that earthquake and poverty-stricken land needed drugs, including Insulin and antibiotics specifically used for diabetics. Clooney turned to Davis – whose Carousel of Hope events have brought in more than $100 million for the fight against the disease– and she turned to the pharmaceutical companies who know her well. Soon, the asked-for medications were on their way to Haiti – and Clooney and Davis had become philanthropy pals. Now Clooney’s the man of the hour at this Saturday’s (10/20) Carousel of Hope at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

“Honestly, I can’t rave enough about the man. He uses his celebrity in such amazing ways. There may not be a Santa Claus, but there is a George Clooney,” says Davis, whose fundraiser benefits her Denver-based Center for Childhood Diabetes. Her friend George is a huge draw, of course, and it sounds as if the suave star even has Davis a little breathless. “He’s so nice you just can’t believe how wonderful! He’s such a mensh,” she gushes.

Carousel of Hope has been called the glitziest, most elaborate event on Hollywood’s charity calendar for good reason. Sponsored by Mercedes-Benz (which contributed a $137,505 Mercedes-Benz 2013 G63 AMG design for auction this year), the affair boasts Neil Diamond and Babyface as performers, Jay Leno back as emcee, with George Schlatter as producer and David Foster as music director.

Davis admits her charity, like nearly every charity out there, has felt the impact of the recession (not that you’d notice). “Very honestly, there are some people giving less. But there are also some giving more. People affected by auto immune diseases are more prone to get yet another auto immune disease,” she notes. One of her daughters has had diabetes since age seven, the other has MS– both auto immune diseases.

Among the expected attendees this year: Tatyana Ali, Antonio Banderas, Adrien Brody, Cheryl Burke, Sophia Bush, Jessica Capshaw, Jackie Collins, Joan Collins, Cindy Crawford & Rande Gerber, Billy Davis, Clive Davis, Jane Fonda, David Foster, Quincy Jones, Shirley MacLaine, Alyssa Milano, Shaquille O’Neil, Sidney and Joanna Poitier, Don Rickles, Smokey Robinson, Sarah Silverman, Jaclyn Smith, Sharon Stone, Alan Thicke and Diane Warren.

And among the items being auctioned off, in addition to the Mercedes: a luxurious Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week, including tickets to runway shows by Valentino, Versace, Giorgio Armani and others; and a Bora Bora dream wedding valued at $250,000.

WELL-DESERVED: Nice to see Mel Brooks being designated next year’s American Film Institute lifetime achievement honoree – as well as getting the full-on biographical treatment from PBS’s “American Masters,” also for next year. The hard part will be dealing with time constraints, considering the funnyman’s contributions and hilarious behind-the-scenes stories. Three of Brooks’ movies are on AFI’s top 100 list of all-time great comedy films (“Young Frankenstein,” No. 13; “The Producers,” No. 11; and “Blazing Saddles,” No. 6). And then there’s his Broadway success, and his serious side (eg: “The Elephant Man.”) And he’s not done yet. The man who told us he delights in “putting pins into balloons, deflating pompous types”has a comedy horror picture called “Pizzaman” on his to-do list, with Cary Elwes and Stacy Keach.

“I’ve been accused of vulgarity, and rightly so,” admitted Brooks. “I think that vulgarity, pointed properly, can be a good weapon in the hands of a creative person.” It’s certainly worked for him.

THE FUNNY SIDE: Kellie Martin says that one of the appealing aspects of her Oct. 20 ‘I Married Who?” was that the movie – about a woman who wakes up wed to a movie star she doesn’t know – gave her a chance to work her comedy chops. “Usually I have to be really upset and emotional,” says the veteran of drama series including “ER,” “but this was‘Learn your lines and have fun.’” Fun she did have, including adding improvisational bits to some scenes, with a director who encouraged the cast to stay loose. “There were times I felt it was way too big or too broad, but when they put it all together I was so surprised they used as much of the improv as they did…I needed to feel safe, to be able to try and fail.”

Ethan Erickson plays the movie star, and Kellie applauds him for making the most of his perfect looks for comedy’s sake.

“It’s Hallmark’s answer to ‘The Hangover,’” she adds with a laugh. “A super clean version of the Hangover.’”

 

Stacy Keach Wants to Get Kids Excited About Science With New ‘Magic Microscope’ Book

Stacy Keach

Stacy Keach has long been known as a man of many interests, but his latest non-acting endeavor,  Mary’s Magic Microscope still comes as a surprise.  The title instrument takes the book’s young characters into strange and fabulous molecular worlds — with sights like living rings of atoms in lime green and hot orange and yellow, and honey bee eyes with huge, soft-looking lashes.  The striking visuals are provided by Keach’s collaborator in the work, artist and scientist Gary Greenberg, who shot them using his patented 3D light microscopes.  The story is a lot of fun, too.

 If Keach and Greenberg have their way, their Mary’s Magic Microscope books — they have a series in the works — will open the way for a 3D film that, they hope, will help inspire lasting excitement about science in young learners.  “We’re both parents ourselves — Gary’s a grandparent.  And the thing is, we want to help,” Keach says.

 The esteemed actor got to know Greenberg years ago when he joined the advisory board of the Environmental Communications organization, he recalls.  Both men are drawn to “the synthesis of art and science,” as Keach puts it.  

“If you look at my website, you can see how visual this stuff is,” notes Greenberg.  “That’s why it’s a perfect movie vehicle.  The microworld is amazingly visual.”  They’re hoping for a full-on feature release in 3D theaters, but Greenberg says, “We’ve also often discussed the possibility of an IMAX release, which would be a wonderful way to do it.”

Gary Greenberg

 MEANWHILE:  Keach is finding time for his scientific labor of love in-between a full agenda of other activities.  He has the critically-hailed Other Desert Cities opening Nov. 3 at Broadway’s Booth Theatre.  He and Stockard Channing are reprising the roles they played earlier this year at Lincoln Center in the drama about a former GOP power player who has deep family secrets about to be exposed.  Joining them are Judith Light and Rachel Griffiths.  

 And on a completely different note, Keach has Mel Brooks’ comedy horror “Pizzaman” ahead.  “I can’t wait,” he says.  “I’m very excited about it.  I’ve never worked with Mel before, but I’ve known him for a long time.  His first cousin, Howard Kaminsky, and I want to school together at Berkeley — oh, a few years ago.”  But as for what he’ll play in the tale of a homicidal pizza delivery man, or any other, um, juicy details, Keach is mum.  “I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say.”

Dick Cavett Looking Forward to Mixing it Up With Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett, another time

Dick Cavett reports that it looks like his Dec. 7 Writer’s Bloc chat with Mel Brooks, onstage at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, will be put on video for posterity.  He certainly hopes it will.  “It can only be fun,” says the talk show legend, who’s previously mixed it up with the master funnyman not only on his own program, but in a series of kooky award-winning beer commercials.

Witty exchanges like his and Mel’s are rare show business fare in these times.

“I do have a general feeling that most things are getting worse” when it comes to the diminishing quality of public discourse on television, admits Cavett.

However, adds the man who conversed with guests ranging from John Lennon and Katharine Hepburn to Buckminster Fuller and Charles Bukowski back in the 20th Century, “I don’t really watch much these days.  I like to watch a certain amount, not that I crave entertainment on television.  Every so often like to check in on the various shows that do something like I did.”

As for who he likes best among Jay, Conan, David and the rest, “I’d be a fool to name names,” demurs Cavett, who’s out touting his new book, “Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets.”

With the book (a compilation of essays from his New York Times online column) launched, “There are so many things I’ve done that I wouldn’t mind doing again,” he says.  Such as?  “A play on Broadway — I’ve done a couple of musicals.  I’ve enjoyed guesting on other people’s shows.  And it’s fun to go on shows that you enjoy watching,” adds the septuagenarian Emmy winner.

He smiles about being lionized as the seminal hip intellectual talk presence in television – as he certainly appears in Louis Menard’s Cavett story in the current New Yorker.  However, he points out that his track record of delivering “impossible-to-get” interviews wasn’t perfect.  For instance, “I never got Cary Grant.  I talked to him about coming on the show, but he said, ‘I don’t want people to find out how dumb I am,'” he recalls of the suave screen icon.  “I’d have loved to have done Frank Sinatra,” he says.

And as for Cavett’s feelings about such admiring attention?  “I guess mercifully some part of you refuses to believe it,” he says, “otherwise you would become impossible.”

THE BECK/SMITH VAULT: Mel Brooks Turns Serious – Sort Of

Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks

December 1, 1979

Mel Brooks Turns Serious – Sort Of

By Marilyn Beck

Hollywood – A likeness of Leo Tolstoy gazes upon other posters adorning an office suite that flows from a couch-coffee table grouping to a mammoth desk – where a bright-eyed Teddy bear of a man sits with Adidas-shod feet propped up before him.

Mel Brooks is completing a phone call, contorting his face alternately into an expression of eyebrow-raised puzzlement, a lopsided frown, an impish grin.

Scattered about on a near by conference table are sheets of paper. Brooks is writing the script for his upcoming “The History of the World, Part 1.” And once his phone call is through, he explains, “I’m right in the middle of the French Revolution now.”

Then, without missing a beat, he volunteers, “They used a lot of perfume then, a lot of toilet water – because they all stunk. It’s a great period for me.”

Before too long – after some relaxed, easy chatter – he will instruct, “Come here,” and will lead the way to the wall where sketches for a Busby Berkeley-style musical number that will be part of Brooks’ cinema impression of the “History of the World” are taped.

“Don’t be scared now,” he says as he points to the bizarre interpretation of The Spanish Inquisition – drawings of pain-inducing devices, of victims hanging by chains or about to be impaled.

And then he explains with pride – in the tone of an architect discussing a projected high-rise – “Here’s the torturer, see, and here are the Jews. And look at this one.” He motions to a sketch of three victims strapped to wheel-like rotating racks.

Suddenly it becomes evident that this is an outline of some sort of weird torture slot machine – the precision drawing illustrating a jackpot selection of three behatted, bearded figures lined in a row. And just in case that point isn’t clear, Brooklyn’s former Melvin Kaminsky points out, “See, if you get three rabbis at once – you win!”

It is an illustration of the sort of outrageous, irreverent humor that has earned him a legion of fans. And it will probably be received by his cult of followers with the same appreciation they exhibited toward his “The “Twelve Chairs” Epilipsy comedy – or that notorious “Blazing Saddles” scene in which he had his characters sitting around a campfire stuffing themselves with baked beans until they exploded with sound.

“I’ve been accused of vulgarity, and rightly so,” admits the man who has served as guru to such comedy talents as Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise.  “I think that vulgarity, pointed properly, can be a good weapon in the hands of a creative person.”

His creativity has encompassed acting, writing, directing, producing, and has earned him such labels as “genius” and “master of the contemporary cinema comedy school.” And he makes the point, “I don’t always try to make statements. I also like to make things simply to celebrate life – to show it’s crazy not have fun. But you could see in ‘Blazing Saddles‘ that I wasn’t crazy about the hypocrites who thumped their Bibles while being anxious to hang the sheriff.”

He professes a delight in “putting pins into balloons, deflating pompous types.” And he’s particularly delighted and proud of the statements his wife Anne Bancroft is subtly including in the “Fatso” film which marks her directorial debut.

“The title is funny, yes – but it’s more than that because it also says so much about the hurt inflicted on fat people. And the movie is funny, but…At the same time it condemns society for making outcasts of fat people and examines the thing – the psychology – that makes these super fat people want to throw their lives away. Because, really, that’s what they’re doing.”

His wife, Mel notes with pride, “took to directing like a fish to water.”

“She is a remarkable woman. Every year I see her grow more as a person and as an artist. I really like her, you know? As well as love her.”

With no prompting, he continues to rhapsodize the woman he married in 1964.

“I think that that’s really what a good relationship is based on – liking each other. If someone tried to pin me down on what makes a relationship work – ‘Is it having enough money?’ ‘Is it sex?’ – I would say, ‘It’s good company. The good company you can afford each other.’

“You know, I dated a lot of girls before I married my wife. Hundreds, maybe thousands, maybe…” And then, with that familiar Mel-crazyman glint flashing from his eyes, he adds, “Maybe a million – they loved me.”

Then, suddenly serious, he adds, “Very few of them had the same perception, We can be in different cities and watch the same TV show, and afterwards we’ll have the same things to say about it.

“Being tuned into each other. That’s the most important thing. That’s what it’s all about.”

And then he adds, “And I don’t cheat.” He feigns a sheepish look and shrugs, “Well, maybe a chorus boy or two once in a while.”

But, seriously, folks. As much as he enjoys sharing his off moments with Anne Bancroft, that’s how much he enjoys working with her.

“She’s such a good sport. That part in ‘Silent Movie’ where we ran her head into a pillar? We really did. Well, it was padded a little, but we still cracked her neck when we did it. You know how chiropractors crack somebody’s neck? That’s what it sounded like. She was a little worried, but it was OK.

“That’s why my work is so much fun. I work with people I love. Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Carl Reiner – all of ’em.”

At the moment, Brooks is working on six different film projects – and the one that seems dearest to his heart is “The Elephant Man,” currently shooting in London.

“When I read the script, I somehow began finding tears on the pages,” he says of the Victorian Age story which marks the first serious picture under his Brooksfilm Productions banner. “That kind of thing hasn’t happened to me since I saw ‘The Miracle Worker’ 15 years ago. The basic material is the most I’ve read since ‘The Death of Ivan Illych’ by that guy,” he points to the Tolstoy poster. “The last time I cried was when a BMW ran over my foot.”

He’s being sued over use of the title by the principles involved with Broadway’s hit play of the same name, but makes a point that his “Elephant Man” is based upon the journals of Dr. Frederick Treves, “who saved this sensitive, poetic man – The Elephant Man – from a life as a circus sideshow freak.”

Once again he bounds up from his desk and leads the way to a cabinet atop which rest several photos and instructs anew, “Now don’t be scared.”

He stares at the makeup artists’ re-creations of the disfigured form and at copies of faded pictures of the real Elephant Man who serves as the inspiration for his film: a grotesque, alien-looking creature with monstrous cauliflower-shaped growths that consume his head and back. And Mel comments that when he talked to actor John Hurt about handling the title role in the film, “I showed him these – he’s passionate and dramatic – and he went crashing to his knees and saying he had to play this man, to tell his story.”

And that’s what Hurt is doing now – with Anthony Hopkins and John Gielgud and Anne Bancroft – while Anne’s husband commutes back and forth, overseeing production in London, jamming his calendar with the demands of a half-dozen projects here.

Right now, there’s a long-distance call awaiting. Before he picks up the line, he offers a few stapled sheets of paper for his visitor’s perusal. “See if YOU can figure this out,” he instructs, with a silent sigh that says it’s all beyond him.

The Adidas return to the desk top – and the Teddy-bearish figure in the natty blue tennis sweater starts mugging his way through the call.

reported by Stacy Jenel Smith