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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