Culture, Uncategorized

Mel Brooks Still Rocks in His 90s

NOW in his nineties, Melvin James Kaminsky bounces on stage as though fired by a cannon. He is neat, a little round and casual-smart in slightly baggy creased cream slacks, an open necked sky-blue shirt, and a red handkerchief peeping out the top pocket of his navy blue blazer. A wide grin runs from ear to ear.

Mel Brooks in 2008
Photo by Tim Boxer

The packed house at the Thousand Oaks Civic Auditorium in Southern California gives him the kind of welcome usually reserved for rock stars—shrieks, yells and thunderous applause at the first sight of the iconic Kaminsky.

Kaminsky, better known as the director, producer, writer, actor and outrageous comic Mel Brooks, came here as part of an intermittently yearlong whistle stop on the 42nd anniversary of the release of his l974 ground-breaking, off-the-wall Blazing Saddles which late critic Roger Ebert first described as “a crazed, grab-bag of a movie that does everything to keep us laughing except hit us over the head with a rubber chicken.”

Since the outbreak of corona virus in early 2021, Brooks has slowed down and stayed home. Those one-man shows have become a thing of the past. Although he once enjoyed crisscrossing the country, he has for the last two years devoted his life to writing—and at long last—has written his life story. And in the winter of 2021 Brooks at 95 is omnipresent as he launched a one-man fusillade to spread the word about his memoir, All About Me! My Remarkable Life in Show Business.

Now if you want to talk about Mel you can either Zoom him or show up at his Westside Los Angeles home to find out what took him so long to get the book done.

Over the past 60 years or more, Brooks, who got his start as a teenaged tumeler at Borscht Belt resorts in the Catskills—the breeding ground for scores of comics—-has plied his very funny trade turning out sidesplitting comedic screen spoofs that have skewered every cinematic genre and topic known to man:  westerns (Blazing Saddles 1974), horror films (Young Frankenstein 1974), sci-fi movies (Spaceballs 1987), legends (Robin Hood Men in Tights 1993), even Hitler in The Producers —first a movie in 1967 and then a smash Broadway musical in 2001.

In l981 Brooks even took on the world with his parody (Dawn of Man to the French Revolution), The History of the World Part 1 in which he plays five roles, not to mention writing, producing, and directing.  Who could ever forget his Moses coming down the mount hefting the 15 Commandments? Five shatter, alas. Even Alfred Hitchcock got the Brooks treatment in the l977 film High Anxiety.

And along the way he’s picked up a bagful of prizes: Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, Tonys and so on.

“Mel is involved in controlled madness on his movies,” observes actress Madeline Kahn, a regular in many of his movies along with the Brooks’ other repertory members including Cloris Leachman, Dom DeLuise, Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman and Harvey Korman.

John Trembler, who produced Brooks’ live shows, puts it this way: “I’m totally in awe of him. He’s a unique force of nature with the energy of a man half his age.”

Trembler notes that Brooks’ passion for hitting the road seldom wanes: “He likes to come to the theater at the beginning of the movie, sit in the wings and listen to the audience. Then he shakes his head in disbelief because they are still laughing 40 odd years later.”

When I showed up at his live pre-Corona show I felt like I was attending a screening of the Rocky Horror film. The audience knew every punchline. They whooped when Lili von Shtupp (Kahn as the copycat Marlene Dietrich character ) sang and delivered her outrageously provocative lines.  And they yelled out at the screen as other familiar scenes unfolded.

When the lights came on, so did Mel. Silver haired, spry, stocky, and confident, he stood in front of a huge poster that read “Welcome to the stage—the Legendary Mel Brooks.” And they whooped some more.

A moderator introduced him in a vain attempt to give the evening some orderliness and urged Mel to sit down on a chair which had been placed center stage on a large Persian rug. But Mel stood, grabbed the mike and took immediate control.  Ebullient., cocky and confident—still like the Brooklyn street kid he once was—-he shouts, mugs, struts and tells funny stories.

He turns his back on his audience. “See,” he commands, “there’s the skyline of New York on the back of my jacket.”

The stage moderator barely got a word in edgeways. Brooks was jubilantly in charge and he relished every minute of it.

He talked spontaneously for almost an hour, took questions from the audience, and would have gone on all night until the neglected moderator finally made his presence known by declaring, as the hour got late, “Sorry Mel, this will have to be the last question.”

Mel Connects To People

OVER the years I have interviewed the irrepressible Mr. Brooks usually before the release of a new picture. He has never been a shrinking violet and always a master of public relations.

Not long ago before the release of his book, I talked to him again about his remarkable career. He says he misses connecting with people.

“These personal appearances bring me back to my first love, which is live theater,” he said. “I started in the Borscht Belt in the late forties as a drummer and pianist.  We did three or four items a week in a musical review. A play, then amateur night. I was always busy onstage doing something. Writing sketches beginning on Broadway in l952 in a show called New Faces with Eartha Kitt, Paul Lynde and Carol Lawrence.  I still get goosebumps when a Broadway orchestra strikes up.

“I am energized by what I do. Half an hour before my show I have a pumpernickel bagel—the thin half only–with cream cheese and seedless raspberry jelly and a glass of Ovaltine with cold, nonfat milk. I’m ready. I kind of talk a lot.”

Slight understatement, Mr. Brooks.

“It’s a wandering trip through my life,” he gallops on.  “The story of a poor kid from Brooklyn. How I came to be. Stories of being in the Army [as a combat engineer in World War II Germany], hearing a German platoon singing across the river—and me singing back, Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye (the Al Jolson song) to straighten them out. Stories about the TV show Get Smart and with the incredible Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, writing Your Show of Shows with Carl Reiner and Neil Simon in the fifties.”

 Then our conversation, not surprisingly, turned to Blazing Saddles.

  Brooks says he was struggling to make a living at the time.

“I wasn’t making big bucks: I made $25,000 for The Producers, which wasn’t a success at first. And $35,000 for Twelve Chairs. So I was absolutely broke when the movie was made. And my wife Anne Bancroft (God bless her) was going to have a baby [Max, now an author and screenwriter].

Blazing Saddles was more or less written in the middle of a drunken fistfight. There were five of us all yelling loudly for our ideas to be put into the movie. Not only was I the loudest, but luckily I also had the right as director to decide what was in or out.”

“That movie was never smooth going,” he said.

“And yes it’s true. I asked John Wayne to be in the movie. Upfront he said, ‘I can’t do it.’”

“I quit the film once. Richard Pryor was to be Black Bart the sheriff, but the studio said no. He was spending $500 a week on Remy Martin and the studio was leery of hiring him. And he wasn’t a proven star. But he persuaded me to do it without him. He had been arrested for drugs and they wouldn’t give him insurance

“He told me he wouldn’t get paid (as one of the film’s five writers) if the movie was cancelled. So he helped me find Cleavon Little and told me, ‘I’ll be good and get the laughs—but there’s no way I would scare those rednecks shitless like Cleavon could.’”

  Even when the movie was finished Brooks faced huge obstacles.

“When my movie opened at the Avco in Westwood, audiences loved it and ran up and down the aisles. They laughed from start to finish. But Ted Ashley, the head of Warner Brothers, had his new fiancée with him and was embarrassed by what he had seen—particularly at the cowboy’s farting around the camp fire. He had a conniption fit.

‘This is the most disgusting movie I’ve ever seen. It’s vulgar and we can’t show this under the Warner badge’ he said. ‘We should bury it.’

“Then he grabbed me by the ear and threw me in the manager’s office—and handed me a legal pad. ‘The farting scene has got to go. You can’t punch a horse. You can’t hit an old lady. And you can’t use the N-word.’ Then he gave me a list of 26 other scenes that he said must go. Out. Out. Out. I knew if I cut those, we’d have a 15-minute film. I wrote it all down and then after he walked out, I crumpled up the pages and tossed them in the wastepaper bin.” 

“John Calley, another studio executive who was running the movie division, turned to me and said, ‘I like your filing system.’ Then he saved my life. He said, ‘The audience rocked from the opening scene. We must give it a try in New York and Chicago.’”

“So I kept everything in—and the film went on to make gobs of money.”

Brooks said his ace in the hole was final cut approval which meant he was able to ignore studio’s withering disapproval.

“Lots of other people said the campfire scene was too vulgar. But the film allowed me to be the lovely Rabelaisian vulgarian that I am. I mean those cowboys farting allowed me for the first time to really exercise my scatological muscles. So we had a bunch of guys eating a lot of beans and delivering a mighty symphony orchestra—music in the wind!”

And along with the landmark breaking wind on screen, Brooks ended up also breaking even newer ground:  His Indian Chief (played by Brooks who also doubled up as the lascivious Governor William J. Le Petomane) began speaking Yiddish.

(Brooks had told me in an earlier interview that he came up with the name Le Petomane as a tribute to a French night club comic Joseph Pujol, who performed under the stage name of Le Petomane. He was an even bigger draw at the Moulin Rouge nightclub than the legendary Sarah Bernhardt:  Hundreds came from far and wide, says Brooks, to view Pujol’s explosive skills. Known as “the king of farts,” Pujol was able to extinguish candles with long-range farts.

But back to the Yiddish Indian Chief:  “I didn’t want to do the cliché’d Indian sounds, ’Hi Yoyo’—and that sort of stuff,” he said. “I was thinking that no one knew Yiddish so why not use it. My grandmother used to speak Yiddish to me when I was a kid in Brooklyn. At early screenings I saw that when there’s thunderous laughter when the Chief speaks there are Jews in the balcony.”

Brooks says his comedy formula is simple.

“My credo is if it doesn’t make you laugh it won’t make them laugh. Comedy is real. They will laugh if you do. If it’s funny the world laughs.”

Not every Brooks movie however was an instant hit:

When The Producers, starring Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Kenneth Mars and Dick Shawn first came out in l968 it was a near disaster.

“The critics said it was totally tasteless,” recalls Brooks. “Peter Sellers, the genius English actor, loved it and out of his own pocket paid for ads in the Hollywood trade papers saying it was the funniest movie he’d ever seen. And the film was saved. Before that you couldn’t get arrested.”

And Brooks admits that in lampooning Adolf Hitler he borrowed liberally from perhaps the greatest comic in movie history—Charlie Chaplin.

“It’s part of my heritage. No Chaplin, no Mel Brooks. You learn from the greats of the past. In Great Dictator Chaplin plays this little Jewish barber who is mistaken for the Fuhrer. He is beautiful, doing that ballet with the balloon as the globe of the world.

Ironically The Producers was resurrected as a Broadway musical 34 years later in 2002 and went on to win 12 Tonys.

In 2005 Brooks’ actress wife Anne Bancroft died after a battle with uterine cancer, following 41 years of marriage.

“I wasn’t able to cope. I was just shattered. She was my soulmate. We were glued together. What helped were my four children, (and two grandchildren) and every one of them came to my side along with dear friends like (the late) Carl Reiner. I was able to stand up straight and march forward.”

 Brooks says he can’t wait to get back on stage:

“I’m re-energized…up and flying…around the stage.

“It’s very important. That’s my fuel…the basis of my energy. The laughter that comes flying back.  Sometimes the energy is so big that if I wore a hat it would blow away.”

Ivor Davis is the author of Manson Exposed: A Reporter’s 50-Year Journey into Madness and Murder and The Beatles and Me on Tour.