Comedian-filmmaker Mel Brooks – Part 1

Brooks reflects on his career and shares his thoughts on his classic Western spoof, Blazing Saddles, 40 years later.

In a highly successful career of acting, directing and producing, Mel Brooks is in an elite group of those who have earned a Tony, Emmy, Grammy and Oscar. He's known for creating broad film farces and began his career as a stand-up comic and writer for early TV variety shows. As one of the most successful director-producers in the business, he's responsible for such iconic films as Young Frankenstein and The Producers (both adapted for the stage, with the latter holding the record for the most Tonys ever awarded to a Broadway musical) and Blazing Saddles, released 40 years ago. Brooks is the recipient of an AFI Life Achievement Award and recently, at age 87, did his first-ever one-man show.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: (Laughs) I’m laughing already. Mel Brooks is what the industry calls an “EGOT,” meaning that he is one of only a short list of entertainers who have the distinction of winning an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Tony – EGOT.

His movies have ranged from such serious films like “The Elephant Man” to the sublimely hilarious and sublimely offensive films like “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles.”

“Blazing Saddles” though now being released, get this, in a 40th anniversary edition. Forty years. The film was a satire about race relations; it uses some offensive language to some to make its point, but what a good point it makes.

Let’s take a look at Cleavon Little – love this – as a sheriff riding to the rescue of an all-white town.

[Clip]

Tavis: (Laughs) Does it seem like 40 years since you did that masterpiece?

Mel Brooks: It seems like 40 minutes. It’s amazing. Time really, there is no time. It’s just good things and bad things, and the good things are always around, and thank God, bad things drift.

Tavis: I have just taken great delight in reading all of the stories of the misgivings, the questions you had about whether or not you could pull this off, whether or not it was too politically incorrect, your conversation with Richard Pryor, which we’ll come to Pryor in just a second.

But as you look back on this now 40 years later, what do you make of the fact that you actually got it done?

Brooks: I can’t, I couldn’t do it today.

Tavis: I was about to ask that.

Brooks: They wouldn’t let me, they wouldn’t let me.

Tavis: Yeah.

Brooks: But it’s amazing. There was just that little window, there was just that little window when they let you do things that were, I don’t know, I call them brave, but the world would call them stupid.

But they let me, they let me do these crazy, magnificently insane movies. There was a guy called John Calley, God bless him. He ran Warner Brothers. Well, he didn’t – he ran the movie part of Warner Brothers, not the whole production.

I went up to his office and I said, “John, can I actually punch a little old lady? Can I, I mean, you know.” (Laughter) “I mean, can I really make the sounds of farts around?”

He said, “Mel, if you’re gonna go up to the bell, ring it.” I said, “Okay.” So Calley kind of saved me. There was a screening for all the Warner Brothers executives.

Tavis: Oh.

Brooks: He was the only one who laughed. They were all quiet. (Laughter) Then Leo Greenfield, God bless him; he’s gone now, he got up and he said, “I haven’t,” he’s the, like, the distributor for them. Domestic distribution, Leo Greenfield.

He gets up and he says, “I have never asked Warner Brothers to eat a movie. I want them to bury this one. I don’t want to release it. It’s disgusting. I don’t want Warner Brothers’ name on it, and I think we,” I don’t know whatever, it only cost about 2, 2.4, 2,400,000 in those days.

He said, “Whatever it is, Warner Brothers should eat it.” Calley said, “No. Let’s open it in three cities and find out if there’s, if anybody likes it.” He said, “I like it, and let’s see.”

So we have a screening at the Avco Embassy on Wilshire here.

I put up little wooden rails, and I got cowboys to tie up their horses there, and I got cattle in the lobby. (Laughter) Man, all over the lobby you just saw a lot of -

Tavis: A lot of -

Brooks: – mud pies and man, (laughter) it was just a lot of peepee, and it was really, it – and the one good thing they had in the lobby was Raisinettes, so we all had Raisinettes. (Laughter)

Anyway, they showed the movie, and people ran up and down the aisles, screaming with laughter. They just, and I mean there was the N-word, there was everything.

It was just, and at the end of the movie, the head of Warner Brothers at that time, who shall be nameless, he grabbed me by the – I think it was Ted Ashley who shall be nameless. (Laughter)

He said, he grabbed me by the collar and he threw me in the manager’s office, he gave me a yellow legal pad, he gave me a pencil, he said, “Write. No farting.” “Okay, out.” He said, “No horse, you can’t punch a horse.” (writing) “No, no, you can’t. Oh, no.” “The N-word, you can’t say that word.” “Out, it’s out.”

He gave me about 22 notes. I’m writing, I’m writing.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Brooks: I said, “If I took all that out, I’d have a 13-minute movie. There’ll be nothing left.” So anyway, I promised him I would do it, and the minute he left – Calley was with me – I took the page and I threw it all the way across the manager’s office into the wastepaper basket, and Calley said, “Good filing.”

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Brooks: We never touched a thing, and that movie was a big success and never stopped, it never stopped working. I saw it the other night (laughter) at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on a big screen.

That’s the way you should see it. It’s a big western; it’s a big, brave movie, on a big screen. It was just people, just like the old days, leaving their chairs, rolling in, I mean, rolling on the ground. (Laughter)

I’ve never seen anything, laughing, and it was just a – you know, it brought tears to my eyes because they didn’t pay, they got it for nothing. (Laughter) But otherwise -

Tavis: So for those of us who know this back story, the real hardcore fans of “Blazing Saddles” know that Cleavon Little did a spectacular job, but he was not the guy.

Brooks: No, no. The true story is the first – I got a real great actor from “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” which was a great movie with this guy Gig Young.

He played an alcoholic and he was brilliant. I said, “That’s what I need. Kind of a leathery-faced old Texas kind of guy who’s recovering from alcohol. He was, like, perfect. So I hired Gig Young.

It was the first scene, and Gig Young is playing the Waco Kid and he’s recovering from a night of drinking, he’s leaning over in the jail cell, and Cleavon Little goes over to him and the dialogue’s supposed to go like this.

Cleavon Little’s supposed to say, “Are we awake?” and he’s supposed to say, “I don’t know, are we Black?” (Laughter) You know, never seen a Black sheriff, you know?

So in rehearsal he was pretty good. So we go, I say, “Action.” Cleavon, “Are we awake?” and he says, “Are we bla, are we bla, are we bla,” and green stuff, green like “The Exorcist,” all over the joint. (Laughter)

It kept coming out, I don’t know where he had – coming out of Gig Young, green, green, spurting, splattering all over. Then finally he shook and he stopped. I said, “Is he dead?” And we went over. (Laughter)

We went over. He was okay, he was alive, we got an ambulance, we took him away. I said, “No more reality.” (Laughter) “I need comics, either Black or Jewish comics from now on. No actors. No more actors. Give me comics.” I called Gene Wilder, who’s a great actor too.

I called Gene and I told him about it. He flew out the next day. He would lean, leaned over, I said, “Action,” Cleavon said, “Are we awake?” and Gene said, “I don’t know – are we Black?” and boom, we were off and running, and Gene Wilder saved my life.

Tavis: Yeah.

Brooks: Yeah.

Tavis: Richard Pryor. There’s a back story to Pryor about this project, and I’ll let you do the story.

Brooks: Well I begged Warner Brothers to, but – I wanted him to be the Black sheriff, and I knew he was a genius, and he was helping me write the thing and I knew what a great actor he was and how funny he – maybe the funniest stand-up comedian who ever lived. I’m now (unintelligible) actually.

Tavis: There are a lot of comedians who say that, though.

Brooks: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: (Overlapping) though, yeah.

Brooks: He may be the funniest who’s ever lived. So I said to Warner Brothers, “If you don’t let me hire Richard Pryor to be the Black sheriff, Black Bart, I’m not going to do it.”

They said, “We can’t, we found out he takes drugs,” blah, blah. “We’re not going to do it,” and I quit. Then Richard said, “Don’t quit, I didn’t get my last payment.” (Laughter) I said, “Okay.” I said, “Okay, Richard.”

I said, “Okay, Richard,” and then so we all, so Richard and I were looking, and we looked at a lot of different actors and every African American who ever was an actor came and auditioned, and Richard really, when we got Cleavon Little, and Cleavon, he said, “Man, he’s handsome and he’s classy and he’s Black.”

I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “If I was the Black sheriff, I could be Cuban. I’m café au lait, man.” (Laughter) He said, “But Cleavon, he’ll scare the shit out of the West.” (Laughter)

There was nobody darker or more handsome and more classy than Cleavon. He was, it makes me cry to think about him, because -

Tavis: Every time I think about that, what might have been, we all know that Wilder and Pryor went on to do stuff together.

Brooks: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: But that would have been the first Wilder-Pryor -

Brooks: That would have been it.

Tavis: That would have been it.

Brooks: Yeah. And I would have, I would have collected every penny from it. (Laughter) But anyway, it worked out because I did, I took a good bounce in getting a really beautiful talent like Cleavon Little, so I did well.

Tavis: Speaking of well, how did, for all the protestations of certain people at Warner Brothers, when this thing actually hit the theaters, how did it do?

Brooks: At the beginning it did really well. Not spectacular. Then that summer – it came out in February of I think ’75, 1975, and it did okay. Then in the summer, the theater owners heard about it, the exhibitors, and they asked for it.

So it had only, it was only about 30 or 40 theaters in those days, and then it opened like 600 or 700. It was a lot of theaters in those days in the summer, in June. Bang. You never heard – it just was hand-over-fist.

I used to go to Warner Brothers and say, “Who’s counting? Where’s the money?” (Laughter) It was really, it just, it was like record numbers.

Tavis: Who was the audience? These are Black folk, white folk, everybody?

Brooks: A mix, mixed, and a couple of Jews in the balcony. (Laughter) Because every time I said (speaks in Yiddish) I got, as the Jewish, the Jewish Indian, (laughter) they were, when I heard the screams, I said, “Jews.” Yeah, man, there’s Jews there. (Laughter)

But anyway, but everybody, everybody loved it. I thought well, this ain’t gonna do well in Texas, because (laughter) that’s a pretty sophisticated kind of a pro-Black movie.

Tavis: Yeah, don’t mess with Texas.

Brooks: Yeah, don’t – they loved it. They loved it, they believed it. Every time they called the N-word, they said, “Right.” (Laughter) You know what I mean? They went with that side of it. Man.

Tavis: Well let me go back, I want to circle back (laughs) to the beginning of this conversation, when you -

Brooks: Before I came out, somebody said, “You want to go to the bathroom? Because you’ve been drinking a lot of water.” I said, “No, on every show I do I wear Depends.” So right now I gotta tell you, I’m peeing right now, and I’m fine. Now that’s a joke.

Tavis: Let me go back to the beginning of this conversation when you said that there was something that was happening in that moment in Hollywood that allowed you – again, even with those protestations -

Brooks: I don’t know, it was like -

Tavis: What was that?

Brooks: It was a civil rights -

Tavis: It was a window, but what was it, what was that?

Brooks: I don’t know. Something in 1974, ’75 allowed me to make, use those words. It’s like -

Tavis: This is the Blaxploitation era too, though.

Brooks: Yeah, and it was. I had different titles. The first title, Andrew Bergman came up with a rough draft of this he wanted to write. He called it, “Tex X.” I said, “That’s so great, and too hip. That’s never going to fly.”

Then I came up with a simple western title: “Black Bart,” who’s the name of the sheriff. They said – Calley, who was very smart, he said, “No, Blaxploitation. That sounds like -”

Tavis: Blaxploitation.

Brooks: Yeah. Then I came up with “Blazing Saddles.” Everybody said, “Okay, we’ll go with that, because then you’re emphasizing that you’re making fun of the West, and it’s not just Blaxploitation.

But we had to be very careful. I think they bought the idea that there was such a thing as fairness, goodness, and – there’s somewhere out there, there was a thing like goodness and fairness, and that enough people would sign on and enjoy it and seeing it.

Not necessarily Afro-Americans, just everybody. And there was. There was enough, and it would, it became like – I had, in that year, I got two movies. I won the NATO award.

The NATO is like if you care about equality and people, you never want that award. (Laughter) That’s the National Association of Theater Owners. That’s just gold. It’s just a gold award. You make the most money, we love you, we give you a crown, and we’ll give you some of it.

But that, I won the NATO award because I had “Young Frankenstein” and “Blazing Saddles” in the same year, and the theater owners had never been happier.

But I had never been happier because I made two very crazy, different, brave movies and the people loved it. They (unintelligible).

Tavis: (Overlapping) Was that part of your deal with Wilder, to do “Young Frankenstein?”

Brooks: No, he was in a corner somewhere, curled up, writing something on a yellow pad, writing, writing. I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “Oh, I got an idea for a movie.” I said, “Tell me about it?” He said, “Well, it’s not ready yet.”

I said, “Tell me about it.” He said, “Well, what if the grandson of Frankenstein, of Dr. Frankenstein wanted, if he was fighting for his dignity,” he said. He said, “All this bullshit about animating dead tissue, making a monster and all,” he said, “I’m gonna, he wants to put that straight.

“So the movie would be that he has to go back to Transylvania for some reason, they’re selling the estate, and he realizes, my God, it could work. He reads the notes and the things and he’s in the laboratory, and he’s infused with this feeling. He says, ‘My God, yes, we could, we could actually bring this dead creature back to life, reanimate dead tissue.’

And so he gets involved.” I said, “I love it. All right, let’s write it together,” and we did. While we were making “Blazing Saddles,” every night we’d get together and we’d write “Young Frankenstein.”

Tavis: While you were doing “Blazing Saddles.”

Brooks: While we were doing it.

Tavis: Gee whiz.

Brooks: Yeah, while we were doing it, every night.

Tavis: What did, I know you had to ask. What did Pryor say to you when you asked him about – I hate saying “the N-word,” but when you asked him about the N-word, what did Pryor say to you about it?

Brooks: Well the great thing about Richard Pryor was that I would say, “Richard, can I use the N-word here?” He said, “You must.” Okay. I used it. (Laughter) I said, “Richie, can I use the N-word there?” “You have to.” “Okay.” (Laughter)

There wasn’t once, there wasn’t one time when I asked Richard, “Can I use it,” he said – he said, ad infinitum he said, “Man, ad infinitum. Just use it every way and every,” so I had Richard’s blessing. When they would ask me, I said, “Blame it on Richard.” I would never use that.”

Tavis: I assume what you meant earlier in this conversation when you said out the gate that you could never do this movie now is that we live in an era that is too politically correct. Is that what you meant by that.

Brooks: Yeah, yeah, that’s what I meant. It’s a good thing and it’s a bad thing, because political correctness restricts and restrains humor. Humor has to be very crazy and very free and very liberated, and dangerous.

You’ve got to walk that line. You’ve got to say things that you know when people say – like when I did the production number, I tell you, it’s a preview. We’re at the St. James Theater.

On stage, they’re singing and dancing, “Springtime for Hitler.” The audience is just Jews. There’s 100,000 Jews in the audience. (Laughter) Suddenly, a big guy gets up, goes six feet, he comes stomping up the aisle.

He says, “Where’s Mel Brooks? Where’s Mel Brooks?” and he finds me, he grabs me, and he goes, “How could you do such a thing, Nazis, the Holocaust, how could you do such a thing? I was in World War II,” and I said to him, “I was in World War II. I didn’t see you there.” (Laughter)

But anyway, so that was brave too. Jews didn’t think – I must have gotten more, I got more on “The Producers” than I ever got in mail, and to each Jew I have wrote a letter saying, “You can’t get on a soapbox with Hitler. He’s an orator. He’s a great speaker. He’s gonna – but if you make fun of him with the moustache and the hair.”

If you just make fun – (does Hitler impression, speaking German) – you can beat the shit out of him. (Laughter) So, and I wrote letters to everybody trying to explain why I would do such a thing as -

Tavis: (Overlapping) Where did you get the – I want to find the right word here – the fortitude, it’s a good Yiddish word, the chutzpah, the chutzpah.

Brooks: The chutzpah, right.

Tavis: Chutzpah, where did you get that to advance these ideas, knowing that you were going to catch hell on the other end?

Brooks: I knew I’d catch hell.

Tavis: But you went for it anyway.

Brooks: Yeah, because I came from Brooklyn. We didn’t know better, we were just – my mother was very brave. She came over from the other side when she was a little kid, and the only thing she asked for, my mother said, she said, “I would like to live -” the apartment in the front of our tenement became available.

My mother said, “I’m sick and tired of looking at cats and wet wash hanging from the lines. I’d like to see the world.” By the world, she meant the street out in front of our tenement. The world. (Laughter)

I was five. I had three older brothers. We had a family meeting. Okay, we’ve got to let Mom see the world. (Laughter) So the world was like Tony the ice man and some, you know.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Brooks: It ain’t much of a world, but to her it was the world. So we moved. We actually, it was $16 a month rent in the back, and in the front it was $18 a month. We were just little kids, nobody was really, had already gone to school.

But we hustled, we hustled. We ran telephone calls. “Mrs. Blum, phone call for you at (unintelligible) drug store,” “Here’s a nickel,” whatever. We raised enough money to get up to – my Aunt Sadie, God bless her, who worked at Rosenthal and Slotnick as a floor lady, she gave half her salary over to us.

Because my father died when I was only two, and my mother was raising four boys, and she was a saint. So we moved to the front and it was great. My mother could see the world, and one night – this is a true story. Terrible story. (Laughter)

I have to pee. I knock on the bathroom door; Bernie’s there. I say, “Bernie, I have to pee.” Bernie says, “Go away, I’m making.” So there’s no arguing with that. (Laughter)

He’s making. So I run over to the sink, I’m too little. I’m only five, I can’t reach the sink. Can’t even get on the chair to get – and the front window that faces the world is open. (Laughter)

So I back a little bit and I do an arc, I pee. I pee right out the window and in a little while I hear a lot of consternation below. (Makes noises) “Kitty, Kitty, it’s coming from your apartment.” My mother’s name was Kitty.

“Kitty, it’s coming,” I look down. All these Jewish ladies sitting on the steps have all got peed on. Oh. (Laughter) And then I hear (footsteps) a rhinoceros coming up the stairs. That’s my mother.

I jump into bed; I pull the covers over my head. Bernie comes out of the bathroom, “Hi, Mom.” Bang, she decks him. She doesn’t, he never knew why she beat him up.

I think when I was 65 and he was 70 I said, “Bernie, it was me who peed out the window.” (Laughter) I finally told him.

Tavis: I hope you have a few more minutes.

Brooks: You know, it’s the same money, I make just nothing. There’s nothing in this for me.

Tavis: Exactly. (Laughter) But you know what -

Brooks: But I love you, I love you, and I love you show.

Tavis: I love you back.

Brooks: And why – let me tell, let me -

Tavis: Hold that thought, hold that thought, hold that thought.

Brooks: Okay.

Tavis: I want to pick up on this. I asked him if he had more time because this is so rich I want to do this for another show. So let me just tell you right quick that Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” is out now. Their 40th anniversary edition. Your son has a book. Tomorrow night we’ll talk about this.

Brooks: Okay.

Tavis: The “Harlem Hellfighters,” but your son, Max Brooks.

Brooks: Max Brooks, yeah. “Zombie Survival Guide,” “World War Z.” Max Brooks.

Tavis: We’ll talk about it tomorrow. All right.

Brooks: Okay.

Tavis: So tomorrow night we’ll talk about this and this, and a lot more stuff to talk to Mel Brooks about. You didn’t forget that point you were going to make, did you?

Brooks: No.

Tavis: Okay. Hold that thought. Tomorrow night, part two with Mel Brooks. Until then, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

  • John sanders

    Blazing Saddles is still as funny today as it was the first time I saw it years ago, Mel Brooks is good at what he doe’s he makes fun of everyone, everyone seems to remember a line from this film and I remember Slim Pickens saying near the end Piss On You I’m Working For Mel Brooks, I will try to watch the interview.

  • Kiara

    I give you my immense gratitude for taking the time to provide numerous interviews Mr. Smiley.

    I am excited to view the second part of the interview here, Mr. Brooks is one of my top favorite comedians and Director.

  • doris

    Mr. Smiley, I am so pleased to have tuned in for this interview. I truly enjoyed witnessing your joyful body language from sitting next to Mr. Brooks. I still giggle recalling your reactions to his humor. As it happened, I was a bit blue until I tuned in. Yes, humor is medicine for the soul, as he so well projects. Cannot believe 40 years for Blazing Saddles. I love PBS, and this journey with the back story of how the studio executive fought to get it on the big screen is another example of PBS’s educational benefit. We are never too old to learn. Thank you for you wonderful programming. Kudos my kind sir.

Last modified: May 16, 2014 at 12:58 pm