James Robert Parish, author of countless film books (The RKO Gals, Fiasco: A History of Hollywood’s Iconic Flops), answers a few questions on the subject of his upcoming biography, It’s Good to Be the King: The Seriously Funny Life of Mel Brooks (Wiley, 2007).
Many comedians are supposed to be major bores when they’re not “on.” Does Mel Brooks fit into that mold?
Over the decades, few people (beyond Brooks’ family and very close friends) have ever witnessed Mel when he is not “on.” He considers it his lifelong duty to be entertaining both on camera and off. Whether bantering on a TV talk show, parrying with a dour waiter in a deli, or directing his cast/crew on the film set, Brooks uses humor to get his way, to gain attention, and to protect his private self. Even now, in his 80s, Brooks remains the dynamo – the inveterate clown.
Why were Mel Brooks’ comedies so popular in the early 1970s – but less so (sometimes considerably less so) later on? Would you say it’s all a matter of quality (or lack thereof), good vs. bad promotion, or did Brooks’ comedies have a special appeal for moviegoing audiences of that particular era?
Brooks’ 1970s films – especially Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974), and High Anxiety (1977) – benefited from Mel being at his creative peak, with his zaniness at a high level mark, and his satires of movie genres having solid foundations upon which to play. Equally important in this period, Brooks enjoyed a very positive collaboration with his co-writers. For example, in Young Frankenstein, his best-structured feature film to date, he worked in close tandem with actor Gene Wilder both in the screenplay preparation and on the sound stage.
Mel’s 1970s films were especially appealing to moviegoers of the decade because they were full of anti-establishment philosophy and irreverent humor. Then too, Brooks’ 1970s films seemed very fresh to moviegoers of that era; while by the 1980s (with such films as History of the World: Part I) many felt that Mel was beginning to repeat himself and had less solid targets (e.g., film genres) to satirize.
Woody Allen’s films are clearly influenced by the director’s life experiences and worldview. What about Brooks’ films? How much of Brooks’ background and psyche can be found in them?
Both Brooks’ onstage persona and his filmmaking point of view are strongly tied to his background. As a youngster, growing up in the Jewish section of Brooklyn, diminutive Mel – whose father died when he was very young – had to be extra feisty to survive in the tough street-corner society. If he lacked the physical strength to outdo his opponents, his quick mind, sense of the ridiculous, and a love of being the center of attention, provided him with the chutzpah to become the amusing neighborhood clown. This feisty, court jester posture carried over to his summers working at Catskills resorts, to dealing with anti-Semitism in the Army during his World War II service in Europe, and back in New York once he was discharged from the military in 1946.
Through Mel’s friendship with rising comedian Sid Caesar – who became Brooks’ surrogate father/brother/alter ego – Mel broke into the ranks of TV as part of the nimble writing team working for Caesar’s television showcases in the late 1940s and 1950s. The always highly competitive Brooks proved that he could survive within the TV jungle, and went on to write for Broadway and other TV shows (including the landmark Get Smart sitcom he and Buck Henry devised).
Once becoming a filmmaker, the iconoclastic, outrageous Brooks used both his personal life and his up-and-down career to date, to create 1968’s The Producers, his first feature film (for which he won an Oscar for best original screenplay). From then on, there seemed no stopping the irrepressible, irreverent Brooks whose highly personal, antic slant on life shaped all his movies (including the penchant to making on-camera gags crude and, sometimes, even rude).
Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft were married for more than four decades. What was their relationship like?
When Brooks wed Anne Bancroft in 1964, he had been previously married (to a Broadway/TV dancer/showgirl) and was already the father of three children.
He and Bancroft (who had left a humdrum Hollywood career to star on Broadway – with great success) seemed a most unlikely love match: he was Jewish, she was Catholic; she was the high-brow Tony-winning stage star, he was the “low-brow” TV writer; she was strikingly beautiful, he was odd-faced and short. However, the two provided a wonderful complement to one another. They delighted in each other’s successes, and enjoyed the times they worked together professionally (such as 1983’s To Be or Not To Be). She proved to be a steadying force on the impulsive, highly emotional Brooks, centering their personal life; he provided the humorous approach to life and romantic adoration that the “too” serious Bancroft sought. The couple had one child, Max, who became a TV/book writer.
Can you name a few of Brooks’ projects that never got off the ground? (And the reasons why.)
One movie project that Brooks had hoped to undertake in the early 1970s was She Stoops to Conquer, a screen adaptation of the Restoration comedy. He wanted England’s Albert Finney to star. However, Finney lost interest in the venture and Mel eventually abandoned the hoped-for movie.
Has Mel Brooks ever considered doing drama?
Brooks’ most serious entry as a director was 1991’s Life Stinks, in which he played a capitalist/real estate czar, who finds himself living on the streets of Los Angeles and falling in love with a bum (Lesley Ann Warren). It was the result of Brooks feeling that his decades of success had separated him too much from everyday life. The movie was not a success; partly because of lack of proper promotion, plus the fact that audiences expected wild comedy from Mel and instead got social satire. One should also remember that Brooks (as executive producer) was the guiding force of the heavily serious 1980 film The Elephant Man, one of several features produced by Mel’s production company, Brooksfilms.
Mel Brooks, Robyn Hilton in Blazing Saddles
And finally, during your time researching Mel Brooks, what was the most surprising thing you discovered about him?
For me, the most intriguing aspect to Mel Brooks is his amazing resilience over the many decades in the face of career setbacks (e.g., his professional lows in the period following the end of writing for Sid Caesar, or the career doldrums subsequent to his 1987 release, Spaceballs).
After 1995’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It, a less than stellar spoof, Mel seemed at a career low. A few years later, he was back at the top with a tremendous Broadway hit, the 2001 musical The Producers. Later, after a great personal loss – the death of Anne Bancroft in 2005 – he bounced back by returning to work on the upcoming Broadway musical version of Young Frankenstein.