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Entertainment Weekly March 2000

You've Got Mel
by Steve Daly
Originally published in Entertainment Weekly March 2000 (issue #529)

IT TAKES A NUTTY MAN to set a nutty benchmark. And in 1975, Mel Brooks scored one of Oscar's loopier double plays. On the strength of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, Brooks received nominations for Best Song (for his Western send-up's title ditty, with music by John Morris) and Best Screenplay Adapted From Other Material (for his monster-movie parody; written with Gene Wilder). he lost both races, and his pictures also lost in two technical categories. But so what? We figured we'd celebrate the 25th anniversary of these nonwins anyway. So we tracked down the 73-year-old funnyman - now turning his 1968 howler The Producers into a Broadway musical - and found out that unlike Madeline Kahn's Blazing Saddles showgirl Lili Von Shtupp, he's anything but tired.

EW: A song and screenplay nominee? That puts you in an Oscar category all your own.
BROOKS: Yeah, but damn it. I struck out twice.
EW: Did you have speeches ready?
BROOKS: Nah. I said, They're two comedies, forget about it. I did write a letter thanking the Academy for the nominations. For me it showed a breakthrough. Comedy is seldom in the running. Woody Allen won a couple years later, for Annie Hall. But it was bittersweet, so [endorsing] that [movie] was allowed. It wasn't pure slapstick. It wasn't Chaplin or Buster Keaton or W.C. Fields or the Marx Brothers. It wasn't comedy where you're ashamed at laughing later. An Oscar for something like that doesn't happen.
EW: It's still the case.
BROOKS: A flat-out comedy like There's Something About Mary or American Pie would never win Best Picture. They'd never even get nominated. The Academy would never think of it, because there are more important issues.
EW: You were a two-for-two Oscar-night loser in 1975. But in 1964, you got nominated for, of all things, an animated short The Critic. You actually won, along with the animator - even though most Oscar history books mention only him.
BROOKS: But I did win. I can prove it. I've got the Oscar! The animator's name was Ernest Pintoff. He wanted me as the 2,000-year-old man on the soundtrack to interpret these abstract designs. So I talkked like an old Jew would talk, coming into an art gallery. I said, "I don't see a poyson heah. What is it, a squiggle? It's a fence. It's a little fence. Nope, it's moving. It's a cockaroach. I'm looking at a cockaroach. I came to see a hot French picture with a little nakedness, what am I looking at here?" Anyway, it went on that way for about three and a half minutes. And it won the Academy Award.
EW: You won again in 1969 for The Producers, for Best Story and Screenplay written Directly for the Screen.
BROOKS: That's right. So one of the questions you can ask me is, Do you remember your acceptance speech?
EW: Okay, So do you?
BROOKS: I remember the gist of it. Frank Sinatra was one of the hosts, and he handed me the award. I said, "I must tell you what's in my heart. Ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump."
EW: You beat Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke for 2001: A Space Odyssey and John Cassavetes for Faces. A real upset, since most critics weren't very nice to The Producers, were they?
BROOKS: Early on, there were one or two good reviews. But a lot of people thought it was in very questionable taste, because there was a song in it called "Springtime for Hitler."
EW: Why didn't that get nominated for Best Song?
BROOKS: I'm sure they though, Oh my God, how can we? We'll be cashiered out of the Academy.
EW: Can you remember the lyrics to the theme for Blazing Saddles?
BROOKS: Is it... "He rode the blazing saddles/He held a flaming torch?"...uh.."For near and far?"? I think then it went, "For bad man near and far..."
EW: One line ended on the word "star."
BROOKS: "He rode the blazing saddles/He wore a shining star... He something conquered bad men, and something near and far."
EW: You're a little rusty.
BROOKS: You know, what's so sweet and so sad was that Frankie Laine sang with all his heart. He didn't know (the movie) was a comedy. We got Frankie Laine because he'd done all these Western theme songs. With tears in his eyes he said to me, "This is a beautiful song." I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to tell him it was funny. He didn't get it.
EW: Were people in the recording studio laughing?
BROOKS: Screaming. They said, Jesus, he's really singing the s-- out of this thing. But I said, Shut up, be quiet. Because comedy is when you play the absurd as if it's normal. that's what he was doing.
EW: In some ways, Blazing Saddles was practically a musical.
BROOKS: I wrote a song called "I'm Tired." And Madeline Kahn sang it. The late, great Madeline Kahn.
EW: How did you find her for Blazing Saddles?
BROOKS: A Warner Bros. casting agent named Nessa Hyams said, "I want you to see What's Up, Doc?" And there was Madeline, playing this small part, but she was incredible. So I asked Madeline to come in and read. I said, "Show me your legs." She said, "What the hell is this, a 1930s Broadway musical? Who are you, Warner Baxter in 42nd Street?" I said, "You gotta have the legs, because if you're gonna play Marlene Dietrich, you've gotta straddle a chair." She said, "You're not gonna touch them?" And I never did. She had the most gorgeous legs ever. And nobody else could sing "I'm Tired" with that slightly off-key Sprechstimme style.
EW: What-stimme?
BROOKS: Sprech, sprech, which is the German word for speak. Sprechstimme is a type of '20s German song that Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill wrote a lot of, that Lotte Lenya used to [do]. It means "talk-sing."
EW: Did Marlene Dietrich ever call you to say what she thought of being burlesqued in Blazing Saddles?
BROOKS: Never. But Hedy Lamarr sued me. For using her name. Or misusing it, for Hedley Lamarr, the character Harvey Korman played. [They settled out of court.]
EW: You had five writers on the Blazing Saddles script. How did that happen?
BROOKS: Andy Bergman [The Freshman, Striptease] wrote the original story. It was a 40-page outline called Tex X, like Malcolm X. [Producers] Richard Zanuck and David Brown had it and didn't know what to do with it. They asked me to direct. I said, I don't do things I don't write. So write it, they said. I didn't really want to. But I was broke. My wife, Anne Bancroft, was pregnant. And frankly, Tex X was a really good idea . Kind of an O. Henry twist in the hip, black Harlemite was transformed into an 1874 slave laborer on a railway and became a sheriff. So I said okay, I'll work on this. But I think it should be done like we used to work on Your Show of Shows, where a whole gang of us got together.
EW: And one of that gang was Richard Pryor.
BROOKS: Richie was just a stand-up comic then, working in a couple of clubs. I knew how bright he was. I hired him because I was going to do a lot of black jokes. I said, I'm not gnna take the heat for these. I want somebody there to give me the okay, see if I cross the line, and what's in good taste, what's in bad taste.
EW: Relatively speaking.
BROOKS: Well, our hearts were in the right place. Our hero was a black sheriff. Strangely enough, Pryor wrote very little of the black stuff. I wound up doing that. Richie wanted to write Mongo [a villan played by Alex Karras]. He loved doing crazy lines like, "Mongo only pawn in game of life."
EW: You were going to call the picture Black Bart or The Purple Sage before you hit on Blazing Saddles. Why are titles with gerunds funny?
BROOKS: They just are. I don't know.
EW: And k sounds.
BROOKS: Well, the whole word chicken is funny. Every bit of it, funny. The ch, the i, the k. Put it together, you've got the funniest word in the English language. Chicken. There's nothing funnier than chicken. And when Jews say it, it's even funnier, because they say "tzik'n" and they swallow the n at the end, which is wonderful.
EW: About that campfire scene with everbody eating baked beans. Did your actors actually, you know, pass gas for real?
BROOKS: They'd didn't make a sound. I said, Lift, turn, cross your legs. Do the normal gestures you would do to let a fart escape. Then afterwards, the sound editors got their friends together and they put soap under their armpits. Wet soap. And they slapped at it and made air pockets, and did the noises that way. I came in to do some with my voice - a few high ones that they couldn't do from under their arms. Y'know, bvrrrrrrrrvt. But nobody put an actual fart on the soundtrack.
EW: Or hit a horse?
BROOKS: No one actually hit a horse. I had hundreds and hundreds of letters from animal lovers who thought I'd actually had Alex Karras smash the horse in the face and knock it out. They had a filmanet on the horse's legs, to cue it [to fall]. We missed the horse by a mile.
EW: So was there more outcry from the ASPCA than the NAACP?
BROOKS: Absolutely. African-American audiences never objected to the use of the word nigger. They knew it was used, let's say, historically correctly in the movie. I don't think the word should be used unless it's to show race prejudice. And I didn't show it from bad people. I showed it from good people who didn't know any better. And that was understood by the black community.
EW: You did a lot of things in Blazing Saddles that got imitated by other comedians. Like the ending, where the cowboys smash through the studio wall and wind up on another soundstage where there's a musical being made by Dom DeLuise. He plays this guy who's clearly a parody of Busby Berkeley. What was the character's name - Billy Berserk?
BROOKS: Actually it was Buddy Bizarre. But Billy Berserk is as good as Buddy Bizarre.
EW: If you look at Monty Python and the Holy Grail , which came out the next year, it's got exactly that same kind of break-the-fourth-wall ending.
BROOKS: Liberally borrowed. But it's okay, I love it. I'm flattered because look who stole it.
EW: Of course you're a borrower too. After Blazing Saddles clicked, you made a lot more parody pictures. But they're unusual in that you really seem to love the movies you're making fun of. Like putting all that elaborate production design Young Frankenstein.
BROOKS: Oh yeah, I'm a movie buff. I've watched all the great James Whale horor films over and over again. I love them because of his incredible portraiture, all the backlighting. They'd always have this sort of little halo of white light around the head.
EW: Is that why you chose black and white?
BROOKS: Partly it was a homage to Whale, to the beautiful, gleaming, sweating gray stone castles you saw in his pictures. But the other issue was the monster makeup for Peter Boyle. We did some tests in color; and it was a shade of green that was way too much. Terrible. Shoot the same makeup in black and white, looks gorgeous. And Gerald Hirschfeld, my cinematographer on Young Frankenstein, was a great student of black and white. His work was really Oscar-worthy, and he didn't even get a nomination.
EW: Did the studio fight you on that decision?
BROOKS: The picture was at Columbia, and doing it in black and white was a dealbreaker. We took it to Twentieth Century Fox, where [studio exec] Alan Ladd Jr. said, "Black and white? No problem."
EW: You won that decision. But you lost the argument when you tried to persuade Gene Wilder, who wrote the script with you, that the monster shouldn't do the "Puttin' on the Ritz" number.
BROOKS: I was against it. Gene's initial idea was, instead of just displaying the monster's ability to do simple motor skills, why don't we just do a number? A vaudeville number. I laughed but then I felt, We've got a precious movie, and it's gonna tear it. People are gonna have no respect for the rest of the movie. Gene really fought for it, and that was a role reversal for me. I was always the one going for the farting scenes, the cheap jokes. I said, This is a classy movie. We argued for a long time and finally I said, Okay, let's try it. We can always cut it out. And it was the best thing in the early previews. So you've gotta hand that to Gene Wilder.
EW: With all the laughter drowing it out, it seems weird that Young Frankenstein got an Oscar nomination for Best Sound. Why sound, of all things?
BROOKS: I have no idea. Maybe it was the gadgets that spun around and made electricity noises in the laboratory. And for John Morris' score - his arrangement were made to mimic, exactly, the old-style horror scores. Maybe that helped.
EW: Your company Brooksfilms produced The Elephant Man six years later, and the film received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. What else did Brooksfilms produce that got Oscar recognition?
BROOKS: We did Frances, the story of Frances Farmer; played by Jessica Lange. She got a nomincation for that, the best performance of her life. And in the same year, Jessica does a kind of little cameo in Tootsie. And she wins for that! It was so crazy. I mean the Academy... these things are so capricious, you know?
EW: So where do you keep the two Oscars you've won?
BROOKS: For years, they were on my mother's TV in Florida. All my awards were, when she was alive. She and my Aunt Sadie would conduct tours of my Emmys, my Oscars, my NATO [National Association of Theatre Owners] award. They'd bring people from the buliding or visitors from outside. They'd come up to the eighth floor and they'd have tea and cookies and see the Oscars.
EW: And now?
BROOKS: They're in a drawer somewhere. Because you hear horror stories. You know, if you take it to your office at the studio, suddenly it's gone. So unless you put alarms around it, you don't bring it into the office, you keep it at home. But at home it seems silly. You invite somebody over for dinner and they say, "Oh, there's your Osar." I don't like that. So I have it in a drawer. If people want to see it, I'll open the drawer. EW: You don't open it just for yourself once in a while?
BROOKS: Not really. I could pinch my finger or something and hurt myself. Awards are really not the measure of things, anyway. Time is a much better measure. If something stands the test of time, you got it right.

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