Walk of Fame: Mel Brooks
EmptyMel Brooks is one busy guy. He's one of a few entertainers to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony for his talents as screenwriter, composer, lyricist, comedian, actor and producer. At 83, he's adapting his 1974 comedy, "Blazing Saddles," into a musical, is a panelist at the inaugural TCM Classic Film Festival and is about to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter's Frank Swertlow.
The Hollywood Reporter: You were born Melvin Kaminsky. Why "Mel Brooks"?
Mel Brooks: My mother's maiden name was Brookman. I was a drummer and I erased the "man" -- it was shorter -- and added an "s." People would say, "Hey, Mel Brooks, you're a pretty good drummer." Mel Kaminsky is a like an acting coach, listen to him carefully; he's the actor's friend.
THR: When did you know you had a gift for laughter?
Brooks: In the crib, three or four days old. I saw faces looking down, big faces, and they were grinning and laughing, and I realized, "OK, this is my mandate, keeping these faces smiling and laughing."
THR: What's it like when nobody laughs?
Brooks: It happened once. I was booked into the Morningside in the Catskills. It was a semi-religious hotel, and they spoke Yiddish. I came out in English, and you could hear waves of noises, but no laughs. When you tell a bad joke, silence is heard. You suck it up and tell another bad joke.
THR: Is it harder to make people laugh today or when you started?
Brooks: It's easier today. Few survived those Jewish audiences -- Buddy Hackett, Jan Murray, Red Buttons. They'd boo you. Old Jewish ladies would be sitting in the tea room, eating sponge cake and would say, "Melvin, you stink, but we love you."
THR: You were a combat engineer during World War II; did defusing Nazi landmines help prepare you for comedy?
Brooks: I was 19 or 20; I thought I was in a newsreel. You don't know what danger is. Out of the 40 times I went out, I came close to death once. I tripped a German S mine, filled with ball bearings that would come up waist high and rip you apart. This time, the mine didn't explode. These are miracles. They prepare you for the unknown.
THR: When did you go behind the camera?
Brooks: I wrote "The Producers" first. I went to the bookstores and got movie scripts and wrote in "fade out, dolly in." I start with an idea and an ending. That's my technique. I don't bother with a beginning or middle.
THR: How did "The Producers" become a Broadway musical?
Brooks: (Anne Bancroft, Brooks' wife) sent me to my room and said, "Write the title song." She said I was a very talented songwriter and never give up that part of me. David Geffen was the first person to say the movie should be a Broadway musical. It just needed a few songs. He sent me to Jerry Herman who wrote "Hello Dolly" and "Mame." Herman refused; he said I was going to do this. He got me the job.
THR: What is your fascination with Hitler? "The Producers" has "Springtime for Hitler"; you sang the "Hitler Rag" in "To Be or Not to Be."
Brooks: It's my job to bring down Hitler and Torquemada. My mission is to ridicule them. If you can make people laugh at these figures, you bring them down them faster than getting onto a soapbox.