Mel Brooks has just finished his Friday power-lunch ritual with Hollywood execs at the hoity-toity Bouchon in Beverly Hills.
“It was a little expensive, but they gave us dessert,” the comedy legend says in his trademark rasp, calling from his Culver City, Calif., office to promote the tour of his Broadway musical, “Young Frankenstein.”
“They poisoned us with all kinds of creams and sweets. For free.”
The guy may be 83. But he’s still got his timing.
A walking showbiz encyclopedia, the legendary writer/director/performer was decorated at last month’s Kennedy Center Honors alongside Bruce Springsteen and Robert DeNiro. He has three titles on the Top 20 list of the American Film Institute’s 100 best comedies of all time (“The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein”). Plus this one-of-a-kind claim to fame: “The Producers,” adapted from his 1968 cult film into a 2001 Broadway musical, holds the record for most Tony Awards ever (12).
But Brooks isn’t bulletproof. He can’t seem to shake the sting of Broadway critics who gave tepid reviews to 2007’s “Young Frankenstein,” based on his pitch-perfect horror spoof about a mad-scientist type (Gene Wilder) who stitches together a monster. Directed by Susan Stroman and starring original cast members Roger Bart as Dr. Frankenstein and Marietta-born Shuler Hensley as the Monster, the show runs Tuesday-Sunday at the Fox Theatre.
“Had I done ‘Young Frankenstein’ first, we might have gotten just as many Tonys and been quite a success,” Brooks says, “and ‘The Producers’ might have come in for a drubbing. Who knows? It has very little to do with merit, because they are both very good shows.”
Sensitive to a fault, Brooks remains, during a nearly hour-long interview, as delightful as a crème puff. Reminiscing about his storied career in TV, film and — more recently — theater, he’s a complete Catskills cut-up. He says his family came from Russia and what is now Poland. “I wish they’d moved to Paris.”
When he told his Hollywood backers that he wanted to make “Silent Movie,” he says he got five minutes of silence. “They said, ‘You took away color (with “Young Frankenstein”); you made the damned thing in black and white. Now you are taking away sound. What next, slides?’ ”
Hensley, who was in Washington for the Kennedy Center gala, says Brooks was under the weather, so no one expected him to show up for Springsteen’s after party. “As I’m leaving, the door opens, and Mel is coming in and is wide awake, out of control, and he was crashing the party at 2 a.m.,” Hensley says. “He was sort of giving me a hard time about going to bed.”
Brooks volleys back.
“I’m very glad that I fought so hard to get Shuler, who was playing a gorilla in ‘Tarzan’ on Broadway. I talked to the Disney people and everything. I was ready to buy him out of his contract. Now that [film star] Peter Boyle was gone, there was only one monster who could sing, with the glorious voice as well as the comedy as well as the emotional power. And that was Shuler Hensley. We begged, borrowed, stole. We got him into ‘Young Frankenstein.’ He’s utterly magnificent.”
For Brooks, Broadway is like an old flame. “I love live theater more than anything. It took me 60 years to get back to it, because I was fairly successful with Sid Caesar’s ‘Your Show of Shows’ and then ‘Get Smart.’ So I was doing pretty well on television, and then I started making movies with ‘The Producers.’ And I never stopped. I was lucky with a lot of those movies … because some of them were really dangerous.” (When “The Producers” arrived just 13 years after the end of World War II, many didn’t think “Springtime for Hitler” – the show-within-the-show -- was funny.)
Making “High Anxiety,” a Hitchcock satire, gave Brooks the jitters. But Hitchcock was generous enough to give him notes and some un-used material. Then came the terrifying day when the young upstart showed the master his rough cut.
“He didn’t say a word and he left,” Brooks recalls. “He got up and stormed out. … I said, ‘Oh my God.’… Next day, I get a big wooden case of Chateau Haut-Brion — red, magnums, 1961, one of the greatest years ever of Bordeaux wine — and a little card that said, ‘Have no anxiety about this film. It’s absolutely wonderful. Love, Hitch.’ It was the nicest moment of my cinematic career.”
One of the funniest gags of “Young Frankenstein” is the joke about Frau Blucher, the Transylvanian housekeeper whose name has a terrifying effect on horses. When Brooks says “Blucher,” he can’t help but make the sound of a whinnying horse a second afterward.
Asked to explain the gag, he says it’s an urban legend – that “blucher” means “glue” in German. It ain’t true. “When Gene [Wilder] and I wrote it, we didn’t have that in mind at all. We had in mind that they were afraid of this woman, this housekeeper, with her hair back in bun. She was very foreboding. And the horses were just terrified of her.”
He said that Cloris Leachman, who created the role in the film, wanted to do it on Broadway. She was just too busy, and later ended up on “Dancing with the Stars.” “She’s in her 80s,” he said, “and we couldn’t get enough time out of her.”
Tuesday-Sunday. $18-$57. Presented by Broadway Across America-Atlanta. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Midtown. 1-800-278-4447, BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com
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