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Mel Brooks stories you won't hear tonight

By Alan Pergament

As many of you know, I continued to blog about local and national television during my three-year sabbatical from The Buffalo News.

I did it for a variety of reasons. The primary reason was because I enjoy writing about television.

But there were secondary reasons as well. Because I was able to continue to write about TV, I qualified to attend the semi-annual meetings of the Television Critics Association.

Typically, the meetings are 12-hour days and you don’t get paid for all of the hours. But you also get to do some priceless things that make your salary irrelevant.

Like being in a room with 75-100 critics from across the country to listen to Mel Brooks talk about his life and career.

Every time, a legendary performer came before the TCA, I'd think of my late father, who used to proclaim of acting and comic legends "there was only Gregory Peck, there was only one Clark Gable, there was only one Sid Caesar." The list of "only ones" went on and on. I’m sure Mel Brooks would have made my father’s list.

Brooks was before us in January in Pasadena, Calif. to promote the American Masters film about his life, "Mel Brooks: Make a Noise," that premieres at 9 tonight on WNED-TV.

Melphot
Mel Brooks (center) and Robert Trachtenberg (right) at TCA

One of the surprising things you get from the special is how poor the initial reviews of many of Brooks’ classic films were and how difficult it was for him to get the financing for some of the films.

I enjoyed the 85-minute special, even though it feels a little disjointed at times. But the 45-minutes with Brooks and the show’s writer-producer-director, Robert Trachtenberg, at his side were twice as enjoyable as the PBS special.  

That’s a testament to the questions asked of Brooks in the TCA session about some legendary rumors concerning his work and life. The TCA has been criticized by some as an example of pack journalism, but my colleagues are some of the smartest people I've ever known and they know how to get interesting comments from legends like Brooks.  

Trachtenberg really wasn't asked much -- he was sitting next to Mel Brooks after all – but he did explain that people might not see their favorite moment in Brook's films tonight because the clips and music were expensive to buy and there also was a time limitation.

Many of us probably expected everything out of Brooks' mouth to be funny. He didn’t always achieve that impossible goal but he was thoughtful and likable and touching at times.

He claimed he didn't want to talk about his late wife Anne Bancroft because it was too painful, but eventually you knew he would talk about her as he does in tonight’s special.

I'll try and avoid what Brooks discusses tonight and concentrate on stories told critics in January:

Warning: Some of the stories are a little long. Actually, I don't know if that is a warning or an inducement to read on.

On Being a Comedy Giant: "I'm not such a comedy giant. I'm 5-6. There are guys not as funny, but they are bigger, and I think that counts…. When I was a little kid, I overheard the conversation, (between) my mother and a neighbor. 'How could she leave him? He was so tall.'"

On Future Plans:  "I've been thinking about 'Blazing Saddles' as a musical on Broadway because a lot of it is musical already, and a lot of it has a rather fanciful and fantastic tone to it. And now that 'Django Unchained' has liberally used the 'n' word, I think I’m in the clear. I don’t look so bad, you know. I mean, he really used that word a lot, you know. So I’m okay with 'Blazing Saddles.’"

On Sid Caesar, the Cigar and the Window: Brooks explained that he was helping the legendary comedian improve some jokes for his act in the Empire Room at The Palmer House in Chicago.

"We were up in the hotel room writing, working, cleaning the act up. And it was about 2 in the morning, and the room was filled with cigar smoke because he incessantly smoked cigars. And I was, 'Sid, we’ve got to — I can’t breathe. I want air. I need air.

"He said 'you need air?’ He had already had a bottle of vodka under his belt. He raised a window at The Palmer House that has never been opened, I think. He just opened it, you know. He’s the strongest guy that ever lived. He just opened it up, grabbed me by the collar or grabbed me by my pants and held me. He held me out the window. It was cold. There was wind, and I could see taxicabs, they were under me. There was Michigan Avenue. And he said, 'Have you had enough?' ‘Oh, yeah. Plenty. Oh, I'm fine. Thank you so much.' I just wanted to be inside. So he took me back inside. I didn’t mind. And we worked a little longer, you know, but we kept the window open. So that’s a true story…

Sid and the Cabbie: "During the same engagement, (Caesar) scraped one of those taxicabs I talked to you about. He rented a car, and he scraped it. And the guy said, 'You stupid son of a bitch.' You don't ever say that to Sid Caesar because not only was he the strongest comic or comedian that ever lived, he was the strongest person in the world. So he gets out of the car. And I say, 'Sid, no, no. We are in Chicago. We are not in New York.' Let's not make trouble, you know... He said, 'I just want to apologize for scraping it.' I said, 'You want to kill him. I know you.' So he walks over to the car. The guy sees this kind of brutal, giant guy, Sid Caesar. And he just opens ... this little triangle window they used to have in those days. He says, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.' And... Sid says, 'Do you remember your birth?''

“So the guy says, 'What? What?' He says, 'Do you remember being born? Can you remember any of it?' And the guy says, 'What? Are you crazy?' He said, 'Your birth, try to remember. Try to remember being
born.' And the guy is already scared enough, and he backs up. Sid reaches in this little clipper window, and he says, 'Never mind. You are going to remember. We are going to reenact it.' And he starts pulling him through this little — I had to bite his hand, you know. That was — I think I saved — you
know, I saved a very strange phenomenon from happening.”

On Anne Bancroft:  "It is, you know, really a little too painful and private. You know, there might be one or two, like, things I could share with you. When we were singing 'Sweet Georgia Brown' in Polish, Anne diligently learned it in Polish, and she really taught it to me. And if you watch the movie, 'To Be or Not to Be,' you’ll see me, my mouthing her lips and looking at her doing it, and she was — she was the best singer, the best dancer, and maybe the best actress in the world. I was very lucky for 45 years, and it's very difficult. And I have good — I have great children,and I have a good life, but it is very difficult every day to go on, I can tell you, without her."

On Dustin Hoffman Sleeping with His Wife: A critic wanted Brooks to verify a story that Hoffman told about asking to leave the filming of "The Producers" the night before shooting to play opposite Anne Bancroft (who played Mrs. Robinson) in “The Graduate.” The critic added in Hoffman’s version, Brooks’ final line was "and you want me to let you go to California to make love to my wife all summer."  

"I said, 'Go. Go. You’re a mutt,'" recalled Brooks. "'Who the hell’s going to hire you to be in the movies except for me?  You’re maybe the worst-looking actor I’ve ever seen in my life…. I’m not worried about you being the leading man.' I should have been worried… Dustin was telling more or less the truth."

On Getting "The Producers" Made:  "You know, getting stuff made were the challenges. 'The Producers,' my first film, was the highest mountain I ever climbed. First of all, the title was 'Springtime for Hitler.' It wasn’t 'The Producers.' And we took it everywhere. I actually got to Lew Wasserman at Universal and he liked it. And he said 'I’ll do it.' (Brooks thought) 'Universal, wow. I’m gonna get it done.' (But then Wasserman added) 'Well, I’ll do it, but not Hitler. Mussolini, he’s more likable.'" Needless to say, Brooks got someone else to finance it.

Brooks went on and on. And so could have "Make a Noise" if it included everything about Brooks’ career.

"Forget the clips cost money and then the music cost money," said Trachtenberg. "It’s so damn expensive. So here, you know, it’s the same thing. It’s expensive … you’re not writing a 600-page biography. It's 90 minutes and you got to keep the train moving. So all this to say it was difficult and a pleasure at the same time, but kind of an agony."

For Brooks’ lovers, tonight’s special may be as close to ecstasy as listening to him talk for 45 minutes in Pasadena.

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Film | Television
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