The last time Mel Brooks appeared at Radio City Music Hall was June 3, 2001, the night his show “The Producers” made Broadway history by winning a record 12 Tony Awards.
“I was pretty sure ‘Hamilton’ was going to dethrone me,” says Brooks, still going strong at 90. “But they got 11, so we still get the crown.”
He returns to Radio City to celebrate another of his triumphs Sept. 1 at 7:30 p.m. Brooks will be on hand for a screening of his groundbreaking, sidesplitting 1974 Western spoof “Blazing Saddles” followed by a Q&A. (Go to radiocity.com for more details.)
Brooks recently chatted by phone from Los Angeles with Newsday’s Daniel Bubbeo about making the irreverent comedy.
Nothing about “Blazing Saddles” was politically correct. Were you worried that the studio wouldn’t let you get away with it?
One of the suits saw a preview of it and threw me into the manager’s office and then threw me a legal pad and a pencil and said, “Write ‘no farting . . . no punching an old lady, no punching a horse.’ ” He gave me about 26 notes, and if I did everything he told me, I would have had a 13-minute movie. Most of our movie was in such bad taste. [Producer John] Calley was with me, and when I [later] crumpled up those notes and threw them in the garbage, Calley said, “Good filing.” He said, “Mel, the minute it makes its first million, they’ll go nuts for it.” And I had final cut, so legally, they couldn’t cut the movie.
Did you really ask John Wayne to be in “Blazing Saddles”?
I did. He had seen “The Producers” and he came over to my table in the commissary one day and said, “I love that movie. It was a such a great idea and so well done.” I said “Thanks, Mr. Wayne.” I saw him again in the commissary and I said, “Because you liked ‘The Producers,’ maybe you’ll like this,” and I gave him the script for “Blazing Saddles.” So he said, “I’ll read it.” The next day, he said to me, “Are you crazy? I can’t do this picture. I can’t do dirty movies. Are you nuts? My fans won’t stand for seeing me in a movie like this, but I’ll be the first one on line to see it.”
What part did you want him for?
The Gene Wilder role [Jim]. That was a very troublesome role for me. I was looking for a leather-faced actor. I originally hired Gig Young. He had won an Academy Award a few years before for “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” and through the grapevine it was well-known that he was an alcoholic. I checked on him and they said he’s recovered. I said, “Gee, that’s who Jim is, he’s a recovered alcoholic, and this guy’s a great actor, and he’ll bring a little bit of gravitas to the production.” . . . On stage I talk about his first day of shooting [Young collapsed on set after experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms]. Immediately after that, I broke down and cried and begged Gene Wilder to fly out and play that part. He knew it and said, “I’ve just been waiting for the call.” He flew out the next day and saved my life.
Madeline Kahn was so perfect in that movie. What was she like to work with?
Very few people were ever as talented as Madeline. Madeline could have been an opera star. She had an incredibly big, beautiful operatic voice. She could sing the hell out of anything, and here I was asking her to do Marlene Dietrich with this low voice. She ad-libbed. There’s about 16 bars where she just hums along with the song. And she was humming along in just the wrong key. It was so beautiful. She figured Marlene Dietrich wouldn’t get it just right.
You also got to know Alfred Hitchcock when you were making “High Anxiety.” What did he think of it?
He saw the movie with me at a little screening room at Universal. The picture’s over, and he gets up and he leaves. He doesn’t say a word to me. Nothing. That night, I got no sleep. I thought, he didn’t like “High Anxiety” at all, and I dedicated it to him.
I get to my office at Fox the next day, and there’s a big package with silver paper and a big red bow. I put it on my desk, I tear away the bow, I tear away the silver paper. It’s a wooden case of wine — Chateau Haut-Brion 1961. It’s priceless. There are six magnums and a little note that read “Dear Mel, I have no anxiety about ‘High Anxiety.’ It’s a truly wonderful picture, love, Hitch.” I burst into tears and then broke open a bottle and finished it in one gulp. [Laughs.]
Do you have plans to make any more films?
If they tear my door down and shovel hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars where I can’t climb over the money, I might say yes. [Laughs.] No, money doesn’t count whatsoever. It’s always whether the subject matter makes you happy and crazy and you want to be a part of it. You want to be there every day, you want to be there with the right people that you’ve cast, with the right story. That’s what it’s all about. I don’t think I’d want to make another movie unless it was my choice and they were crazy enough to let me make it.
What about coming back to Broadway?
The only idea I really have is to do “Blazing Saddles” as a Broadway musical. It kind of writes itself. . . . It’s a helluva story and there are three or four songs in it already. Of course, some of them are in execrable taste.