Pushing 90, Melvin James Kaminisky bounced on stage as though he had been shot out of a cannon: He was neat, a little round and casual-smart in slightly baggy creased cream slacks, an open-neck sky-blue shirt, and a red handkerchief peeping out the top pocket of his navy blue blazer. A wide grin ran from ear to ear. The packed house at the Thousand Oaks Civic Auditorium in Southern California on a recent night gave him the kind of welcome usually reserved for rock stars: shrieking, yells, and thunderous applause at the first sight of their icon.
Kaminsky—better known as director, producer, writer, actor, and stand-up comic Mel Brooks—had come to the theater as part of an intermittently year-long U.S. whistle-stop tour on the 42nd anniversary of the release of his 1974 film Blazing Saddles, which late critic Roger Ebert first described as “a crazed grab-bag of a movie that does everything to keep us laughing except hit us over the head with a rubber chicken.”
Since last October Brooks has been on the road and done a dozen personal appearances around the country. They screen his film, and then up pops Mel, who got his start as a teenage tummeler at Borscht Belt resorts in the Catskills and then turned out a series of comedic screen spoofs that have skewered every cinematic genre and topic known to man: Westerns, Horror films (Young Frankenstein, 1974), and sci-fi movies (Spaceballs, 1987). Hitler got the Mel Brooks treatment in The Producers—the 1967 film that was resurrected as a Broadway musical in 2002 and went on to win 12 Tonys. Alfred Hitchcock got the Brooks treatment in the 1977 film High Anxiety. And in 1981 Brooks took on the rest of human history with The History of the World Part 1, in which he played five roles—in addition to writing, producing, and directing.
John Trembler, producer of Brooks’ live performance shows, who has been on the road with Brooks since last September (the tour ends at Radio City Music Hall this September), said that Brooks’ passion never wanes, helped along by the enthusiasm of his multigenerational audience. “He likes to come to the theater at the beginning of the movie,” he told me, “sit in the wings, and listen to the audience. Then he shakes his head in disbelief because they are still laughing 40 years later.”
Sitting in the audience I felt like I was at a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show: The audience knew every punchline. And when the lights came on, so did Mel. Silver-haired, spry, stocky, and confident, he stood in front of a huge poster that read “A Hilarious Live Conversation With Mel Brooks.” Cocky and bold—still like the skinny, raspy-voiced Jewish Brooklyn street kid he once was—he shouted, mugged, strutted, and told funny stories.
He turned his back on his audience: “See,” he commanded, “there’s the skyline of New York on the back of my jacket.” And there it was. He was jubilantly in charge—and he clearly relished every minute of it. He might have gone on all night until the moderator finally made his presence known by declaring, as the hour got late, “Sorry, Mel; this has to be the last question.”
I recently talked to Brooks about his new show and his remarkable career as his landmark 90 birthday—celebrated today—was fast approaching. “These personal appearances brings me back to my first love, which is live theater,” he told me. “I started on the Borscht Belt in the late 1940s as a drummer and pianist. We did three or four items a week in a musical review. A play, then amateur night. I was always busy onstage doing something. Writing sketches beginning on Broadway in 1952 in a show called New Faces, with Eartha Kitt, Paul Lynde, and Carol Lawrence. I still get goosebumps when a Broadway orchestra strikes up. I am energized by what I do.”
Brooks prepares for his appearances with an unvarying routine, which involves eating. “Half an hour before my show I have pumpernickel bagel—the thin half only—with cream cheese and seedless raspberry jelly and a glass of Ovaltine—with cold, nonfat milk. I’m ready. I kind of talk a lot,” he gallops on. “The story of a poor kid from Brooklyn. How I came to be. Stories of being in the Army”—as a combat engineer corporal in World War II Germany—“hearing a German platoon singing across the river—and me singing back, ‘Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye,’ [the Al Jolson song] to straighten them out. Stories about the TV show Get Smart and with the incredible Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, writing Your Show of Shows with Carl Reiner and Neil Simon in the ’50s.”
Our conversation, not surprisingly, turns to Blazing Saddles. Brooks says that he was struggling to make a living at the time. “I wasn’t making big bucks: I made $25,000 for The Producers, which wasn’t a success at first. And $35,000 for Twelve Chairs. So, I was absolutely broke when the movie was made. And my wife Anne Bancroft (God bless her) was going to have a baby”—Max, now 44 and an author and screenwriter.
The movie was never smooth going, he remembered. “Blazing Saddles was more or less written in the middle of a drunken fistfight,” he told me. “There were five of us all yelling loudly for our ideas to be put into the movie. Not only was I the loudest, but luckily I also had the right as director to decide what was in or out. And yes it’s true. I first asked John Wayne to be in the movie. Upfront he said, ‘I can’t do it.’ I understood,” Brooks adds, kindly.
“I quit the film once. Richard Pryor was to be Black Bart the sheriff, but the studio said no. He was spending $500 a week on Rémy Martin, and the studio was leery of hiring him. And he wasn’t a proven star. But he persuaded me to do it without him. He had been arrested for drugs and they wouldn’t give him insurance.
“He told me he wouldn’t get paid (as one of the film’s five writers) if the movie was canceled. So, he helped me find Cleavon [Little] and told me, ‘I’ll be good and get the laughs—but there’s no way I would scare those rednecks shitless like Cleavon could.’ ”
Even when the movie was finished Brooks faced huge obstacles. “When it opened at the Avco in Westwood,” he remembered, “audiences loved it and ran up and down the aisles. They laughed from start to finish. But Ted Ashley, the head of Warner Bros., had his new fiancée with him and was embarrassed by what he had seen—particularly at the cowboys farting around the campfire. He had a conniption fit. ‘This is the most disgusting movie I’ve ever seen. It’s vulgar and we can’t show this under the Warner badge,’ he said. ‘We should bury it.’
“Then he grabbed me by the ear and threw me in the manager’s office—and handed me a legal pad. ‘The farting scene has got to go. You can’t punch a horse. You can’t hit an old lady. And you can’t use the N-word.’ Then he gave me a list of 26 other scenes that he said must go. Out. Out. Out. I knew if I cut those we’d have a 15-minute film. I wrote it all down and then after he walked out I crumpled up the pages and tossed them in the waste paper bin.
“John Calley, another studio executive who was running the movie division, turned to me and said, ‘I like your filing system.’ Then he saved my life. He said, ‘The audience rocked from the opening scene. We must give it a try in New York and Chicago.’ So I kept everything in—and the film went on to make gobs of money.”
Brooks said his ace in the hole was final-cut approval, which meant he was able to ignore the studio’s revulsion at what he put onscreen. “Lots of other people said the campfire scene was too vulgar,” he said. “But the film allowed me to be the lovely Rabelaisian vulgarian that I am. I mean those cowboys farting allowed me for the first time to really exercise my scatological muscles. So, we had a bunch of guys eating a lot of beans and delivering a mighty symphony orchestra—music in the wind!”
Warner had other reasons to be worried, however. When The Producers starring Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Kenneth Mars, and Dick Shawn first came out in 1968 it was a near-disaster. “The critics said it was totally tasteless,” recalls Brooks. “Peter Sellers, the genius English actor, loved it and out of his own pocket paid for ads in the Hollywood trade papers saying it was the funniest movie he’d ever seen. And the film was saved. Before that you couldn’t get arrested.”
Brooks admitted that in lampooning Adolf Hitler he borrowed liberally from perhaps the greatest comic in movie history—Charlie Chaplin. “It’s part of my heritage. No Chaplin, no Mel Brooks. You learn from the greats of the past. In Great Dictator Chaplin plays this little Jewish barber who is mistaken for the fuhrer. He is beautiful, doing that ballet with the balloon as the globe of the world.”
Along with the landmark cowboys breaking wind on screen scene, Brooks also broke new ground in Blazing Saddles when it came to depicting the American melting pot: His Indian Chief (played by Brooks, who also doubled up as the lascivious Governor William J. LePetomane) breaks into Yiddish. (Brooks told me in an earlier interview that he came up with the name Le Petomane as a tribute to a French nightclub comic Joseph Pujol, who performed under the stage name of Le Pétomane. Brooks said the French comic, known as “the king of farts,” was able to extinguish candles with long-range flatulence.)
But back to the Yiddish-speaking chieftain: “I didn’t want him to do the clichéd Indian sounds—‘Hi Yoyo’—and that sort of stuff,” Brooks recalled. “I was thinking that no one knew Yiddish so why not use it. My grandmother used to speak Yiddish to me when I was a kid in Brooklyn. At early screenings I saw that when there’s thunderous laughter when the chief speaks there’s Jews in the movie house balcony.”
Brooks says his comedy formula is always the same: “My credo is if it doesn’t make you laugh it won’t make them laugh. Comedy is real. They will laugh if you do. If it’s funny the world laughs.”
While Brooks is probably the most Jewish of filmmakers in Hollywood, he’s a particular kind of 20th-century American Jew, for whom a fierce sense of ethnic pride and attachment is paramount. In a 2013 interview with Men’s Journal he declared: “I’m basically Jewish. But I think I’m Jewish not because of the Jewish religion at all. I think it’s the relationship with the people and the pride I have. The tribe surviving so many misfortunes and being so brave and contributing so much knowledge to the world and showing courage.”
I asked him about his favorite Jewish movies. “The Producers for sure,” he said. “And Blazing Saddles. There was one directed by Robert Aldrich with Gene Wilder playing a Polish rabbi out west who wouldn’t ride a horse on shabbos.” (The Frisco Kid, 1969, starring Wilder and a young Harrison Ford.)
“Then there’s the more obvious ones: Schindler’s List—and Fiddler on the Roof directed by Norman Jewison—who by the way wasn’t Jewish!”
So, how would he define a Jewish movie?
“Anything in Brooklyn where I grew up is Jewish, particularly if it takes place in the thirties or forties. It has to be,” he answered. “Every single movie that Paul Muni made. Even when he did Emile Zola [the l937 biopic The Life of Emile Zola] thousands of miles away in France, defending Dreyfus. Absolutely. And Richard Dreyfus playing Madoff. They can be anything and anywhere … if there’s a tribal thing, like, the ‘please God, protect us’ feeling … we don’t know where and how it’s gonna come out. Avatar was a Jewish movie … these people on the run, chasing—and being pursued.”
In 2005 Brooks’ life was turned upside down when his actress wife Anne Bancroft died after a battle with uterine cancer, after 40-plus years of marriage. “I wasn’t able to cope. I was just … shattered,” he said. “She was my soulmate. We were glued together. What helped were my four children, and two grandchildren, and every one of them came to my side along with dear friends like Carl Reiner. I was able to stand up straight and march forward.”
Reiner, a lifelong friend, who had teamed up with him in 1961 for the hit comedy albums 2000 Year Old Man and is now 94, showed up at the Thousand Oaks theater—and from the front row they exchanged some unrehearsed, shouted dialogue.
“He never goes out much,” said Mel in a slightly pitying tone. “Hello, Carl. It’s me. Remember me? Mel.”
Then they picked up from their 2,000 Year Old Man schtick.
Reiner: “You were married many times, I understand?
Brooks: “Yes, I was.”
Reiner: “What was the favorite of all your wives?”
Reiner: “What was so special about Shirley?
Brooks: “Her friend Delilah.”
When it was all over Brooks noted: “I see Carl maybe three times a week. We have dinner and watch black-and-white movies.”
Brooks admits that his live performances are a necessary tonic.
“That’s my fuel,” he said, “the basis of my energy. The laughter that comes flying back. Sometimes the energy is so big that if I wore a hat it would blow away.”
Ivor Davis, a former foreign correspondent for the London Daily Express and Times of London, is the author ofThe Beatles and Me on Tour.