PBS' "American Masters" Monday is a joyride through a busy life.Here's the story I sent to papers:
By MIKE HUGHES
You learn a lot, hanging out with
comedy masters. You also learn by hanging out a hotel window.
Mel Brooks – the focus of a jaunty
PBS profile Monday – has done both. He loved the writers' room of
Sid Caesar's TV shows; he was less happy with a writing session on a
top floor of the Palmer House in Chicago.
By 2 a.m., the room was full of
Caesar's cigar smoke; Brooks said he needed air. Caesar, having
finished a bottle of vodka, was displeased.
“He's the strongest guy that ever
lived,” Brooks recalled. “He... grabbed me by my pants and held
me out the window. It was cold; there was wind.”
Brooks said that was enough fresh air,
thank you; the writing resumed.
It's a dandy story, but Monday's quick,
slick film didn't have room for it. “You've got to keep the train
moving,” director Robert Trachtenberg said.”
And there is, after all, a lot of story
to tell from Brooks' first 86 years.
Brooks grew up with with his single mom
in Brooklyn. He was 9 when his uncle took him to see Ethel Merman in
Broadway's “Anything Goes.” The kid promptly obsessed on show
At 15, he botched his theater debut; at
18, he fought in World War II. Afterward, he fast-talked his way into
a job as the youngest of Caesar's writers.
There he was, alongside “some of the
best writers in the world.” These were the men who would later
write Broadway's “The Odd Couple,” “Hello, Dolly,” “Fiddler
and the Roof” and more.
And Caesar, Brooks said, was the ideal
person to write for. “I didn't step onstage … for a long time,
because he was the vehicle of my comic needs.”
When Caesar's shows were canceled,
Brooks had tough times … until he wrote an odd little script called
“Springtime For Hiltler.” Eventually – with a new title (“The
Producers”) and a low budget – he directed the movie. The New
York Times called it gross and vile; audiences approved.
The classics that followed – “Blazing
Saddles,” “High Anxiety,” “Young Frankenstein” – had high
satire, low sight gags and Gene Wilder. When Wilder wasn't available
for “Silent Movie,” Brooks cast himself. “I said, 'Nobody
talks, so I could get away with this.'”
He had become a writer-director-star of
loopy comedies, but also produced serious dramas (including “The
Elephant Man”) and married a serious-drama star. Anne Bancroft was
“maybe the best actress in the world,” Brooks said of his late
wife. “I was very lucky for 45 years.”
Eventually, his box-office impact
faded. “He had sort of fallen out of favor,” actor Nathan Lane
says in Monday's film.
And then he went back to the beginning,
turning “The Producers” into a musical. It set a Tony-award
record; a “Young Frankenstein” musical was next, with more
expected followed. Generations after falling in love with a Merman
musical, Brooks reached his goal of being big on Broadway.
– “American Masters: Mel Brooks:
Make a Noise,” 9-10:30 p.m. Monday, PBS (chcck local listings)