Mel Brooks' career triumphs -- The multi-talented writer talks about ''Blazing Saddles,'' ''The Producers,'' and his latest project ''Young Frankenstein''

By Clark Collis
October 19, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

In a Manhattan rehearsal studio, Mel Brooks is behaving like a complete and utter monster. ”Why the hell can’t ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY hire Americans?” growls the actor/writer/director/Hollywood comedy icon upon recognizing your reporter’s British accent. ”How long have you been in this country? Why haven’t you learned to speak properly yet? Why are you here? What is this s—?”

Brooks’ tirade is, at first, genuinely unnerving. The diminutive 81-year-old really does look angry — like an enraged Yoda (or Yogurt, the character he played in his 1987 Star Wars parody Spaceballs). But as Brooks finally offers a twinkling smile and affectionate arm squeeze, it becomes clear that the filmmaker responsible for such big-screen chucklefests as 1974’s Blazing Saddles and 1977’s High Anxiety is having fun at his guest’s expense. But is it high anxiety or high spirits that prompted this spontaneous piece of shtick? Possibly both. Brooks is visiting a rehearsal for the new $16 million musical version of his 1974 horror comedy Young Frankenstein, currently in previews at Broadway’s Hilton Theatre for a Nov. 8 opening. The production had a monthlong, late-summer tryout in Seattle, where, on the night EW attended, it was greeted ecstatically by the audience. (Advance sales for Broadway are rumored to be upwards of $25 million.) While many shows are heavily retooled following such dry runs, Young Frankenstein is apparently undergoing only light tinkering. ”It’s just being tightened up,” explains Thomas Meehan, who co-wrote the book with Brooks.

This rehearsal is certainly an upbeat affair, as director Susan Stroman briskly runs her actors through a clutch of Brooks-composed tunes: the Rodgers and Hammerstein-referencing ”There Is Nothing Like the Brain,” the Rocky Horror-evoking ”Transylvania Mania,” and the double-entendre-suffused ”Deep Love.” That cast includes Desperate Housewives and Hostel: Part II star Roger Bart in the titular role, Broadway favorite Sutton Foster as a sexy lab assistant, and, as Bart’s prudish fiancée Megan Mullally. Currently, the Will & Grace comedian is having a ball with the single-entendre-suffused ”Please Don’t Touch Me,” a number that climaxes with her repeatedly singing the word tits. ”I love tits,” says the never-scared-of-offending Brooks. ”It was wonderful to write a little paean of praise to one of the glorious creations of nature.”

Famous faces. Good buzz. Humorous ditties about female body parts. What could Brooks be anxious about? Well, for one thing, the show’s much-ballyhooed $450 tickets, which put a premium price on top seats that usually sell for $121.50. But Brooks’ bigger problem is the last musical he adapted from one of his own movies: a little show called The Producers. It opened in 2001 (with Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane as, respectively, timid accountant Leo Bloom and larger-than-life huckster Max Bialystock), became a critical and box office smash, and won a record 12 Tony awards.

That’s a very tough two-acts-with-intermission to follow. In both the movie and the musical, Dr. Frankenstein uses an electrical storm to prove he can reanimate dead tissue. The question is whether Brooks can achieve the almost-as-tricky task of bottling Broadway lightning twice.

To many, Brooks’ transformation into the King of Broadway must seem an unlikely career switcheroo. After all, this is the man who built his Hollywood reputation on a bunch of farting cowboys. But the Brooklyn-raised comedian has been in love with musicals — and music in general — since 1935, when his uncle Joe took the young Melvin Kaminsky to a Broadway matinee of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. As a teenager, he took drumming lessons from jazz legend Buddy Rich, the brother of a friend, who described his student as ”Not bad. Not good. But not so bad.” While serving in the Army during World War II, Brooks entertained himself by parodying popular songs: ”When we begin/To clean the latrine!” he warbles today to the tune of ”Begin the Beguine.”

He first broke into showbiz in his mid-20s as a comedy sketch writer on one of Sid Caesar’s hit TV shows. But Brooks was still fascinated by Broadway and, in 1957, co-wrote the book for the musical Shinbone Alley. ”It was a romance between an alley cat and her friend, who was a cockroach. Eartha Kitt played the alley cat. It ran about a month,” says Brooks. ”They curse about ticket prices — what about paying me for all my failures? Nobody said, ‘We should take up a collection for these guys who spent two years putting this together!”’ His subsequent stage ventures — 1962’s Nowhere to Go but Up (with book and lyrics by future Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton) and All American — also flopped.

Brooks’ theatrical tribulations would inspire his 1968 cult film The Producers, which featured the famous tongue-in-cheek celebration of Nazism ”Springtime for Hitler.” In 1974, Brooks hit the commercial big time with the parodic horse opera Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, a comic twist on the Mary Shelley tale, starring Gene Wilder (who also co-wrote) as the American grandson of mad scientist Victor von Frankenstein. The film pays homage to and good-naturedly thumbs its nose at the classic Frankenstein movies of the ’30s — particularly when Wilder and Peter Boyle’s monster perform Irving Berlin’s ”Puttin’ On the Ritz.”

”I was very ambivalent about that scene,” recalls Brooks. ”I said to Gene, ‘We’ve been very faithful. We’re doing it in black and white and cobwebby and everything.’ And then Gene suggested the monster singing ‘Puttin’ On the Ritz’! It was a big fight. Finally, I said, ‘All right, Gene, we’ll try it.’ And it was one of the high points of the movie.”

Young Frankenstein boasted Brooks’ best-ever cast: Wilder, Boyle, Teri Garr, Marty Feldman, Gene Hackman as a blind man who scalds the monster’s genitals with hot soup, and Cloris Leachman as Frau Blücher, the horse-frightening girlfriend of Frederick’s grandfather. The film cost less than $3 million to make, grossed over $86 million domestically, and is now regarded as a bona fide comedy classic. Knocked Up and 40 Year-Old Virgin director Judd Apatow calls it ”the funniest movie ever made. I went to see it a few years ago and that theater was rocking so hard…. It’s the bar that cannot be reached.”

A quarter century later, Brooks set a new bar for himself: to conquer Broadway. He denies the move was prompted by a downturn in his Tinseltown fortunes, but his post-Frankenstein films never approached his early success (his last directorial effort, 1995’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It, was an $11 million-grossing dud). ”A filmmaker lives in a fools’ world,” he says. ”He’s always a genius and his next one is gonna set the world on fire! I was thinking about another movie. But then I realized, Gee, I could write 17 or 18 songs. So I did.” Thus, The Producers was born. ”Everything I wrote was just made in heaven,” he adds without a hint of false modesty. ”Boom! Out of my head, onto the piano, and onto the stage.”

Broadway was craving a good old-fashioned musical comedy, and Brooks served it up with a wink, a nudge, and a singing Hitler. ”I love musical comedy. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Guys and Dolls,” Brooks declares. ”Beauty and the Beast? Les Miz?… Not for me. Sometimes these shows are a feast for the eye but your mind’s starved to death.”

The Producers was a certified blockbuster, spawning then-record ticket prices and a six-year run on Broadway that ended last spring, a feat that surprised even its creator. ”Musical comedies — even the best — usually don’t run more than two or three years,” Brooks notes. ”They don’t have teacups that sing, you know?” The show also survived a dismal, $19 million-grossing film adaptation featuring much of the original Broadway cast. (”Nathan Lane was not a movie star,” he muses. ”Hairspray? They had a couple of movie stars. It makes a big difference.”) And as The Producers travels to Las Vegas and 12 countries around the world, Brooks serves as a one-man Welcome Wagon. ”All these cities where The Producers is, I go back and give it a spin,” he says. ”I tighten it up and give the cast my love. It’s a big job. These things demand a lot of your time and your energy.”

A few years back, Brooks’ energy, tragically, was needed elsewhere. His wife of 40 years, actress Anne Bancroft, was battling uterine cancer; she died June 6, 2005. At her Beverly Hills tribute, Brooks asked well-wishers that they not express their sympathy, explaining that he didn’t need their tears — he had enough of his own.

Brooks initially resisted returning to Transylvania, though the idea of adapting Young Frankenstein for the stage was kicking around during The Producers‘ pre-Broadway previews. ”Matthew Broderick and I were sitting with Mel at the Four Seasons in Chicago drinking champagne at about 2:30 in the morning,” recalls Roger Bart, who played the mincing Carmen Ghia in The Producers. ”We were saying to Mel that Young Frankenstein had to be next. He said, ‘No, no, no, we can’t. It’s a movie that’s spoofing a film genre. How can we do that on stage?”’

Then, about a year after The Producers opened, Brooks heard a German-accented voice in his head: ”He vaaas my boyfriend!” ”I said, ‘That’s Frau Blücher! She’s singing to me.’ So I wrote this song, just for my own amusement: ‘He was as crazy as a coot/But I didn’t give a hoot/He vas my boyfriend.’ I said, ‘That’s a very funny song.”’ After Bancroft’s death, Brooks busied himself writing the rest of the score for the new Young Frankenstein.

”I would say it saved him,” says Stroman, whose own husband, theater director Mike Ockrent, died from leukemia in 1999. ”When he lost Anne, he just reached out to the place where he was happiest — and that was writing a Broadway musical. And the whole story [of Young Frankenstein] is about bringing the dead back to life.”

Brooks is aware of the dangers of trying to replicate the success of The Producers — though he has recalled Bart, Stroman, Meehan, and the earlier show’s entire design team. ”I’m worried about reviews,” he says. ”I think they’re gunning for us. I think they’re gonna make us pay for our 12 Tonys. But everybody in Young Frankenstein is good. The book is hilarious and emotional. And Young Frankenstein has much wider appeal. I know how much the movie made and how much the DVDs keep selling.”

And if it does prove to be a Producers-size hit? How will he follow that? Rumor has it that a Broadway Blazing Saddles will be next, but Brooks says he has no immediate plans. ”Maybe I’ll do a one-man show in Melbourne for five years. And if it works in Melbourne, I’ll take it to Sydney. And if it works in Sydney, I’ll take it to New Jersey.” Well, that is the dream. ”Yeah,” he smiles. ”To end up in Hoboken, New Jersey! But I would like to do another musical. To sit there in the middle of an audience howling with laughter or cheering after a song finishes — there’s no payment like that on earth.”

(Click here to read Brooks, Stroman, Bart, and Mullally reveal their favorite horror movies)