Mel Brooks calls The Producers the 'miracle of my life'
When Mel Brooks first wrote The Producers all he hoped for was a chance to see the completed film in a movie theater. “Even if it was only going to be in New York or Chicago or in L.A., I wanted to see my dream come true on a big screen,” Brooks tells EW.
His dream came true and then some — the comedian’s feature film debut earned him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and went on to become a comedy touchstone. Since then, Brooks has transformed it into a record-holding, Tony-award winning Broadway musical, seen it become the focus of the fourth season of HBO’s series Curb Your Enthusiasm, and even championed a second film adaptation of the musical in 2005.
Now, the film will celebrate its 50th anniversary at the 9th annual TCM Classic Film Festival on Thursday, April 26. The Producers will open the festival with a world premiere restoration screening and Brooks on hand to reminisce about the film and its legacy.
Brooks is no stranger to TCM and its film festival, having previously received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as part of the festival proceedings, offered a hilarious Q&A at a screening of Blazing Saddles, and celebrated the 40th anniversary of High Anxiety at the 2017 festival. He says he regularly turns down projects and public appearances but that he just can’t say no to TCM. “Who else celebrates great old movies?” Brooks opines. “TCM is so important. Where else are you going to see The Producers? It’s hardly played on a big screen anywhere in the world.”
At the time of its release, the film, with its tale of a musical about Nazis including a song called “Springtime for Hitler,” shocked many. Brooks jokes he received 1,100 letters “from every rabbi that ever saw it.” Still, he says he never aimed to offend, but rather to champion the power of comedy and humor. “I didn’t think I was sinful in any way,” he says. “I thought it was making a point: You get up on a soapbox and you argue with a Nazi, you’re going to lose. But if you can ridicule him and make people laugh, then you win. It’s as simple as that.”
For many, World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust were still a raw wound in 1967, and Brooks feels the passing of time has slightly lessened the provocative nature of the film. “It isn’t as critical, dynamic, and frightening as it was then,” he explains. “The name Hitler had some direct emotion connected to it.”
Though the film has become one of the greatest success stories of Brooks’ career and displayed a rare amount of longevity, it didn’t start out that way. Brooks first wrote the idea as a play based on his experiences working as an assistant to a producer named Benjamin Kutcher. “He lived in the office,” remembers Brooks. “He washed out his shorts, he did his shirt, he hung everything out on a line. And little old ladies would actually come up to his office — he would make love to them, the last fling they’d ever have on a cracked leather couch. They’d make out a check and they’d say ‘What’s the name of the play? Who should I make it out to?’ He’d always say, ‘The name of the play is cash.’ And they’d make it out to cash. That was the character when I was looking for an idea to write as a play.”
Using his former boss as inspiration for Max Bialystock, Brooks wrote a play, at that time titled Springtime for Hitler, which he took to Broadway producer Kermit Bloomgarden (Death of a Salesman), who advised him to turn it into a film. “He read it and said, ‘You’ve got 38 scenes. There’s kind of a rule on Broadway — one set, five characters. Just the scenery alone will wipe me out. This is a movie,” Brooks says. “I took his word for it and turned it into a screenplay.”
The story follows two producers, Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), who devise a scheme to make money by producing a musical about Nazis that will be a surefire flop — trouble ensues when it somehow becomes a hit. Brooks also wrote songs for the project as part of the ill-fated musical within the story. “I needed a musical number to send the Jews fleeing from the theater,” he jokes. “That’s why I wrote Springtime for Hitler. I wrote the lyrics before I had a tune and then I put a tune to it. I used to be a drummer and I used to be a singer, so music was always in my soul. It wasn’t a hard leap to get into writing the notes.”
It was the first feature-length script Brooks ever wrote (“I learned how to do it,” he says) and from there he took it to Oscar-winning producer Sidney Glazier. Brooks vividly remembers sitting in Glazier’s office while the producer ate a tuna fish sandwich and insisted Brooks read the script aloud to him to save time. “When I got to the blue blanket scene, he spit out the tuna fish, he fell on the floor, and when he recovered, he said, ‘We gotta do this.'”
From there, it was a matter of finding funding and assembling a cast. Joseph E. Levine of Embassy Pictures agreed to executive produce and Brooks says he “conned” Levine into letting him also make his directorial debut on the film. “I said, “Joe, let me direct it because I’ve written it. I see the scenes, they’re in my head. I know how to decorate it. I know what should be in the room. I’ve seen it, it happened in my life. We’ll save a lot of money if I direct it,” Brooks recalls. “We get a director, they’ll have to envision it, they’ll have to see it and they might see it wrong. Joe said, ‘That’s very wise, good.'” Scoring the directing gig also had an unintended long-term bonus — because Brooks had final cut on his first film, he was able to request it on every film going forward.
For Brooks, there was no one but Zero Mostel for the role of Max Bialystock. He had seen the actor do a comedy routine at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village and was impressed with his “energy and insanity coupled in one person.” Mostel initially turned down the script, but then Brooks sent it to Mostel’s wife who told him she would leave him if he didn’t do the film.
Brooks says it was Mostel who added a lot of the unique quirks to the character of Bialystock and introduced Brooks to the technique of breaking the fourth wall to address the audience. “He added his own peculiar, wonderful comic genius to it. It was he who looked into the camera. He said, ‘I’m sorry I looked into the camera like I could see the audience.’ I said ‘Good, I love it. Keep it. KEEP IT,” he remembers. “I would do that the rest of my career, I would have characters look into the camera. Zero invented that for me in my first movie.”
Gene Wilder, who at that time had only had a small role in Bonnie and Clyde, made up the other half of the titular producers as Leo Bloom. Levine was eager to replace Wilder and offered Brooks a bigger budget to do so, but he refused. “Gene Wilder is eloquent. He’s beautiful. He’s a great actor. His comedy oozes from him; he’s a natural,” says Brooks. “I said, ‘I can’t get rid of him. I won’t, for any money in the world.’ Really, it was the chemistry of Gene and Zero that made the movie work.”
When the movie debuted at the 58th Street theater in New York City, Brooks says it only attracted small crowds and earned the ire of New York Times critic Renata Adler (“You don’t forget these things,” he says as he drops her name). When magazines like Time, Newsweek, and Look proclaimed the film “uproariously funny” and compared it to the Marx Brothers, crowds started to grow. Fifty years later, Brooks can still quote critics from memory, rattling off snatches of reviews and which publication they came from readily. “There was a line around the block when the magazines came out,” he remembers. “It went from a failure in the New York Times to a grand hit in all those great magazines.”
And that was only the beginning — Brooks went on to win an Oscar for Best Screenplay for the film. “It was thrilling,” he says. “It justified all the angst and all the sweat, blood, and tears. To be rewarded with an Academy Award with the screenplay was beyond my wildest dreams.”
Fifty years on, it endures as a high point of Brooks’ career, which includes other comedy classics Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, High Anxiety and the television show Get Smart. He agrees, calling the film the “miracle of my life.” Brooks likens his films to his children, explaining that the first one always feels like a miracle, while the rest, though you love them equally, are hard work. “The first movie was an absolute miracle — that they let me make it. They paid for it and people came to see it. I went in the back of the theater and I heard them laughing. It was absolutely amazing. And I am so grateful to TCM for saving these treasures.”
The Producers will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a world premiere restoration screening at the 9th annual TCM film festival on Thursday, April 26. Visit their website for passes and more information.