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In 2006, the legendary Mel Brooks sat down with Dick Cavett to talk as they had nearly forty years before on Cavett's nighttime talk show. The nostalgia was not lost on Cavett, who remarked that hearing the music of his old show and the reaction of the audience as he walked out "put me right back in the wings in my old studio." As Billie Holliday once said, Cavett felt he was "always making comebacks, but nobody ever tells me where I've been."
With a mind like Mel Brooks', the conversation is bound to take many twists and turns, and this interview became a laugh-filled romp through his life. Cavett started out by talking about Brooks' childhood as a poor, fatherless Jewish boy, which the critic Kenneth Tynan wrote in the New Yorker was the recipe for creating an American comedian. Brooks remembered growing up in the tenements, with his mother working all day and then bringing home work at night from 9:00pm to nearly 2:00am. Once, as a small child, he woke in the night to find her at the kitchen table with a machine that fitted rhinestones and mistook them for diamonds. He called his family "heroes who kept us going" through a tough, crazy, emotionally rich childhood.
Brooks also spoke of his six months as a 17-year-old, being sent to the Virginia Military Institute as part of the Army Specialized Training Reserve. For a Jewish boy from Brooklyn, Virginia was a completely different world, with hilly landscapes, green grass, girls who still dressed in hoop skirts for cotillion dances and a strange drink called Dr. Pepper. As a young Borscht Belt comedian, Brooks was given a baptism of fire by audiences that were the toughest in the world. This enabled him to learn his trade and give him the experience necessary to become a television comedy writer for the great Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows . Brooks began at $50 a week but had to go into psychoanalysis when his salary went to $250. On finding himself vomiting in parking lots without knowing why, he took the advice of head writer, Mel Tolkin, and visited an analyst, who he credited with saving his life. Brooks believed that it was his guilt over making such a large salary for "doing very little. Just making jokes for $250 a week, that's why I had a nervous breakdown."
Brooks' experience with Sid Caesar might have caused anyone a nervous breakdown. One evening, after working 16 hours non-stop on jokes, Brooks told Caesar that he needed to take a break and get some air. Caesar, who was a large and very strong man, picked Brooks up and held him out of an open window by the seat of his pants and his belt. Suddenly, Brooks found himself staring face down at the traffic on Michigan Blvd. "That's how crazy [Caesar] was."
Things on the Dick Cavett Show had their moments of crazy, too. Cavett related the story of how J.I. Rodale, the publisher of several health books, literally died on the show. Rodale had been very funny for his half hour and Cavett made a mental note to have him back. Columnist Pete Hamill came out for his segment, sat next to Rodale and began to speak with Cavett. A few moments later, Rodale suddenly made a snoring noise and slumped over. The audience thought he was being funny, but Cavett knew he was dead. The director yelled "Cut," but someone else in the control room said to keep filming and the cameraman caught the whole thing on tape. It was one of the most famous moments never seen on television as the segment was never aired.
Brooks and Cavett discussed Blazing Saddles (1974) and how it came after the failure of The Producers (1968) and The Twelve Chairs (1970). The script by Andrew Bergman had been suggested to Brooks, who brought Richard Pryor on the project. Pryor ended up writing the "Mongo" character, while Brooks wrote Black Bart, the sheriff, played by Cleavon Little. Brooks had wanted Pryor to play Bart, but the studio was afraid because he was known for doing drugs and was a nightclub comedian. They wanted a "real" actor, and so Little got the role and was "easy to work with."
Others that Brooks enjoyed working with were Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman and Cloris Leachman, who he credited with creating the look and the characterization of Nurse Diesel in High Anxiety (1977). Leachman adopted an "insane, crazy, frightening voice - very thick and very wild." It was hard for Brooks to act with her because she kept breaking him up.
Brooks spoke of his love of Fred Astaire films and of how, when he is asked his favorite film, people expect him to say Citizen Kane (1941), Grand Illusion (1937), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) or Jean Renoir's The River (1951). While Brooks admitted that they were great films, he maintained that Astaire's films like Top Hat (1935), Swing Time (1936) or The Gay Divorcee (1934) were "far superior. They blow the dust off your soul." The same could be said of Brooks' films as well.
By Lorraine LoBianco