The Big Idea Behind THE PRODUCERS
And thus the seed was planted for the film that would launch Mel Brooks' feature film career and become a comedy classic. Brooks had started out as a comedy writer on the TV program, "Your Show of Shows," with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. He had gained some recognition with his Oscar®-winning short film The Critic (1963) and the TV show "Get Smart," which he co-created, but he yearned for something bigger.
Brooks first began writing The Producers as a book titled Springtime for Hitler, but there was too much dialogue and not enough narrative. So he tried writing it as a play, but there were too many scenes and sets for it to be practical for the stage. Finally, friends convinced him that he needed to make it as a movie.
When the screenplay was finished, Brooks showed it to his friend Sidney Glazier, who was a producer. Glazier loved it and vowed to get the movie made. The two shopped the project around Hollywood, and came close to making the film at Universal. At the last minute, however, the studio balked at having Hitler figure prominently in the story, regardless of the satiric tone, and decided to pass.
Brooks then met with producer Joseph Levine, who also loved the script. When Levine asked Brooks who was going to be the director, Brooks said that he was. Brooks had never directed a film before, but he talked Levine into giving him the chance. As the writer, he already had a detailed vision of what he wanted to see on screen. Levine had Brooks make one significant change to the script: the title would now be called The Producers. Springtime for Hitler was just too controversial a title, and Levine feared that no exhibitor would want to put that title on its marquee.
Brooks had written the character of Max Bialystock with Broadway legend Zero Mostel in mind. It was a role custom made to fit his larger-than-life persona. Mostel read the script and liked it, but he turned down the role at first. In fact, he turned it down several times before Brooks used a secret weapon: Mostel's wife, Kate. Brooks gave the script to Kate Mostel, who saw that the role was perfect for her husband. "Kate read it, she called me, she said, 'It's marvelous, it's sensational, I'm gonna work on Zero until he does it,'" recalled Brooks. "And she worked on him. He called me a week later and he said, 'You son of a bitch, I'm gonna do it. My wife talked me into it.'"
For the role of timid accountant Leo Bloom, Brooks first asked Peter Sellers to do it. Sellers agreed, but then Brooks never heard from him again. He had to look elsewhere.
Mel Brooks' girlfriend (and later, wife), actress Anne Bancroft, was starring in the play Mother Courage with a young actor named Gene Wilder. Brooks and Wilder had become friendly through their association with Bancroft, and Brooks realized that Wilder would make a great Leo Bloom.
In June 1963 Brooks invited Wilder to spend the weekend with him and Bancroft on Fire Island, where he gave him the first 30 pages of The Producers to read. He liked it immediately and Brooks offered him the part.
Three years passed without Wilder receiving a phone call or any contact with Brooks about The Producers. He assumed the project was dead. Then one night when he was performing in the play Luv, Brooks showed up in his dressing room out of the blue with producer Sidney Glazier in tow. It was as if not a day had passed. "We got the money, here's the script, you're Leo Bloom," said Brooks. Wilder couldn't believe it. There was just one obstacle: Zero Mostel didn't know Wilder and wanted to meet him first. If he passed muster with Mostel, he had the part.
Wilder was nervous about his first meeting with Mostel. "This huge, round, fantasy of a man came waltzing towards me," said Wilder in his 2005 autobiography Kiss Me Like a Stranger. "My heart was pounding so loud I thought he'd hear it. I stuck out my hand, politely, to shake his, but instead of shaking my hand, Zero pulled me into his body and gave me a giant kiss on the lips. All nervousness floated away...I gave a good reading and was cast."
Dustin Hoffman, who was then an unknown, was originally cast as the Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind. When an offer came through at the last minute for a starring role in Mike Nichols' The Graduate (1967), however, Hoffman pulled out. Brooks saw dozens of new actors for the role of Liebkind, but no one impressed him until Kenneth Mars showed up for the audition wearing a German helmet and gave a perfect reading. "I didn't know if the character was crazy or Kenny Mars was crazy," said Gene Wilder.
Rounding out the hilarious cast was Lee Meredith as the sexy secretary Ulla, Andreas Voutsinas as Carmen Ghia, Christopher Hewett as choreographer Roger De Bris, and Dick Shawn as the scene-stealing L.S.D.
by Andrea Passafiume