(Reuters) - Mel Brooks, whose long career in comedy includes writing and directing hilarious films like “The Producers” and “Young Frankenstein,” will receive the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award on June 6.
And if you ask him, it’s about time.
“They’re finally recognizing that I’m a pretty good director,” the 86-year-old former standup comedian said in a wide-ranging interview at his Culver City offices near Los Angeles. “They say, ‘Comedy force, good writer, funny actor. Nobody ever, in the press or anywhere, said I was a good director.”
Brooks’ career is also being recognized on May 20, when PBS will premiere “Mel Brooks: Make a Noise,” a documentary that traces his life from his childhood in Brooklyn to Broadway, where a musical adaption of his film “The Producers” won 12 Tony Awards.
“Quiet on the set!,” Brooks bellows at one point in the interview with Reuters. Leaping to his feet, his hands cupped in front of his face as if yelling into a megaphone, he shouts: “That’s what I do best.”
Brooks spends his time these days working with a single assistant in a quiet, three-room suite at the Culver Studios, a once flourishing 95-year-old studio where scenes from “Gone with the Wind” and “Citizen Kane” were shot.
Behind his desk sit three Emmys and assorted other statuettes, a monument to a six-decade career that began as a drummer and stand-up comedian in the Borscht Belt - a resort region in upstate New York frequented by Jewish vacationers and Yiddish entertainers - before he became a writer for his friend Sid Caesar’s 1950s groundbreaking comedy variety show “Your Show of Shows.”
His career includes Emmys, Tonys and an Academy Award. But the only people who ever thought he was a good director, he says, were Oscar-winning director Billy Wilder, who also did comedy, and Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense and psychological thrillers.
Hitchcock helped him write his 1977 film “High Anxiety,” a parody of suspense films that he dedicated to the legendary director. Hitchcock was so pleased that he sent Brooks a case of six magnums of 1961 Chateau Haut-Brion wine, Brooks said.
“He loved “Blazing Saddles,” and said I should have been nominated for the Academy Award,” said Brooks. “The back lighting, the performances. He said it was great directing. And I was never even nominated.”
The Academy seemed to appreciate Brooks’ writing most. He won the 1969 Oscar for “The Producers” screenplay, according to the movie site IMDb.com, and was nominated for Academy Awards for writing the “Blazing Saddles” theme song and the screenplay for “Young Frankenstein.”
It took a bit of convincing for Brooks to get his first directing job, however. Embassy Pictures producer Joseph E. Levine asked him to find a director for “The Producers.”
“‘Hire me,’ I told him. I’m the only one who had seen it. I saw it in my head when I wrote it.”
The studio made Brooks change its initial title, “Springtime for Hitler,” but in return he demanded that he have the right to do the final edit for the film.
He needed that right six years later when he made “Blazing Saddles.” The head of Warner Brothers studio objected to several scenes, including one in which actor Alex Karras’ character hits a horse. He also didn’t care for the now-famous flatulent campfire scene and the overt sexiness of actress Madeline Kahn as German seductress Lili von Shtupp.
“‘You can’t beat up a horse? It’s out,’” Brooks bellows, repeating the producer’s demand with an exaggerated swipe of his arm to emulate crossing words off a list. “‘You can’t do the dirty stuff? Okay, that’s out.’”
When the executive left the room, however, Brooks said he crumpled up the list of complaints and threw it into the nearest trash can.
The scenes remained. “Blazing Saddles” generated $119.5 million in ticket sales, according to the Box Office Mojo, and is ranked No. 6 on the American Film Institute’s list of Hollywood’s 100 funniest movies.
Editing by Philip Barbara