Interview: Mel Brooks at 80

At 80, Mel Brooks is revered as America's national ham, the class clown who amuses even the most humorless amongst us. Brooks is one of an elite few performers to have won at least one Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy, and lately he's been busy refreshing some of his older material for a new generation. Atop that list is the forthcoming Broadway musical version of "Young Frankenstein," his Academy Award-nominated 1974 classic, which stars "Desperate Housewives" alum Roger Bart as the grandson of the mad scientist and "Will & Grace" alum Megan Mullally as his fiancée. He's also supervising the development of an animated TV series for the G4 network based on his 1987 "Star Wars" spoof, "Spaceballs."

Brooks spoke exclusively to NEWSWEEK Thursday from his Culver City, Calif., office:

NEWSWEEK: Why do a new musical? You've won every major award. It's only a matter of time before you get a Kennedy Center honor. What do you have left to prove?
Mel Brooks:
I don't know. I love writing songs. I'm a songwriter. And here's a chance to write 17 or 18 new songs. And I love "Young Frankenstein." I know how to make it a great musical. I've got to. It's like I've got to see it on stage. And what am I gonna do? I'm still a horse that can run. I may not be able to win the Derby, but what do you do when you retire? People retire and they vegetate. They go away and they dry up.

Unlike "The Producers," the original film of "Young Frankenstein" wasn't a musical, so making a Broadway show out of it must be a lot more intensive. Has it been difficult?
No, no, the songs write themselves, almost. I mean, in the beginning the villagers are so happy that Baron Frankenstein is dead that they dance a tune called "We're the Happiest Town in Town." Then they find out the bad news, that there's a young Dr. Frankenstein still alive and he's in New York and he's teaching at a medical school. And then we segue to the doctor, who lives for the transference of intelligence from one brain to another. And he sings a song called "There is Nothing Like The Brain." It's a terrific song.

Originally you had Kristin Chenoweth as Elizabeth, but that was a really small role in the film, so I wonder if that's why she left.
Oh, it's a big role now. Giant. It had nothing to do with the role, believe me. It had to do with I think she had previous commitments that she couldn't get out of. She was so great. But you know, we took a good bounce. We got a great, great talent to play the role: Megan Mullally.

Who's playing Young Frankenstein?
Roger Bart.

I thought he was playing Igor.
He was Igor. Until yesterday! Roger has Broadway in his bones. He's the last living Danny Kaye we have left. He got a promotion. He earned it.

Cloris Leachman read for the role she played in the movie but then it went to Andrea Martin. What happened?
The problem is, there's a lot of singing and dancing for Frau Blücher in the show. Cloris is 81. I don't want to be responsible for killing her. Although she wouldn't mind dying on stage. It's a very difficult role for anyone over 50, let alone over 80. She was very, very disappointed. But she took it in stride and she's on to other things.

So it wasn't a matter of trying to completely divorce this cast from the cast in the film?
No, no. It was nothing like that. Peter Boyle is dead. Gene Wilder and Terri Garr are out of commission. Madeline (Kahn) is gone. If I could have resurrected the entire cast and put them on stage, I would've done that in a minute.

David Hasselhoff told me you specifically sought him out for the role of the flamboyant gay director in "The Producers" in Las Vegas and he was stunned you even knew who he was.
Oh yeah, I wanted him right from the beginning. I said, "Why don't we get David Hasselhoff? He's gonna look great in a dress!" He's very up, a very positive guy and he sings beautifully.

Did you have any idea that he was having all these personal problems?
No, not at all. No idea. It was foolish of him to allow his occasional binges or whatever to be filmed. But it was even more foolish for his kids to give it up to his ex-wife, that tape. But he's the goodest guy. He's the goodest parent and the nicest father.

On that videotape, his daughter warns him he could be fired from the show if he didn't stop.
No, we never said anything like that. That was her admonition to make him stop. We never said anything about that. We never even knew about that so how could we say that?

You broke a lot of molds with the use of vulgar epithets, farting and interracial relations in "Blazing Saddles" and others. I wonder if the fact that Hollywood had just abandoned the morals code, known as the Hays Code, liberated you.
I got into a lush, verdant, exciting valley between the Hays days and political correctness. Right now, you couldn't say the n-word. A lot of things I did were looked down at as not nice. But comedy is truth-telling. It doesn't necessarily have to be nice. In fact, the funniest comedy is frequently not nice.

So what do you make of the demise of Don Imus for racially insensitive statements?
Well, just being stupid and politically incorrect doesn't work. You can be politically incorrect if you're smart. We used the word "n----r" a lot in "Blazing Saddles," but our true love was the black guy. We cared about him. We allowed the bad guys to say those words, never the good guys.

When you used outlandish racial stereotyping to make a satire about race, audiences mostly got it. But in "The Producers" and "Blazing Saddles" you also do the same thing with gays, depicting them as flamboyant and theatrical. Do you think audiences back then understood the point you were making or were they actually laughing at the gays?
I don't know. That's up to the audience. A smart audience is always laughing with the gays and understanding their travails, their problems, their lifestyle, you know. That's a smart audience. A dumb audience will always laugh at. A smart audience will always laugh with.

In the past month, the Motion Picture Association of America has said they'll start considering smoking as a factor in rating films.
That's just stupid. If the character smokes, he should smoke. Especially if it's period. Are you going to do something set in the '30s or '40s or '20s and have nobody smoking? That's crazy. If I were doing something current, I wouldn't have it. I don't think it's a good thing. I think it should be discouraged. But there's a truth in art, too, and truth in art must always prevail.

You started out on the Borscht Belt comedian circuit. I've always wanted to ask one of the old Jewish comics this question: did you actually eat borscht?
Never! I never tasted borscht on the Borscht Belt. It was many years later that I tasted it and I said, "This isn't so bad."

Is it true that you actually have heard Muzak versions of "Springtime for Hitler," from "The Producers"?
In elevators! And I see people swaying back and forth and humming. If they only knew the lyrics were "Springtime for Hitler and Germany." But they didn't. They just swayed. Henry Mancini did a wonderful instrumental of it with a Latin beat on it.

Who do you see as your heirs?
I would say one of my grandchildren would be Sasha Baron Cohen. The nerviness. The boldness. The Brooksian boldness in that young man. I think he's great.

You've said when you were coming up that your role models were Gene Kelly, Errol Flynn and Fred Astaire. But now, looking back, even if you had been able to be just a big movie or stage star, would you have had such a long career?
No. You're young forever when you write. Alfred Hitchcock directed until the day he died. As long as you don't have any dementia or Alzheimer's, if you have your All-Bran every day and clear yourself out, I think your brains are gonna be all right.