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From the Archives: Mel Brooks talks about ‘The Producers’ in 1968 interview

Gene Wilder, from left, Kenneth Mars and Zero Mostel in the movie "The Producers."
(Embassy Pictures)

Fifty years ago, The Times’ Charles Champlin spoke to Mel Brooks for the opening of his feature directing debut, “The Producers,” starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. In 2001, it would be the basis for Brooks’ blockbuster Broadway musical. The interview was published March 8, 1968. A newly restored version of “The Producers” is the opening-night gala screening for the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival on April 26.

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Mel Brooks, the celebrated antiquarian, was looking much less than his recorded 2,000-year-old self, but still not feeling up to par.

“I am in the last day of the dissolution of what could have been a really great, a really great, cold,” Brooks said with a mixture of disappointment and catarrh.

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He has been in town saying a few words about “The Producers,” a film which he wrote and directed and which opens here in a few weeks.

“It is not as good as first two films, I keep telling people,” Brooks remarked at lunch.

“Oh?”

“No, ‘Grand illusion’ and ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ were better.”

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Say what you will, Brooks could have made “The Grapes of Wrath” amusing, but in fact, “The Producers” is his first feature film, and not a moment too soon. A short he wrote called “The Critic” won an Oscar a couple of sweepstakes ago.

READ MORE: Previewing this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival »

Another Oscar winner

Brooks’ agent also represents Sidney Glazier, who won an Oscar for producing “The Eleanor Roosevelt Story.”

“The agent said his two Oscar winners should get together and do a picture. I met Sidney and we had a cup of coffee and I told him the story of ‘Springtime for Hitler.’ The coffee exploded all over him, and me, which meant it sounded not bad, so we shook hands and said, ‘It’s a deal.’”

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The title, now changed to preserve the central joke of the picture, came first. Some years ago a columnist queried Brooks to find out what he was going to do next. Brooks recalls, “Don’t ask me why, it was in my head.” The notion of a rapscallion producer setting out to create a Broadway flop came later. That is what the movie is about, or at least that’s what happens in the movie.

“The Producers” was financed by Joe Levine, made in New York for $1 million and stars Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder (who was abducted for a joyride in that one) and Kenneth Mars, with Dick Shawn as the actor who plays Hitler. It’s far-out to say the least, but Levine gave Brooks free rein.

“Joe said, ‘I go with the talent and this year I’m going with you and Mike Nichols,’” says Brooks.

It premiered in Philadelphia in 18-degree weather with a throng of 50 scattered through a thousand-seat house. “I could have opened a Regal Shoe Store and drawn a bigger crowd,” Brooks remarks. “But the 50 loved it. It was a little funeral, but a nice funeral.” Brooks went back to the theater a few days later and was astounded to find a block-long line. He sought out the manager who said, “I want you to hear this.” The manager went to the box office and announced proudly, “Stop selling tickets; no more seats.” “It’s a while since I said that,” he told Brooks. “The Producers” played for four months.

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Lost the comedy cup

“I had the feeling,” Brooks says, “that America had lost the comedy cup to Britain and to Italy. ‘Lavender Hill Mob,’ ‘Divorce Italian Style,’ all those. I thought maybe we could do something about it. I told Sidney, my producer, I don’t want to get into the movie business and make another movie for the late, late show; we’re in the masterpiece business, right?”

Peter Sellers saw the movie by accident one night at a screening room here and located Brooks in Washington to rave about it. “My spirit did a shimmy-dance,” Brooks says. Sellers later took a full-page ad in a trade paper to make his enthusiasm public.

“My mother says, ‘what do you want to go around giving Hitler a break for?’” Brooks says, though in fact the story is a kind of ultimate triumph for the free spirit.

“You decide what you want to say and then pick the medium,” says Brooks. “If it’s film, you’re in Bergman and Fellini’s ballpark. They want to say something about having been born and having to die and in the meantime witnessing life around them. I’m giving some of the sounds of my world.”

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Mrs. Brooks is Anne Bancroft, [Oscar] nominated for her dazzling performance in “The Graduate.” “There’s a galaxy of new American films like ‘The Graduate,’” Brooks says. “I hope ‘The Producers’ is part of it.”

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READ MORE: TCM hosts share their can’t miss picks for TCM Classic Film Festival »

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