Thursday, March 02, 2017

Hanging out with Mel Brooks

Here’s a Friday Question worthy of a complete post. It’s from longtime reader of the blog, Wendy Grossman and it concerns the great Mel Brooks. Wendy asks:

Ken, have you ever met or worked with him?

Never worked with him but did meet him. When my partner, David Isaacs and I were on MASH we had Ronny Graham on the writing staff. Ronny was a wonderful man, a gifted writer (and actor), and good friend of Mel Brooks’. In fact, Ronny helped Mel write some of his movies including SPACEBALLS.

At the time Mel had a production company based on the 20th Century Fox lot. And that’s where MASH was filmed and produced.

Quite often at the end of the work day Mel would pop his head into the MASH writers room to say hello to Ronny. Ronny would always invite him to hang out for a few minutes and Mel always obliged.

For the next half hour or so Mel Br would hold court. And he was HILARIOUS. We received a private performance by Mel Brooks. I was in stitches… and in awe.

We so looked forward to those evenings when Uncle Mel would come around. He told stories, launched into characters, segued into hysterical rants and kvetching – the man was a comic force of nature. Like I said, we knew we were in the presence of greatness.

One story Mel told was this (and I’ve heard him tell it elsewhere). Early in his career he had an office on some movie lot and encountered Cary Grant. Mel was awestruck by Cary Grant (who wasn’t?). Much to Mel’s extreme delight Cary asked him to join him for lunch.

For Mel it was a career highlight. The next day Cary came to his office and invited him to lunch again. This happened the next day as well.

And Mel was starting to get less enthused. Why? They had pretty much run out of things to talk about and it became rather awkward – at least for Mel.

But not for Cary. Day after day he would swing by Mel’s office to get lunch. Eventually Mel hid – anything to get out of these interminable lunches. Imagine ducking Cary fucking Grant.

Here’s why I shared that story:

One night after work we were watching the National League Championship Series. The Dodgers were playing the Phillies for the pennant. It was a crucial game and we were hanging on every pitch.

And Mel popped into the room. Normally we’d be super thrilled but the Dodgers’ entire season was on the line. Mel sat down and like he always did, launched into a brilliant comic monologue. Except this time we wanted to say, “Hey, Mel. Shut up. We’re watching the game here.” We didn’t do that of course but it sure reminded me of the Cary Grant incident.

Quite simply Mel Brooks is one of the funniest people on the planet. And also one of the nicest. I’ve seen in restaurants talking to fans who interrupted his meal. He is always gracious. Always kind. A total mensch.

Mel is now 90 and I don’t think he has missed a step. He’s a national treasure and I feel blessed that I got to spend some time with him, except during the NLCS.


LouOCNY said...

God Bless Mel!

Peter said...

I hope Mel lives to 100 at least. His tribute on Twitter to his old friend Gene Wilder last year was beautiful and moving, a heartfelt and sincere farewell to someone who had played such an important role in his career.

Tom Scarlett said...

Brooks seems to still be thinking about Cary Grant. The last time I saw him was on the short-lived Billy Crystal-Josh Gad show THE COMEDIANS. Brooks: "Gad? What kind of a name is Gad?! Imagine if Cary Grant had been 'Cary Gant.' He would have been nothing! So I think the 'r' is critical."

VP81955 said...

I saw Mel at the TCM Classic festival a few years back -- a delight.

One of my good friends, actress Elaine Ballace, has worked in a few of his films and simply adores him.

Stoney said...

Haven't seen it at all since the original airing in 1975 but I remember Brooks' series "When Things Were Rotten" was really funny in the early episodes but wore thin in the later ones. Seems like that style of comedy never worked right on series TV. Seven years later, it was tried again with "Police Squad".

McAlvie said...

Amazing. I was thinking, as I read this post, Ken, of some comic greats whose genius often disguised other problems such as depression. I think it must be very hard to keep your balance when your brain works at the speed of light. From what you've said, it doesn't sound like this is a problem Mel Brooks has. That's nice to know, and I thank you for sharing. I find myself appreciating the great comics more these days as I try to keep my own balance. I think I'm going to watch Blazing Saddles again very soon.

Stoney said...

Some 40 years ago my college radio station had the album "2000 and Thirteen" (A continuation of the "2000 Year Old Man" routine by Brooks and Carl Reiner.) In one part, Brooks talked about a man named Onan who "discovered himself". The station's engineer was Chris Onan. Don't know if he ever heard the bit but we did play it on air in his honor!

CRL said...

I met Anne Bancroft once.


Betty said...

I've heard Mel tell the Cary Grant story (not in person, of course) - glad to hear people don't (usually) hide when Mel comes around! What a terrific rememberance. Thanks for sharing!

Glenn said...

The best Mel Brooks line was when someone complained him to him about how vulgar one of this movies was (Producers, I think?), and he said "this movie rises below vulgarity".

Michael said...

I have a friend from high school I had lunch with the other day. We hadn't seen each other in a long time. And I remembered one time when we hadn't seen each other for a while, and he called me, so I left what I was watching and went to talk with him on the phone. It was Game 6 of the 1986 World Series and Mookie Wilson was coming up to bat. Bill Buckner probably wishes everybody in America had called one another at that moment.

Kirk said...

I have a Friday question. I wonder if you could look at this cartoon:

I'll repeat what I said in the comment section of that link. Dog-as-food jokes occasionally pop up on MASH, though I can't remember if it was during your tenure or not. I know you had a lot controversial moments on that show, and probably a lot of angry mail, but any complaint from, not necessarily animal rights activists, but just anybody that can't stand any humor involving an animal?

Roseann said...

I did have the opportunity to work with Mel Brooks. Curb Your Enthusiasm came to NYC to shoot the Producers episode. I met Larry David and the entire crew that came from LA. That was pretty exciting. And aside from that Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks were dressed to be in the Audience. I had worked with Anne twice before and she was glad to see me so meeting Mel was a natural. I had the time to actually watch over the both of them which was a pleasure. Both were lovely and gracious.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

He is one of the rare entertainers that basically love to grab and hold the spotlight/air once they get started. Everyone knows to just get out of the way.

Mel, Robin Williams, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Jonathan Winters....
(anyone I'm missing)

A National Treasure.

blinky said...

Back in the 70s in Sarasota I shot a PSA for the local Boys Club and the talent was Sid Caesar. I think he was looking for a comeback at the time. I don't remember much except he was kind of a jerk.
Around the same time Lloyd Bridges was filming The Great Wallenda's in Sarasota and he also did a PSA for the Boys Club. He was the nicest guy I ever met. The teamsters were total dicks though. Our station was non-union and they kept pulling the plug on out equipment.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Mel was coming out of a local Manhattan Deli, and he runs (literally) into my mother and her friends who were all going to see a B'way show.
Of course they are excited, but so is he! He has them in stitches for a few minutes, goes back into the Deli, grabs some of its business cards, and signs them for each of the women.
That's an entertainer.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Yep. Treasure.

Peter said...

The story about trying to avoid having lunch with Cary Grant immediately reminded me of the Frasier episode in which he and Woody reunite and have a great time going for dinner, but by the third time hanging out, Frasier is fed up of talking about the same old stories from his days at Cheers. What a great episode.

"No hablo ingles."
"I don't understand this."
"It means I don't speak English."

Buttermilk Sky said...

I have read that Cary Grant was, well, let's say careful about money. Maybe Mel was just tired of getting stuck with the check every day.

VincentS said...

Saw him recently at a book signing - I was the first to applaud when he came in. A very funny man who's VERY serious on the subject of writing.

John Hammes said...

Every so often, Ronny Graham will still show up in an old movie or television episode... and to this day, the first thought that comes to mind: "Hey, it's Reverend Bemis!" (First impressions, I tell you...)

DrBOP said...

Podcasts are GREAT.....but looking forward to the upcoming "Daughter Drop-In" episode where we get to listen to the generations crackin' wise (maybe while sipping some fine Californian libation).

And I'm not sure if you would find this of any assist to your Global Podcast Domination desires, so, simply fyi:

Johnny Walker said...

Brooks is a genuis. How else do you explain him hiring David Lynch to write and direct The Elephant Man? Who would make that connection? I loved his description of a young Lynch, too, "Jimmy Stewart from Mars".

So many funny moments in my life thanks to Mel Brooks. (I hope he reads this praise. Nice to do it BEFORE someone dies for a change!)

ChipO said...

Mel Brooks: Yet another story of blessed to have spent time with him and his frugality.
One 1991 Saturday at the Santa Anita racetrack, Mel was the guest of honor giving the trophy for the main race of the day. I had hung around after the races on a floor two levels lower than the rich people’s floor at the top, waiting for the crowd and traffic to subside. After a decent wait, I hit the elevator button. The doors open to four people on their trip down: Mel Brooks, his lovely wife Anne Bancroft, and another couple, clearly friends of theirs. I’m new to SoCal and my jaw drops, I’m in awe, I’m about to be in the same tiny space with a hero and HUGE star. Don’t screw up, don’t fawn, what do I do? Even before we can move to step into the elevator, Mel sticks out his hand and says, “Hi, I’m Mel Brooks.” If cell phones existed, I’m sure he would have offered a selfie. I introduce myself and my date, and we ride in comfortable, unawkward silence.
I’m cheap, and had parked in the far away $2 lot, rather than the $7 close in lot. Exiting the elevator, we follow a respectful distance behind the stars and I figure we won’t see any more of them beyond the valet, ending my brush with brilliance. The other couple peels off at the valet, Mel and wife say good-bye to them, and Mel and wife keep walking. The lot has indeed emptied, and far across that very large Santa Anita asphalt lot, at the far edge of the $2 desert, there are but two cars. My trusty beater, and a very nice Mercedes Benz 450SL, one empty row away from my car.
Nah, can’t be, I think. Sure enough, we follow Mr. and Mrs. Brooks all the way across the lot to our cars at the far edge of the $2 lot.
The day I went to the races with Mel Brooks, a very gracious gentlemen who understood the value of a dollar. I won at the races that day.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Thanks for the answer, Ken.

On another topic: it appears that Phyllis Diller has left behind filing cabinets filled with 52,000 3x5 index cards on which she wrote or typed a joke or gag. They are organized alphabetically by subject, and because of the size and scope of the collection there is a crowdsource effort to transcribe the lot. Anyone who wants to help, here's the URL:

It sounds like an amazing chance to really study a comedian's career, especially one that I'm sure must have included a lot that never appeared on TV or was recorded. Diller was never my favorite comic, but it sounds like she sure worked hard.


Peter said...

Brooks is such a comedy legend, it's easy to forget that he also produced films including the classic The Elephant Man and he made the glorious decision to hire an offbeat genius called David Lynch to direct it.

Brooks also paid a warm tribute to John Hurt upon his sad passing recently.

Cap'n Bob said...

Ronny Graham will always be Mr. Dirt to me.

sanford said...

We saw Mel last summer in Milwaukee. They were showing Blazing Saddles and after the movie he talked about the movie and told some great stories. He barely sat down. Every time he was asked a question by his interviewer he was on his feet. You would never know he was 90. I have been watching Carson reruns on Antenna tv. Every time he was on he just took over the show. He is the best.

Gary West said...

Every time I see the name Ronny Graham, I can't help but go back to those "Mr Dirt" gasoline commercials. Around the mid-1970's.

RobW said...

Carol Burnett tells the same Cary Grant story in her book "This Time Together" only it happened to Tim Conway in her version.
Wonder if it actually happened to anyone ?

James Van Hise said...

In December 2010 in a theater in Beverly Hills, Mel Brooks interviewed Dick Cavett who had a new book out. Actually they interviewed each other, for two wonderful hours! About a year later HBO showed a one hour version even though the full two hours were all great (it may be on HBO demand). Tickets to the December 2010 live event were--$15.00! So basically anyone who found out about it in time could afford to attend and both Cavett and Brooks were amazing. I bought tickets for two friends of mine so all 3 of us got to see Brooks and Cavett live for less than $50 total. Mel Brooks told his famous Alfred Hitchcock story which he's done since then on talk shows.

Roseann said...

Or both of them.

benson said...

I have tried to find, via Google and YouTube, any possible outtakes from Mel's appearances as Uncle Phil on Mad About You.

You can clearly see that Paul Reiser, Helen Hunt and John Pankow are struggling to keep it together on the takes they used, but if some outtakes exit, it would be great to see them.


Brother Herbert said...

Well, in Cary's defense, wouldn't YOU want to spend your lunchtime every day with Mel Brooks?

Agreed, Mel is a national treasure and we are truly blessed that he is not only alive and well but just as sharp as ever.

Unknown said...

According to more than a few stories I've read or heard, Cary Grant was a kind of comedy stalker - if not Mel Brooks, than Tim Conway and Harvey Korman (separately and together).
In Carol Burnett's account, Grant was constantly inviting Tim and Harvey to lunch at the track, as much for the free comedy show as anything else.
Flattering at first, but it can get to wear on you, especially when you feel yourself running dry on material.
Burnett gives this as the punchline:
Phone rings at the Conway house.
Tim to his wife:
"If that's Cary Grant, I'm not home."