THE LOOP — Legendary comedian, director, writer and producer Mel Brooks shared stories to a sold-out audience at the Chicago Theatre Sunday — including some anecdotes about his time in Chicago working with Sid Caesar and his childhood in Brooklyn in the 1920s and 30s.
The event was billed as a "Blazing Saddles" screening followed by a Q&A, though the 89-year-old comedy icon spent most of the Sunday afternoon event going off-script, launching into anecdotes about his childhood, his comedy career and his frequent stops in Chicago while he was writing for Sid Caesar's series "Your Show of Shows."
Caesar paid Brooks out of his own pocket to be his personal writer, he said — but it wasn't without peril.
Brooks told the story of how the extremely strong Caesar, after drinking his nightly bottle of vodka, got angry at Brooks for complaining his Palmer House Hotel room was too smoky from Caesar's cigar.
So Caesar "opens the window, grabs me by my seat and my collar and holds me over Wabash Avenue," asking if he was "getting enough air now?"
"Oh plenty, plenty!" Brooks remembered replying.
During another booze-soaked night with Caesar in Chicago, Brooks remembered the actor launching into an argument with a passing cab driver at a time when taxis had small, triangle-shaped quarter windows that pivoted open even if the car windows were rolled up.
Caesar asked the driver, "can you in any way remember being born, remember your birth?" Brooks said? The man said no.
"Sid says, well, I'm gonna help you— we're gonna reenact it," Brooks said, before Caesar grabbed the man through the window by his collar and tried to pull him through the small opening.
Brooks also talked at length about his childhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he grew up with his three older brothers, Irving, Lenny and Bernie, and his mother. His father died of kidney disease when Brooks (real name: Melvin James Kaminsky) was two.
Brooks said he grew in a tenement apartment at 365 S. 3rd St. in Williamsburg, where his family paid $16 a month for a back apartment for several years, and eventually "saved up" an extra $2 a month to move to the front unit with a street view because his mother wanted to "see the world" from her windows.
That same apartment building today, in what's now one of New York City's chicest neighborhoods, lists apartment rentals for $4,500 a month for a 4-bed, one-and-a-half bath.
Brooks, who will turn 90 later this month, bounded with energy onstage, unable to stay seated, and said he was invigorated by the "great crowd" in Chicago, and said he was heartened listening to the crowd's laughter during the screening of his 40-year-old Western spoof.
Some other great takeaways from Brooks' uncensored chat with Chicagoans Sunday:
• John Wayne was the one of the first choices to play the role of the Waco Kid in "Blazing Saddles," but passed after reading the script, telling Brooks "it was the dirtiest movie" he'd ever seen. But he also said he loved it and would be the first one in line to see it. Gene Wilder later agreed to the role as a last-minute fill-in for Gig Young, who drank himself out of the film.
• Richard Pryor was the first choice for the role of Black Bart in Blazing Saddles, but instead he served as a writer, mostly to tell Brooks which n-word jokes in the script he could get away with. But Pryor also wrote all of the scenes with Mongo, Alex Karras' behemoth cowboy sent to kill Bart, including the line: "Mongo only pawn in game of life."
• Legendary Western songwriter Frankie Laine happily sang the "Blazing Saddles" theme song, but had no idea it was a Western spoof.
• The fart noises in "Blazing Saddles" were made by the writers, including Brooks, using soapy water and their armpits. The high-pitched ones were Mel's.
• In "History of the World Part 1," Mel Brooks' line "And you look like a bucket of s---" was an ad-lib designed to crack up the usually unflappable Harvey Korman. It worked. They had to re-shoot the scene (but kept the ad-lib).
• When he served in World War II, Brooks used a megaphone to serenade nearby German troops because their own singing was so terrible.
• Gene Wilder came up with the idea for "Young Frankenstein" while on the set of "Blazing Saddles." Brooks saw him writing something in the corner, and Wilder pitched him on the spot. When Brooks asked Wilder if he needed any help with the script, Wilder said "just all I can get."
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