After 90 years of life, Mel Brooks has lost many friends and colleagues, but the recent death of Gene Wilder left him “reeling.”
On Tuesday’s “Tonight Show,” the writer, actor and comedian was initially supposed to talk about his new book in creating “Young Frankenstein,” but with the recent death of his long-time friend the conversation turned into stories of the history of their comedic collaboration.
Brooks recalled his first film “The Producers,” in which Wilder played Leo Bloom. Their creative friendship continued as they wrote “Young Frankenstein” and Wilder’s legendary role in “Blazing Saddles.”
He sadly admitted he knew that Wilder was sick and he expected that it would happen, but it doesn’t make it any easier.
“I expected he would go, but — I don’t know. When it happens, it’s still tremendous,” Brooks said. “It’s still a big shock, you know? I’m still reeling from that, no more Gene. I can’t call him. He was such a wonderful part of my life, you know?”
With a flash of a grin, Brooks remembered the first time the two met. His late wife Ann Bancroft was staring in a production of “Mother Courage” and Wilder was cast as the chaplain. He explained that the role is both a serious one and a funny one. Wilder came backstage and asked, “Why are they always laughing? They are always laughing at me. Why are they laughing at me?” Brooks said that he replied, “Look in the mirror. Blame it on God.” The two were quick friends.
Wilder always refused to believe he was a great comedic genius. “I’m not so funny. Gilda was funny,” he once said of his late wife. “I’m funny on camera sometimes. In life, once in a while.”
Brooks seemed to have a way of bringing it out in him. He told Wilder about the character of Leo Bloom he was writing in “The Producers.” “When we get the money, you are going to be Leo Bloom,” Brooks promised him, but Wilder was dubious. “You’re doing a play about two Jews, who are producing a flop instead of a hit, knowing they can make more money with a flop and the big number in it is ‘Springtime for Hitler!’ Yeah, you’re going to get the money,” Brooks recalled Wilder saying, dripping with sarcasm.
But somehow, “miracle of miracles,” Brooks got the film financed. He went backstage at a play Wilder was in called “Luv” and told him the good news. “He was taking off his make-up, he was in his dressing room. And I took the script and said, ‘Gene, we got the money. We’re going to make the movie. You are Leo Bloom.’ And I threw it on his makeup table and he burst into tears and held his face and cried and then I hugged him and it was a wonderful moment,” Brooks remembered.
While the two were working on “Blazing Saddles,” Brooks saw Wilder writing on a legal pad, “I looked at the top of it and it said ‘Young Frankenstein,'” Brooks reminisced. “I said, ‘What the hell is that?’ and he said, “Well, I had an idea. What if the grandson of Victor Frankenstein was a serious, brilliant surgeon and wanted nothing to do with the people that were responsible for making the monster and animating, reanimating dead tissue? And he’s fighting it, but it’s in his blood.” Brooks loved it and the two began fantasizing about who could play the roles when Wilder asks if Brooks wants to help him write it.
He remembered when the late Madeline Kahn was in the film and she and Wilder were going to kiss she ad-libbed the line “no tongues.” They played a clip from the film where Kahn first arrives at the castle and Wilder asks Igor (Marty Feldman) to get the bags. “Certainly. You take the blond and I’ll take the one in the turban.”
Check out the hilarious tribute below via the DailyBeast: