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Mel Brooks: Back On The Launch Pad

March 08, 1987|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

We're on the set of a $22.7-million movie. The director has a lot on his mind.

His script supervisor is at one arm, wondering how many takes of the previous scene to print. His camera operator is at the other arm, proposing a new angle for the next shot. A screenwriter hovers nearby, lobbying for a new line of dialogue. An assistant director wants to know when to release the extras for lunch.

Not only is he director and co-writer of the film, which is loaded with worrisome special effects, but he's also acting today. He has lines to remember, a fake mustache that keeps coming unglued and two more pages of dialogue to shoot before his grueling 14-hour day is over.

But what is Mel Brooks most worried about? As he races back to the video monitors, he suddenly slams on the brakes, grabbing the arm of a visitor on the set.

"What I really want to know is this," Brooks demands. "What did (Times film reviewer) Kevin Thomas think was so terrible about 'To Be or Not to Be'? Why that awful review? Just tell me--what was so wrong with that picture? Can you figure it out?"

Mel Brooks is like a crazy Jewish elephant--he never forgets.

At 60, he's one of the true kings of comedy. His show-business dossier includes uproarious comedy films ("The Producers" and "Blazing Saddles," among others), ground-breaking TV ("Your Show of Shows" and "Get Smart," which he helped to create) and goofy albums (his "2,000-Year-Old Man" collaborations with Carl Reiner). During the '80s, his Brooksfilms production company has championed a prestigious array of films, most with impressive young directors, including David Lynch's "The Elephant Man," Richard Benjamin's "My Favorite Year" and David Cronenberg's "The Fly."

But comic giants don't always get much respect, much less Oscar nominations--not if their name isn't Woody Allen. Despite all his success, Brooks, who started in show business at 14 playing a wizened old man in a Borscht Belt stock-company melodrama, still hungers for appreciation, longs for applause and worries if he can satisfy a fickle new generation of filmgoers.

"Listen, I know that everybody has worn out their welcome--Chaplin, Keaton--everyone has," he said, his frown carving a row of furrows along his brow. "I've had waves of anxiety after a picture hasn't done so well. I say, 'It's over, it's over, I've been replaced by Ivan Reitman!' "

Brooks offered a thin smile. "Listen, when the critics kill you, it hurts, at least at the time. But the feeling doesn't last. I learned a long time ago that it's the process that counts, not just the result.

"But it does bother you when someone doesn't like your work." He laughed, perhaps a bit uneasily. "It confirms your worst fears. You try not to get caught up in it. But sometimes I feel like writing these critics a letter, saying 'Why so angry? What was there to hate so much?' I want to tell them, 'I meant no harm. I only wanted to entertain you.' "

George Lucas, eat your heart out.

Open the door to Stage 30 on the Lorimar-Telepictures studio lot and-- voila-- you're in the future. At least, Hollywood's version of the future--a 60-foot-high set built to resemble an enormous spaceship. Make that a really biiiiiiiiiig space ship--a 21st-Century Coupe de Ville, the kind of high-tech hot rod that makes the Starship Enterprise look like a rusty old tugboat.

Video display monitors line the walls. Banks of computers crackle with flashing lights. A battalion of white-coated technicians scurry past immense portholes, rushing up a long stairwell to a set of second-story walkways.

Down at the far end of the ship, Brooks paced nervously in front of a stack of video monitors. Dressed in a gray English morning coat, with a matching vest and trousers, Brooks looked like a father about to give away a bride. He's been making "Spaceballs," a big-budget sci-fi parody due June 26 from MGM and--perhaps of equal importance--the first film he's directed in six years.

Brooks had every right to be a bit antsy. After the lukewarm reception to "History of the World (Part I)" (his last directorial effort) and "To Be or Not to Be" (in which he starred with wife Anne Bancroft), the notion of making a $22.7-million comedy with a pair of barely known newcomers in the lead roles is the rough equivalent of boldly going where no man has gone before.

A hit could help Brooks regain his stature as a comic wizard; a flop might make skeptical studio execs wonder whether an aging film maker had finally lost touch with a new generation of moviegoers.

If box-office pressures bothered Brooks, it didn't show. Scuttling back and forth between the camera and his video playback units--known on the set as the Video Village--Brooks had the steely concentration of a carnival juggler trying to keep half a dozen freshly sharpened swords aloft.

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