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Sellers' Choice

A party for the 'Alice B. Toklas' gang led to Peters Sellers' championing of 'The Producers.'

May 30, 2001|CLIFF ROTHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The Producers" has become a phenomenon on Broadway and a shoo-in for multiple Tony Awards on Sunday, alchemizing Mel Brooks' cooling career and placing a sheen on the cult-classic film from which it was adapted. But the truth is, the now-legendary film had a shaky--and colorful--start.

"The Producers" was Brooks' first feature, both as director and writer. For audiences, the film was an initiation rite into his skewed brand of comedy--think "Springtime for Hitler," the film's original title, with a dancing number of the same name--and it was sitting on the shelf when actor Peter Sellers discovered it by accident.

It started when the movie Sellers had ordered didn't show up for one of the outrageous, hash-infused, psychedelic-era screenings he held Saturday nights during the filming of "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas." The "Toklas" clan who hung out Saturday nights through the late fall of 1967 and early 1968 included writer Paul Mazursky, a year away from his own directorial debut in "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," and his wife, Betsy, who would cook one of her famous Italian dishes.

"We'd all go and raid the Warner Bros. costume department and find these wild costumes to wear while watching the films," remembers actress Leigh Taylor-Young, who made her film debut in "Toklas" as a free-loving flower child.

And it being the '60s, and freewheeling Hollywood, there was also the omnipresent hash at the Saturday night affairs, including the one held on Jan. 13, 1968. 'All the girls had baked hash cookies," Sellers told Mitchell Glazer in a 1980 Rolling Stone interview. Taylor-Young recalls hash "baked into" Betsy's casserole. And Mazursky, in his autobiography, "Show Me the Magic," says that "by the time we got to the Aidikoff screening room, all the others were already nibbling on their hash brownies." Whoever brought the hash, one thing was clear: "This was a happy crowd," remembers Mazursky.

Happy, that is, until the projectionist--Charles Aidikoff himself--announced that the Federico Fellini film that Sellers had specifically ordered had not arrived. "Peter was upset," Taylor-Young says. Sellers was known for being brilliant, exacting and volatile. He did not abide mistakes.

The projectionist suggested a film that was sitting on the shelf. " 'There's a film by Mel Brooks. It's his first film. It's been sitting here for weeks. It's having trouble getting a distribution deal,' " Taylor-Young recalls Aidikoff telling Sellers, in front of the group.

While Brooks had no reputation in films, he had been one of the golden group of writers--including Neil Simon, Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart--who had written for Sid Caesar on "Your Show of Shows" in the early to mid-1950s, and more recently had co-created (with Buck Henry) the "Get Smart" series. Sellers told the projectionist: "OK, we'll take a look. If we don't like it, we'll just take it off."

Sellers, according to Taylor-Young, had no patience if he didn't like what he was watching. "He could be quite dismissive if he didn't like something," says the actress.

"Springtime for Hitler" came on the screen. As Sellers recalled it in the Rolling Stone interview: "We started watching this film and were hysterical. I actually had to crawl out of the room on my hands and knees and go to the lavatory because I was almost sick with laughing."

Taylor-Young says she was so stoned she could barely watch the movie. "I had only smoked grass once before, and it was on camera, a month earlier . . . . I remember being terrified from being stoned, I remember a chorus of Hitlers dancing, and I remember Peter laughing. The whole room was laughing."

In his book, Mazursky recalled: "We all laughed helplessly. We were seeing a comic masterpiece." Taylor-Young recalls that Sellers "didn't stop laughing from beginning to end. I can still hear his laughter."

But laughter was not the reaction when Embassy Pictures, which co-produced and released the film, had unveiled "The Producers" two months earlier. "Springtime for Hitler" had completed production in mid-July 1967. There are two chronicled play dates, in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, in late November 1967, which is also the official release date according to Box Office magazine.

At the Philadelphia screening on Nov. 22, 1967, only 38 people showed up, including the Embassy staff. "Nobody laughed," said producer Sidney Glazier, who added that executive producer Joe Levine came up to him, shouting and cursing. In an earlier interview with Billboard magazine, Brooks remembers Levine telling him, " 'We need to talk about whether we should open it or not.' He pointed to a bag lady in the audience and said, 'Look, even she fell asleep!' "

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