Mel Brooks (film-maker, comedian) is 95 years old and has been awarded every Emmys and Grammys as well as Tonys and Tonys.

But as he reveals in his autobiography, out later this week, he grew up in the heart of New York’s garment industry and says: ‘Movies saved my life.

They rescued my soul.’ Here, he tells how he owes his success to superstars including Peter Sellers and Liza Minnelli . . .

Pebbles were being tossed at my bedroom window one night around two in the AM. To see what was really going on, I opened the window. I found a handful when I opened it.

Dustin Hoffman was down there on the street. Before I could say: ‘What the hell are you doing?’ he shouted: ‘Come down! We have to talk.’

He wasn’t famous yet. He was actually a resident of Greenwich Village’s block, located between Fifth Avenues and Sixth Avenues. This was 1967, and I’d just signed Dustin to play a demented, Nazi-loving playwright in a musical comedy I planned to call Springtime For Hitler.

Pictured: Mel Brooks stars as Dr Frederick Bronski in the 1983 film To Be or Not To Be

Pictured: Mel Brooks plays Dr Frederick Bronski, in 1983’s To Be or Not To Be

This film wasn’t certain to be made. I’d had a success with a cartoon called The 2,000-Year-Old Man, but this was my first movie script and I’d never directed before. The songs were written by me, even though I had no ability to play or read musical notes.

Plus, as the actor Gene Wilder, a close friend, gently pointed out to me: ‘The world isn’t ready for a comedy featuring Adolf Hitler.’

Nine months were needed to locate the funds. Gene was right — the name Hitler put people off. Universal wanted to know if the name was changed to Springtime For Mussolini.

However, I was able to find a producer who would take on half of the million if it were possible. The last thing that I wanted was for a key member to be lost before I started filming.

Mel Brooks’ SIXTH Finger. 

When I was asked in 2014 to put my own hands and feet in that famous sidewalk cement, outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, I asked the prop masters from The Walking Dead TV series to build me a sixth finger on my left hand.

I like to imagine some of the millions of tourists who come to put their hands on the concrete will shout: ‘Hey! Did you know that Mel Brooks had SIX fingers on his left hand?’ 

Dustin was outside, so I closed my window and pulled up some clothes. He said: ‘You won’t believe this. Mike Nichols called me in LA. He wants me to fly out tomorrow to do a screen test.’

I said: ‘For what? Mike Nichols is in Hollywood doing The Graduate with my wife, Annie.’

‘Yes. That’s it, that’s it! He wants to audition me for the lead, opposite Anne Bancroft.’

I advised him to take the audition. ‘I’m not worried. No offence, but you’re not the handsomest guy in town. The minute they see you they’ll send you flying back into my arms.’

It was a mistake.

He called me two days later to inform me that he had received the part. Although he had signed the contract, I legally could not stop him. I just wished him good luck. . . with one small caveat: ‘You’re going to be playing opposite my wife — don’t fool around.’

There are times when showbiz is hard but you bounce back. Kenny Mars would be my true Franz Liebkind, and I was able to take that bounce.

Finaly, distributors decided to ban Hitler from the title. The cinemas just wouldn’t show it, they said. It was not my intention to change it, so I called The Producers.

However, for the first preview of our film, held at the Cherry Hill Cinema in Thousand Oaks, virtually nobody turned up. The distributors hadn’t spent any money to promote the screening.

The movie might have been flopped right there, if it hadn’t been for Peter Sellers. He accidentally saw it.

Each Saturday, he would rent the famed Aidikoff movie room in Hollywood to watch a film. One week, he was meant to see an early film by Federico Fellini called I Vitelloni, but the projectionist, Charles Aidikoff himself, couldn’t find the print. Sellers said: ‘Well, do you have anything else for us to see? Anything!’

Mel Brooks won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for The Producers in 1969

Mel Brooks was awarded an Academy Award in 1969 for Best Original Screenplay by The Producers.

Aidikoff said: ‘I have a pre-release copy of a Mel Brooks movie, but I was told not to let anyone see it. So I can’t run it.’

‘Run that Mel Brooks movie or I’ll kill you!’ said Peter.

Later that night, he called my producer in New York (where it was about 3am) and told him: ‘I just saw your movie and I want you to know how incredibly funny it is. Spread it all! Print a thousand copies! Flood America’s screens! It’s a great, great comedy.’

Peter was so enamoured that he personally paid for a big industry ad in Variety that read: ‘Last night I saw the ultimate film . . . Brilliantly written and directed by Mel Brooks, it is the essence of all great comedy combined in a single motion picture.’

At the Fine Arts Theatre, New York, our next preview was at 10:30 AM. There were long lines.

The Producers won me an Oscar and I was able to give it to my mom, who was in Florida living at The Presidential.

She had a regular Friday afternoon tea and cookie session with friends and she wanted her famous son’s awards decorating the top of her TV set. The Oscar was going to be the highlight of that collection, I know.

My mom and I drove up to The Presidential, rented Lincoln Town Cars. When I got out, a guy in a chauffeur’s cap threw a question at me: ‘Who ya got?’

I didn’t know what he was talking about . . . Then I realized that I was next to another Lincoln Town Car black. ‘Who ya got? Who ya driving?’ he asked.

I didn’t want to lie to him. I said: ‘Oh! I’m driving Mel Brooks.’

He said: ‘Mel Brooks? Wow. Is he a good tipper?’ I said: ‘The best!’

Although it was a great year, the most memorable was 1974. I’m happy with it. Richard Nixon is not as fortunate.

Blazing Saddles started me in February, and I ended up with Young Frankenstein on December.

Blazing Saddles was an outrageous comedy that had a strong engine. Whenever I taught comedy to film students, I told them crazy comedy alone doesn’t work. If you want the laughs to last, there’s a secret you must follow: you have to have an engine.

Pictured: Mel Brooks with Robyn Hilton performing in Brooks' 1974 film Blazing Saddles

Pictured are Mel Brooks performing with Robyn in Brooks 1974 film Blazing Saddles

Blazing Saddles is about Blazing Saddles. It’s about Blazing Saddles and a black sheriff riding in to save his town from bigots. Except I wasn’t sure it could work. Even more controversial was a satire on racist cowboys from the 1970s than a musical about Der Hitler.

I told the writers: ‘Write anything you want. You will not hear from us again. We will all be in jail for making this movie.’

We all knew very little about Western movies, other than that we enjoyed them as children. Every morning we had bagels and Nova Scotia lox from Zabar’s on Broadway for breakfast. Except for Richard Pryor, a comic genius and a serious drinker, who took his coffee laced with a shot of Rémy Martin.

Richard was wanted to be the sheriff. Warner Bros. declined. They were concerned about his unpredictable behavior.

I found somebody who was made for the role, born to play it, a Broadway actor who was handsome, sophisticated and winning — the truly talented Cleavon Little. After he read one page of dialogue I grabbed him, embraced him and said: ‘Cleavon, don’t ask for too much money and you’ve got the part!’

For his sidekick, the Waco Kid, I wanted to cast either a well-known Western hero or a well-known alcoholic — or if I was lucky, maybe a combination of both.

When I went to the Warner Bros. commissary for lunch, it was one day. [canteen]John Wayne was at the table across from me. How lucky it would be for the Duke to appear as the Waco Kid! The Duke was a great actor, so I held my breath and walked up to him.

The next day, I was at precisely the same table as him. He had the script in his hand, and he said: ‘Mel, this is one of the craziest and funniest things I have ever read. But I can’t do it. It’s just too dirty. My fans will accept almost anything, but they won’t take dirty. But I’ll tell you this: when it opens, I’ll be the first in line to see it.’

So I turned to the Oscar-winning Gig Young, who was devastatingly emotional in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

He was the Waco Kid, I thought. He was known for slipping into the bottle every now and again. His agent assured me he’d been on the wagon for more than a year and was totally trustworthy.

I hired him — but on the first day’s shooting, in the jail scene, Gig threw up all over the set. His studio doctor stated that he was experiencing severe alcohol withdrawal and had developed delirium Tremens. He would not be able to continue performing for the following months.

It was Friday night and I knew what I needed to do in order to save my picture. So I called Gene Wilder asking him to help me. He said: ‘I’ll be on a plane tomorrow morning.’

Pictured: Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little star in Brooks' 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles

Pictured: Gene Wilder, Cleavon and Little stars in Brooks’ 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles

Warner’s head of production, John Calley, was also an invaluable aide. I’d often come to him and ask something like: ‘John, is it too crazy to beat up an old lady in a Western bar fight?’

And he gave me this memorable piece of advice that stayed with me all through my career: ‘Mel, if you’re gonna step up to the bell — ring it!’

One scene I almost feared to include was the campfire scene. In it, cowhands drink black coffee out of tin cups while they dip into a heap of beans from a plate.

In the Westerns of old, there is no sound. To tell the truth, I was willing to take a risk with my life. There had to have been one sound out of all these beans.

I remembered John Calley’s motto: ‘If you’re gonna step up to the bell — ring it!’

It rang, and boy did it ring. It was filled with nonstop flatulence, the most recognizable sound in the air. I may have been risking my career, but what good is a career if you don’t risk it from time to time?

On set, one of my problems was having to reshoot because the crew kept laughing. I decided to go out and buy 100 white handkerchiefs. I handed them round and said: ‘If you feel like laughing, don’t! Stick this handkerchief in your mouth.’

I turned around once in the middle of shooting a scene and saw a sea of white handkerchiefs in everybody’s mouths. I thought: ‘I’ve got a big hit here.’

One of the white-handkerchief-in-the-mouth scenes actually got me. Young Frankenstein was being shot later that year and it was difficult not to laugh. I’d given all the handkerchiefs out and now I really needed one myself.

Gene was in the scene. [as Dr Frankenstein], Teri Garr as Inga the lab assistant and Marty Feldman as Igor are at the dinner table, in the depths of depression because their monster won’t come to life.

Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle as Frankenstein and the Monster in Brooks' Young Frankenstein

Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle and Frankenstein in Brooks’ Young Frankenstein

After the trio of them arrived at a Transylvania castle, I felt already broken and began to hammer on its massive iron rings. ‘My God,’ said Gene, ‘what knockers.’

‘Vy, thank you Doctor,’ said Teri in her ludicrous German accent.

So now they were sitting and not eating, and Teri said: ‘You haven’t even touched your food.’

Gene responded by sticking his hands into his beef stew and boiled potatoes and saying: ‘There! Now I’ve touched it. Happy?’

It was held together till we had to cut it, then my body shattered.

By the time I made Silent Movie in 1976, some of the biggest stars in Hollywood were willing to work with me, even though they knew I’d make them look ridiculous.

Burt Reynolds loved it. I didn’t have to persuade him — he just said: ‘Why don’t I play myself? A big, egotistical movie star!’

He actually had ‘BR’ monogrammed on everything in his house — shirts, ashtrays, towels, even his door handles. To keep with his ego I suggested we write his name in letters two-foot tall right on the top of his house. It was an idea he loved.

We also added a running gag where he couldn’t pass a mirror without stopping to adore his own wonderful face.

Again, I saw our next star at the commissary. When Liza Minnelli appeared at the table next to me, I was enjoying lunch with Barry, Rudy and Ron.

All of us moved around to her table, without having been invited. We never stopped talking about the crazy silent movie we were watching until she finally agreed to let us all sit down.

This is how we used it in real life. Marty, Dom DeLuise, and I wear suits of armor as Knights at the Round Table. We eat in the commissary. Liza is spotted and we attempt to make it to her table. . . but it’s not an easy thing to do in armour and chainmail.

It was hilarious. Liza was always breaking up the scene, laughing at each of us falling down. We kept this in the final cut.

Paul Newman, the greatest star of all time was our final cameo. It turned out that Paul Newman loved St Pauli Girl. So, I gave him 10 cases and a letter explaining why I wanted him as my guest star.

Paul loved racing, so when we found out that he was also a keen driver of motorbikes and cars we decided to chase him in a wheelchair. The idea was ambitious but not necessarily dangerous. However, he did it anyway!

Paul wrote back to say that I didn’t have to send him those ten cases of St Pauli Girl beer to get him on board — but he wasn’t going to return them, just in case my cheque bounced.

It was chaos shooting that chase. Paul was able to race the wheelchair at a speed that no one else could match. Marty kept crashing — he’d disappear, you’d hear a smash and then his Cockney voice came floating back: ‘I’m all right, love!’

My movies can be seen on almost every cable channel these days. But there’s nothing like seeing one in a theatre, on that huge silver screen — the invention that saved my soul and gave me such a wonderful ride.

I’ve shown Blazing Saddles and The Producers many times to audiences, then came out to answer some questions. One of the best was: ‘Mel, what’s your secret to a long life?’ ‘Don’t die,’ I said.

It really worked. Still believe that saying something funny and having your audience laugh out loud is the greatest thing. It’s something I won’t stop doing. It’s magical.

This article was adapted from All About Me! by Mel Brooks published by Century, £16.99. To order a copy for £15.29 go to or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Discount valid up to 11/12/21 © Mel Brooks 2021.