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Secret lunch honors Ladd

Mel Brooks, actors carry on tradition

There’s an upscale Los Angeles restaurant whose identity we must keep secret, on pain of incurring the wrath of Mel Brooks. (It’s good to be the King.)

Every Friday, a group assembles there for lunch. They may not be the hippest or youngest players in town, but they’re among the sagest and most accomplished, not to mention funniest. They have met once a week through decades’ worth of filmmaking, often with each other, and a mutual love of movies.

But most of all, they meet out of love and respect for Alan Ladd Jr.

Laddie’s rep as one of Hollywood’s most honest (“He never lies” — Gene Wilder) and genuine (“He’s solid” — Paul Mazursky) moguls is evidenced by the list of people he’s worked with. Same names again and again, whether as an agent, producer or studio head.

Jay Kanter met Ladd in London in the swinging ’60s, followed him to Fox and later the Ladd Co. and still shares an office with him, though they’re no longer in business together.

“We came up together,” says Kanter. “Gareth Wigan, the late Ashley Boone. It was a real team. He’s been a younger brother to me.”

“There aren’t many producers who can beat him,” says Freddie Fields. “One of my best friends; it’s a shame he’s not Jewish,” avers Brooks, who calls Laddie “the best studio chief God ever created.”

Brooks (seven films with Laddie) reveals that ” ‘Young Frankenstein’ was all set up at Columbia when I mentioned as an afterthought, ‘It’s going to be in black & white.’ And they were horrified. ‘What?! Peru has color now, everybody has color!’ So Michael Gruskoff said, ‘Alan Ladd, Jr.’s just taken over Fox, let’s show it to him.’ Laddie read it and said, ‘I loved it. It’s very funny, and very touching as well.’ ‘You know it’s going to be in black & white?’ I said. ‘Good! It should be.’ No bullshit. And he agreed to make the movie.”

Says Mazursky (four films with Laddie): “How did this guy from Old Hollywood ‘get’ this picture about a Jewish kid (‘Next Stop, Greenwich Village’)? He read it and said, ‘When do you want to start?’ I named a date two months later. See, you never had the feeling Laddie was looking for your thanks. You weren’t kneeling before the studio throne. The only thing was, he spoke so low I thought he was asking ‘How’s your heart?’ ” (Everyone mentions how quiet he is. Everyone.)

Producer Paul Maslansky (16 films with Laddie, though not one of his weekly lunch bunch) directly credits Ladd with helping to turn a strong pic into a hit. “When we screened ‘Police Academy’ at Preview House, it went through the roof, but it dipped at the ending. I was befuddled, but the next day Laddie said, ‘Tell you what, let’s find a way to reprise the best joke in the movie as the tag.’ We knew exactly which gag it should be, and we grossed $81 million.”

Finally, friends mention his equanimity. On one occasion Brooks “went into Laddie’s office and in a fit of pique or rage, not at Laddie but about something else that was happening. And I picked up his chair, one of these big club chairs, and I smashed it against the wall. Just demolished it. He never said a word, and I went back to my office and I felt bad. Anyway, he had it fixed. A few days later I had a meeting with him, and I heard him say to his assistant very matter-of-fact, ‘Rebecca, take that chair out into the hall until the meeting’s over.’ ”

All that Hollywood history, sitting around a Friday lunch table, once a week for decades. (A month ago, they all flew up to Seattle in solidarity with Brooks for the “Young Frankenstein” tryout opening.) Brooks says, “Jay Kanter, Paul Mazursky, Mike Gruskoff, Freddie Fields — and Laddie’s our one non-Jew.”

Is he funny? “Well,” says Brooks, “Jay Kanter is hilarious. Paul Mazursky will keep you in stitches. We all share our stories about making movies, and deals that fell apart, stories you could never print.”

But is Ladd funny? Brooks pauses (a rare enough event), then says, “Well, Laddie is a dry martini. He’ll sit there very quietly, listening, not saying much and then slam you with a comment that’ll just flatten you.

“He’s a great guy.”

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