The four guys sitting around the lunch table in Beverly Hills have been business associates and friends for decades.
This includes the decade known as the ’70s, when lunchee Mel Brooks directed and co-wrote “Young Frankenstein” (1974) for fellow lunchees, former Fox studio chief Alan Ladd Jr. and the film’s producer, Michael Gruskoff, as well as longtime Ladd associate Jay Kanter, who once repped the likes of Marlon Brando, Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe.
But this is clearly Brooks’ show, a point he reinforces when Gruskoff tries to tell their guest about the day the two of them and star Gene Wilder pitched the “Young Frankenstein” project to the top brass at Columbia Pictures.
Gruskoff may have gotten through the first word of the first sentence but he quickly and wisely lets Brooks finish: “LET ME TELL THE STORY I CAN TELL IT BETTER THAN YOU.”
“So everything was great, they loved the pitch, the budget was no problem,” recalls Brooks, “and I think we were almost out to Gower Street when I whispered, ‘Oh one more thing: it’s going to be in black and white.’ Suddenly there was a thundering herd of Jews descending on us; ‘What are you talking about??!!’”
But Brooks quickly gets to the real point of his story: “Then we took it to Laddie (Ladd Jr.) who had only been at Fox a few months and when we told him it had to be in black and white he said, ‘Of course it does.’ There’s the difference.”
Today Brooks is a genuine Comedy God with seven legendary decades of hits under his belt in virtually all genres, including records (with fellow God Carl Reiner), television, films and Broadway. But in 1973 when he and Gruskoff were trying to set up “Young Frankenstein,” which started as a Wilder treatment, Gruskoff was coming off the Dennis Hopper drug-addled epic fail “The Last Movie” and Brooks had just swan-dived at the box office with “The Twelve Chairs.”
“‘The Producers’ made a penny and ‘Twelve Chairs’ less than a penny,” recalls Brooks. “We had no script but we had Gene, Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman and none of them meant anything.”
Now, 40 years later, with Fox Home Entertainment rolling out a commemorative Blu-ray, Brooks’ Hands and Feet Ceremony Sept. 8 at the Chinese Theatre and a tribute screening Sept. 9 at the Goldwyn, Brooks acknowledges the current studio scene would be a tough place to replicate the Ladd-led Fox lot of 1974.
“Laddie had faith in the people who were making the films,” recalls Brooks. “He trusted (Robert) Altman to deliver the movie he said he was going to deliver. You didn’t get a lot of notes from Laddie. He wasn’t a fool, but it was more about the filmmakers than the films. Columbia had told us we needed to cut the budget from $2 million to $1.8. Laddie said it should be $2.2 (million).”
The Ladd bet paid off handsomely for Fox, winding up in the Christmas season as one of the year’s five top-grossing films.
But Ladd’s sigh of relief probably came much earlier in the year when “Blazing Saddles,” the film that Brooks made for Warner Bros. after “Twelve Chairs,” but unreleased when “Young” was greenlit, hit theaters in February. It ended up being 1974’s biggest hit, and provided the one-two punch that sent Wilder’s career into the comedy stratosphere.
And what was it like for Gruskoff to follow the Peruvian oddball odyssey of “Last Movie” and partner with Brooks to bring “Young Frankenstein” to mega-hit life? Words fail the garrulous Gruskoff so he turns to song, warbling to Brooks across the table: “Night and Day, you are the one …” Mel Brooks does not claim to be able sing Cole Porter better than Gruskoff, so we move on.