Three of the funniest movies ever made have one thing in common: they all involve Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder. Although they only made The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein together, they are inseparable in film history. Wilder died this month after a battle with Alzheimer’s at age 83 and Brooks is still alive at age 90.
Their relationship was tumultuous, but when they came together, they made three movies that aren’t just great comedies. They are three of the best films ever made. Here’s a look at their relationship.
1. Brooks Called Wilder ‘One of the Truly Great Talents of Our Time’ on Twitter
Brooks wrote a simple message on Twitter after hearing the news of his friend’s death. “Gene Wilder-One of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship,” Brooks wrote.
Brooks just turned 90 in June and is set to appear on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on Tuesday night.
2. Wilder & Brooks First Met in 1963 & Brooks Promised Wilder the Role of Leopold Bloom in ‘The Producers’
The Producers didn’t come out until 1968, but, according to a Billboard Magazine report, Brooks promised to cast Wilder as Leopold Bloom in 1963. At that time, Wilder had a small part in a Broadway production of Mother Courage, which starred Brooks’ wife, the late Anne Bancroft.
“Gene used to sit in the dressing room with Anne and I at the Martin Beck Theater and say, ‘Why are they laughing at me? My big speech is not supposed to be funny, it’s supposed to be touching!’ I said, ‘Ah, so what? You are a natural comic, you look like Harpo Marx! What else do you want?'”
Then, Brooks brought up the idea of him playing Bloom. Wilder dismissed the idea, but Brooks eventually talked him into taking the role.
The Producers earned Wilder his only Oscar nomination as an actor, for Best Supporting Actor.
I’m in pain and I’m wet and I’m still hysterical!
3. Wilder Almost Didn’t Appear in ‘Blazing Saddles’ At All
Wilder almost didn’t make an appearance in Blazing Saddles and it’s hard to imagine that film at all without his incredibly laid-back performance as Jim, “The Waco Kid.” However, Wilder originally cast Gig Young in the role. Young was an alcoholic and was fired just as filming began. Brooks had thought of Wilder for the Hedley Lamarr role, but Wilder turned Brooks down and that part went to Harvey Korman instead.
Wilder explained in 2013:
Mel didn’t want me to do that part; he wanted me to do Hedley Lamarr. I said, ‘I wouldn’t be any good doing that, Mel. What about The Waco Kid? He said ‘No, no, I got two people who want that.’ He brought in one of them — I won’t mention names — but he had an outfit on, and Mel walked with him to the jail cell and foam started coming out of his mouth. Mel said ‘Keep doing what you’re doing’ — he thought he was a [method] actor — and he kept foaming at the mouth. Eventually, Mel had to call an ambulance. Then he picked up the telephone and called me and said ‘Can you come here right now?’ A day later I was on a plane, and a day after that I was upside-down in a jail cell.
What did you expect? “Welcome, sonny”? “Make yourself at home”? “Marry my daughter”? You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.
4. Wilder Came up With the Idea to Make ‘Young Frankenstein’ & Brooks Initially Didn’t Want to Direct It
Young Frankenstein should really be called Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder’s Young Frankenstein because the idea originated with the actor. Wilder has co-writing credit on the film and they earned an Oscar nomination for the script. Brooks initially didn’t want to direct it.
As Brooks told The Los Angeles Times in 2010:
I was in the middle of shooting the last few weeks of “Blazing Saddles” somewhere in the Antelope Valley, and Gene Wilder and I were having a cup of coffee and he said, I have this idea that there could be another “Frankenstein.” I said not another – we’ve had the son of, the cousin of, the brother-in-law, we don’t need another Frankenstein. His idea was very simple: What if the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein wanted nothing to do with the family whatsoever. He was ashamed of those wackos. I said, “That’s funny.”
During the production, the two argued over the famous “Putting on the Ritz” sequence, because Brooks didn’t think that Peter Boyle’s monster should be able to dance. But Brooks eventually admitted that it was the best thing in the movie.
One of the amazing facts about Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles is that both came out in 1974. So while Brooks and Wilder’s script for Young Frankenstein was up for Best Adapted Screenplay, Madeline Kahn was competing for Best Supporting Actress for Blazing Saddles at the Oscars.
You know, I’m a rather brilliant surgeon. Perhaps I can help you with that hump.
In that same 2010 interview with the LA Times, Brooks said that the original Mary Shelley Frankenstein novel was why Young Frankenstein is his best film. He added:
The other shoe that we drop in Young Frankenstein is emotion, great emotion. You can call it father and son, the creator and his creation, that’s the real love story that Mary Shelley devised. It’s all good funny stuff. It’s very risqué. There’s a lot of sexy innuendo. I don’t know if Mary Shelley would be so happy.
5. Wilder & Brooks Disagreed Over the Broadway Musical Version of ‘Young Frankenstein’
While Brooks’ The Producers had a successful run on Broadway, the same could not be said for the 2007 musical adaptation of Young Frankenstein. It only ran for 484 performances before closing in January 2009.
Wilder did not agree with Brooks’ attempt to make Young Frankenstein a musical. He thought it was misguided and Brooks’ style of comedy didn’t match the material, he told SFGate.com in 2008. On Opening Night, he did appear for the curtain call, but left the theater right after.
Critics agreed with Wilder. The New York Times wrote:
Still, as newly rich New Yorkers learn every day, money can’t buy you flair. It can’t even buy you laughs. “Young Frankenstein” — which features songs by Mr. Brooks and a book by Mr. Brooks and Thomas Meehan, his collaborator on “The Producers” — certainly has a high density of talent. It also surely has the hardest-working supersize ensemble, led by an amiable but overwhelmed Roger Bart, and the largest percentage of gags per scene.
Unfortunately, Wilder and Brooks never got to work together again after Young Frankenstein, but the results of their collaboration will always make us laugh.
I am not a Frankenstein. I’m a Fronkensteen. Don’t give me that. I don’t believe in fate. And I won’t say it… All right, you win. You win. I give. I’ll say it. I’ll say it. I’ll say it. DESTINY! DESTINY! NO ESCAPING THAT FOR ME! DESTINY! DESTINY! NO ESCAPING THAT FOR ME!