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Posts Tagged ‘Mel Brooks’

“In life I wasn’t funny. I felt on stage or in movies I could do whatever I wanted. I was free.”
Gene Wilder

WillyWonka

It’s hard to write something about Gene Wilder that hasn’t been written since he passed away two years ago. But I’d like to touch on his Midwestern roots and how he found small victories on his way to greater success. After all, that is a key aspect of this blog all these years.

Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As a youth, he entertained his mother with humor to try and help ease the pressure of her bad health. He began studying acting at 13, his older actress sister got him a spot doing summer stock when he was 16, and when he was 18 he followed her theatrical path and attended the University of Iowa because of its reputable theater program.

He was in four plays his freshman year alone (Note: It’s not easy to get stage time as a freshman in top drama programs), and graduated in 1955. Kim Howard Johnson’s book The Funniest One in the Room: The Lives and Legends of Del Close mentions that Del Close claimed to have been a roommate of Wilder’s at Iowa. Wilder didn’t mention that in his autobiography, but they were within a year of each other age wise and did both attend Iowa so it’s possible.

If true, it certainly would have made for an incubator of creativity. While Wilder would go on to Broadway and Hollywood success, Close would make his impact mostly in Chicago being a early part of improv (Second City/Upright Citizens Brigade) and whose students included; Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Chris Farley,  Mike Myers, John Candy, Jon Favreau, Tina Fey,  Harold Ramis, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner (who would eventually marry Gene Wilder).

“Many have called Del Close the most important comedy figure of the last fifty years whom you’ve never hear of.”
Kim Howard Johnson

Close was only at Iowa one semester, but I’d like to believe that he and Wilder had some late night discussions in Iowa City about “pure imagination,” in the Willy Wonka sense.

The first time I saw Wilder was in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when I was ten years old. Watching Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Silver Steak and Stir Crazy are like entertaining sign posts through my middle school and high school years. In a time before cable and the Internet—and back when hit movies had lines to get in—Wilder was memorable because he made me laugh.

But he wasn’t Steve Martin funny. And when you look at the path he took after Iowa and you seem to see a disconnect—until you learn that Wilder said seeing Lee J. Cobb in Death of a Salesman was what made him want to become an actor. Wilder went to New York and studied with Lee Strasberg (where Wilder said he was only two actors out of 1,200 accepted into the actors studio when he applied).

He yearned to be a serious actor.

Opportunities in off-Broadway and Broadway plays brought him into contact with the person he claimed would change the direction of his career.

“I was miscast in that production [of Mother Courage and Her Children] … but it was with Anne Bancroft, whose boyfriend at the time was Mel Brooks, and that made my — I can’t say my day, it made my life, in a way.”
Gene Wilder
NPR/Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross 

Wilder co-starred in The Producers (1967) which Mel Brooks produced and directed. They team up again on Young Frankenstein (written by Wilder) and on Blazing Saddles (where Wilder was The Waco Kid).

The disconnect: Wilder was seriously funny.

So while Wilder was influenced by the seriousness of playwright Arthur Miller, he also wrote in his autobiography that another giant influence was Charlie Chaplin. He specifically points out the brilliance Chaplin in the hot dog scene from The Circus (1928).

“The acting lesson from this film seems so simple, yet inspired me for the rest of my career: if the thing you’re doing is really funny, you don’t need to ‘act funny’ while doing it.”
Gene Wilder
Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art

Wilder wrote, directed, and starred in movies through the 80s, but seemed to walk away from Hollywood after his wife, Gilda Radner, died in 1989. But he had a great over ten year run that included his best work with Brooks and Richard Pryor, and as Willy Wonka, and that brought me some of the greatest joys of childhood and teenage years.

P.S. The University of Iowa is home to the The Gene Wilder Papers. And a nice Iowa tie-in is Cloris Leachman, who plays Frau Blücher in Young Frankenstein, was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa.

Scott W. Smith

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“GIVE MY CREATION LIFE!”
Dr. Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) in Young Frankenstein
(And the plea of screenwriters throughout the world)

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Yesterday I went to see Young Frankenstein  at the historic Oster Regent Theater in Cedar Falls, Iowa.  It was a good turnout for the 1974 film directed by Mel Brooks. The theater opened in 1910 as the Cotton Theater and is now home to the Cedar Falls Community Theater, as well has a venue for musical groups and occasionally old films.

Last month a bronze statue of Merle Blair standing behind a movie camera was unveiled. According to Melody Parker at the Waterloo Courier , “For many years, Merle Blair owned the Regent Theatre when it was a movie theater. Eventually Merle and Winifred Flair and the Beck Trust of Mason City gave the building as a gift to the Cedar Falls Community Theatre.” The sculpture of Blair was created by Loveland, Colorado artist Thelma Weresh.

A nice Iowa tie into showing Young Frankenstein the week of Halloween is that Gene Wilder (who co-wrote the script with Brooks and stars as Dr. Frankenstein) went to school at the University of Iowa and Oscar-winner Cloris Leachman (who plays Frau Blücher in the movie) was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa.

P.S. As I’ve pointed out before, two movies have their roots in Cedar Falls. Both Robert Waller (The Bridges of Madison County) and Nancy Price (Sleeping with the Enemy) wrote their novels in Cedar Falls. And this blog started back in 2008 just a few blocks from the Oster Regent Theater.

Related Posts:
BOOM! and the Fat Lady from Kansas City (Gene Wilder quotes)
Sleeping with the Enemy Nancy Price quote 
Postcard #39 (UNI) Robert Waller quote

Scott W. Smith

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“Always and consciously, I try to hook the audience in the first five minutes. I want them right from the start to feel something—BOOM! I want an explosion right at the beginning. I always what that.
Gene Wilder

So I’m getting in the Christmas spirit this year and thinking about giving away around 100 books I have on writing and film and video production to a local college. A purge of sorts. So today I was sifting through The Screenwriter’s Handbook written by Constance Nash and Virgina Oakey. It was published in 1978 and I imagine I picked it up in LA in the early 80s. Though it was one of the first books on writing I ever bought I don’t think I ever read the whole thing.

But this afternoon I did read an interview in the book with actor/writer/director Gene Wilder. Though best known as an actor (he won an Oscar-nomination for his role in The Producers) he actually also recieved an Oscar-nominated for writing Young Frankenstein with Mel Brooks. Less known about Wilder is he attended the University of Iowa—same as screenwriter Diablo Cody who was my inspiration behind starting this blog back in January 2008 after seeing Juno.

Here are a couple nuggets from his interview:

“I want to please the audience. I want to please the fat lady in Kansas City who sits on her porch swatting flies. I want to please my friends who laugh when I do something funny and who smile politely when it’s not so funny as I thought it was. I want to please them.”
Gene Wilder

“Truffaut said that he thought all directors fell into two categories, those who worked to satisfy themselves only and those who worked to satisfy the audience.”
Gene Wilder

“Sometimes I go for clichés in characters and use them for my own purposes, a tradition from silent comedies.”
Gene Wilder

“My advice to beginning screenwriters about contracts and sale agreements is: Get a good lawyer. Another piece of advice is: Watch out for producers.”
Gene Wilder

P.S. Wilder could also sing and dance…

Scott W. Smith

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“I was the world’s worst student. I hated it with a passion.”
Woody Allen

“I am plagued by doubts. What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.”
Woody Allen

Over the weekend I stumbled upon Woody Allen: A Documentary on Netflix and was surprised how little I knew about writer/director Woody Allen. That led me to flip through a couple of books Woody Allen has written and read various articles about him and interviews with him. I’ve condensed the making of Woody Allen down to 10 simple steps:

1) Start with a Jewish kid born in Brooklyn named Allen Stewart Konigsberg in 1935, and raise him in a strict home where Charlie Chaplin and Bob Hope movies offer a humorous relief.

2) Add coming face to face with the deep existential questions as a child; “I didn’t like my own mortality. What do you mean, this [life] ends? This doesn’t go on like this? Deal Me out I don’t want to play in this game.” (As Allen got older he added Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment and Bergman’s movie The Seventh Seal into his mental & philosophical blender.)

3) At 17 begin sending jokes to the newspaper using the pen name Woody Allen; “A Hypocrite is a guy who writes a book on atheism, and prays that it will sell.”

4) Turn that unpaid newspaper gig into a paid gig writing 50 jokes a day for radio.

5) Turn the radio gig into a well paid TV gigs that end up paying you well working on The Sid Caesar Show and learning from the best of that era; Larry Gilbert, Mel Brooks, Mel Tolkin, Danny Simon (whose brother Neil Simon credits him with teaching him to write), and Sid Caesar.

6) Take the style of black rim glasses from comedian Mike Merrick and wear them your entire life making them your trademark.

7) At 26, though shy, begin a stand up comedy career in New York City in 1961 just as Greenwich Village just started to take off creatively and become a household name on TV. (He once boxed a kangaroo on TV. A feat you’re—understandbly for a couple of reasons—never likely to see repeated on national TV in the United States. Other than the PBS documentary  produced and directed by Robert B. Weide that I mentioned at the start of this post.)

8) Start writing movies (What’s New Pussycat) which gets you a WGA nomination, but quickly move into writing and directing (Take the Money and Run) because you want more control.

9) At 42 win your first two Oscars for writing and directing Annie Hall (co-written with Marshall Brickman) in 1977, which is eventually named on #35 on AFI’s “100 Best Movies” and the #4 AFI “100 Best Comedies.”

10) Don’t ride off into the sunset after reaching the top of the mountain with Annie Hall. Continue making films—some good, some not so good— and win your fourth Oscar in 2012 for writing Midnight in Paris. 

Of course, that’s just the quick ten step overview of his creative journey. There were other people that helped Allen along the way. He was influenced by Mort Sahl, and he was encouraged by his managers Jack Rollins and Charlie Joffe. He learned from cinematographer Gordon Willis and editor Ralph Rosenblum, and no doubt other comedians, actors and production people.

And while no one could follow that exact path Allen has taken, he has in turn inspired and influenced a whole new generation of creative people including Larry David, Chris Rock, Edward Burns, and Nora Ephron. You could say his voice (and neuroses) paved the way for their voices.

“I never cared about commercial success, and as a result I rarely achieved it.”  
Woody Allen

Yet, over his unusally long career, Allen has been able to write and and control the kind of films he’s wanted to make. And his films (including Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhatten, Zelig, and Radio Days) have grossed over $500 million., and he’s personally collected 17 Oscar-nominations along the way.

What about Woody Allen’s failures? I think of that ending line in Billy Wilder’s classic Some Like it Hot— “Nobody’s perfect.” (A film by the way, Allen doesn’t care for.)

Related Post: Screenwriting Quote #102 (Woody Allen)

Scott W. Smith


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(The theme of  Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid is) times are changing, and you have to change with them—if you want to survive.”
William Goldman
Adventures in the Screen Trade


“I don’t know if you saw the parting of the Red Sea with the chariots on the horses, I did stuff like that.”
Richard Farnswort
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After I posted the above Goldman comment yesterday on the post titled Writing “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” it jogged my memory of another story about a career transition—both fictional and real life. The Grey Fox was released in 1982 about a decade after Butch Cassidy, but there are some similarities, mostly the concept of change in the Old West.

Richard Farnsworth plays a former stagecoach robber who is released from San Quintin after serving 33 years for his crimes. When he gets out in 1903 it’s a new world—the stagescoaches are out and movies are in. His character, Bill Miner, goes to see The Great Train Robbery and is inspired to take up his old ways yet with a new fresh angle.

It’s been many years since I’ve seen the film so I’ll rely on Rodger Ebert’s account to bring us all up to speed:

“(The Great Train Robbery.) That famous movie is only eleven minutes long, but long enough to make everything absolutely clear to Miner, who realizes he has a new calling in life, as a train robber. All of this could, of course, be an innocuous Disney movie, but it’s well-written and directed, and what gives it zest and joy is the performance by Richard Farnsworth, who plays Miner. Maybe you’ll recognize Farnsworth when you see him on the screen. Maybe not. His life has been one of those careers that makes you realize Hollywood is a company town, where you can make a living for years and never be a star. Farnsworth has been in more than three hundred movies.”
Roget Ebert
Chicago Sun-Times, The Grey Fox
January 1. 1982

Though Farnsworth had been in more than 300 films, they were mostly as a stuntman. He doubled for some of Hollywood’s most well-known actors; Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, Henry Ford, Montgomery Clift, and Steve McQueen. You think he might have picked up a thing or two about acting from those fellows because after 30 years as a stuntman he began acting.

And he did it well enough to receive a Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination in 1979 for his role in Comes a Horseman and another Oscar nomination for Lead Actor in David Lynch’s The Straight Story (that was filmed right here in Iowa). He was 79 at the time of the nomination making him the oldest actor to ever receive a best actor nomination.

You may also remember his roles in The Natural, The Two Jakes, and Misery. I had the good fortune to meet Richard Farnsworth at a movie theater in Burbank some time in the 80s. Nothing exciting, he was just standing in front of me waiting to buy popcorn or whatever.

“Are you Richard Farnsworth?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I appreciate your work.”
“Thank You.”

He smiled and we shook hands. This was in the days before IMDB so I didn’t know in that simple exchange I was shaking hands with a man who was a real life Forrest Gump in the film industry having been in some legendary Hollywood productions;   Gone with the Wind, Gunga Din, The Ten Commandments, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Roots, Bonanza, The Wild One,  Blazing Saddles, Spartacus and many others.

That means to one degree or another he worked with John Wayne, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Mel Brooks, Howard Hawks,  Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood and Cecil B. DeMille.

I don’t know how long stuntman work on a regular basis in Hollywood, but it has to take its toll on your body.  Farnsworth’s last credit as a stuntman was 1975 when he would have been 55. He was almost 60 when his acting career took off. He changed with the times.

By the way, the screenwriter of The Grey Fox, John Hunter,  was no spring chicken himself and was 71 when the movie was released.

Oh yeah, Farnsworth did stunts in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, too.

Scott W. Smith


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Chicago-born writer Larry Gelbart died on September 11, 2009 adding one more name to what I’m now officially calling the summer of deaths. Good thing fall starts tomorrow.

Gelbart had an incredible career. Just one of his success stories would be an amazing feat, but the fact that he pulled them all off at such a high level is hard to comprehend. He was the co-creator of one of the most popular TV programs of all-time (M*A*S*H), he was co-writer of one very long Broadway show (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), and he c0-wrote one of the most popular and highly regarded comedy movies in the last 30 years (Tootsie).

He won an Emmy, a Tony, and had an Oscar nomination. Not bad for a kid from Chicago whose Jewish parents immigrated from Poland.

The L.A. TImes quoted Jack Lemmon describing Gelbart as “One of the greatest writers of comedy to have graced the arts in this century.” In a statement Friday, Woody Allen called Gelbart  “the best comedy writer that I have ever knew and one of the best guys.”

Gelbart began his writing career as a teenager and learned from the best including Danny Thomas, Bob Hope, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, and Neil Simon. One of my favorite quotes of his was his reaction to all the rise in screenwriting classes; “So many gurus and so few good writers. Where are all these lessons going?”


Scott W. Smith


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Today is a holiday so to give me a break from blogging I’ll  put up some photos I took last week in New York. While the full list of films and TV shows shot in New York City would be quite long, my guess is the exterior of this restaurant is the most recognizable of all of them.

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Though I was in New York doing camerawork it wasn’t on a Woody Allen film. Just having fun with a free iPhone app.

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The Big Apple has attracted and developed some major talent over the years. (Sign reads: “Here at City Center, Your Show of Shows came to life each week. Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Howard Morris, Mel Tolkin, Lucille Kallen, Tony Webster, Joe Stein, Danny Simon, Max Liebman and Woody Allen made both a classic television series and comedy history. The show’s scripts were created in a legendary and storied room on the sixth floor and if those walls could talk, well, then I guess we wouldn’t need this plaque.”) 

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Scott  W. Smith

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