How Mel Brooks got the money to make ‘Young Frankenstein’

This week on “WTF with Marc Maron”, our nicotine gum-chewing podcaster drops by Mel Brooks’s office to discuss many things about the comedy god’s career. From his Brooklyn mother’s serving ham sandwiches on the sly to going shopping for David Lynch (Brooks produced “Elephant Man”), Mel opens the nostalgia file with ease. Some anecdotes we’ve heard before — and he still won’t discuss the passing of his wife of 45 years (“it’s too painful”) — but Maron manages to unearth a tidbit of film history on what many consider Brooks’s masterpiece, “Young Frankenstein”.

The creative side of the 1975 release seemed smooth enough. It took less than a month for Brooks to pen the script. His writing partner and star Gene Wilder only required a bungalow at the Bel-Air Hotel with a stash of tea and “digestive biscuits,” and the rest of the casting was easy: Wilder’s agent also represented soon-to-be costars Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Teri Garr and Madeleine Kahn. Gene Hackman was a tennis buddy of Wilder’s and agreed to cameo voluntarily. In another interview Brooks said he had to promise Wilder not to show face in the movie, but the real drama came when trying to get enough money for the picture.

Brooks explains:

Gene and I made a deal with Columbia [Pictures] for $1.75, not $2 million. I’m very good with budgets, so we said maybe we’ll need 2, maybe 2.4 to get this to work. The sets, the gadgetry, it’s gotta be big so the comedy works against hard stuff. We tell Columbia what we need and have a meeting with the people running [the studio] at the time. They say ‘Ok, we’ll consider 2 million. Tops.’ We got to the door, and I turn back to the big shots [and say], ‘Oh, by the way, we’re gonna make it in black and white.’ They all screamed, chased me down the hall. ‘What are you crazy?’ It’s too bizarre. They didn’t want to do it.

We’re in there another hour. Columbia said ‘this might be a dealbreaker, meet us again tomorrow at noon.’ That night, [my producer] Michael Gruskoff called Alan Ladd, Jr., who had just taken over Twentieth Century Fox … Laddy reads it, says ‘We gotta make this. It should be black and white. The next day we set up with Fox.

Frau blucher! Download the “WTF” podcast with Mel Brooks here.