Diane Haithman is contributing to Deadline’s TCA coverage.
Two venerable creative forces held journalists enthralled for more than an hour and a half – no easy task – at today’s TCA PBS panel. Novelist Philip Roth, who turns 80 in March, and Mel Brooks, 86, are both subjects of upcoming American Masters documentaries this year (Philip Roth: Unmasked premieres March 29 and Mel Brooks: Make a Noise premieres May 20).
Mel Brooks showed up late, so the session began with Roth, speaking via satellite. Introducing the two artists, American Masters series creator and executive producer Susan Lacey said that the Roth documentary is the first film biography of Roth.
The two men spoke separately, but both addressed the issue of whether or not they considered themselves “Jewish” writers. Both said no. “I don’t write in Jewish, I write in American,” Roth said. He said he considers himself a “regionalist” when it comes to his work. “Bellow and Faulkner were regionalists, they write about the place they come from. So did Joyce,” said Roth. “I write about the locale I come from, and that particular locale was full of Jews, including me and my family.”
Brooks started out with a Jewish joke of sorts: “I’m not such a comedy giant, I’m 5-foot-6″, he said. “There are guys who aren’t as funny, but they’re taller.” He said growing up he once heard his mother talking to his friend about a woman leaving her husband. “She said: ‘How could she leave him? He was so tall,’ ” Brooks recounted. “This is the way Jews think.”
But on a more serious note, he agreed with Roth. “I think I missed the Jew boat by one generation,” he said. “When I worked in the Borscht Belt in the mountains, I spoke in English. A generation before me, they spoke in Yiddish,” he said. “I think it’s New York comedy, it is urban, it is sophisticated, it is street corner comedy.”
Roth was asked about his recent retirement, unofficially announced news in November. He said that the “announcement” came when he made the off-hand comment “I think I’m finished” to an interviewer for an obscure French magazine. “This obscure magazine got picked up in a barbershop or something, and mistranslated on Google. That was the beginning of the earthquake,” he said.
That being said, the author says retirement is “great so far. Every morning I get up, go to the kitchen, get a large glass of orange juice and then go back to bed for half an hour,” he said. “After that, I go back to bed for half an hour. I’m doing fine without writing. Someone should have told me about this earlier.”
As to why he agreed to participate in his first filmed bio, Roth said: “Time is running out, you know? If I didn’t do it now, when would I do it? I also put it off because nobody asked me ” he joked.
Brooks, on the other hand, is never one to shy away from attention, and he kept his audience in stitches when he showed up. “What do you want to know? I’ll tell you what I think is appropriate and what is none of your business,” he said.
Brooks spun showbiz tales too numerous to recount. Among them was trying to sell the movie The Producers to Lew Wasserman at Universal under its original title: Springtime For Hitler. “He said, I’ll do it, but not Hitler, Mussolini – he’s more likeable. [I said] ‘You don’t really get it.’ ” He said it was difficult to sell The Producers because it was so heavily plotted:”The secret of that movie was 10 minutes of exposition very early in the movie, it’s not really funny.” Despite that handicap, he said, he finally got the funding for it and “it was one of my very best movies.”
Another selling-a-movie story: Brooks described taking Young Frankenstein to Columbia Pictures. He said they were fighting about the price: The studio said $1.75 million; Brooks wanted $2 million. But the deal breaker for Columbia, he said, was that Brooks wanted to do the movie in black and white. According to Brooks, Columbia protested: “Peru just got color!”
The problem was solved when Fox executive Alan Ladd supported the black and white concept. So when Columbia nixed the idea, Brooks said, “we said all right, because we knew we had Fox, we knew we had Laddie.”
Brooks said that he was vindicated when Michel Hazanavicius, director of The Artist, last year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, said he could not have done The Artist in black and white if Brooks had not done Young Frankenstein that way. “That’s praise from a very talented fella, indeed,” Brooks said.
In a more sober moment, Brooks declined to recount some of his favorite moments working with his late wife Anne Bancroft, saying it is “a little too painful and private.” He did tell the story of them singing “Sweet Georgia Brown” in Polish together in the film To Be Or Not to Be. “Anne diligently learned it in Polish,” he said. “I was very lucky for 45 years. It is difficult to go on, I can tell you, without her.”
Want more stories? Brooks joked: “I’ve got it all in my box set that just came out. It’s like 5½ hours.”