Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The One and Only Mel

    Having been through some arduous and difficult days, but believing as I do in a benign Universe, in which you are rewarded for not cracking or trying to retaliate for pain caused, my trust was vindicated last night when HBO aired a special just for me: Mel Brooks.  Mel and Annie, the wonderful actress Anne Bancroft, were very close friends of Don and mine in the early days of their and our courtships.  Annie and I would go for long walks in the city, and she would rhapsodize about how much she loved him-- that sometimes she would check his breathing as he slept to make sure he was still alive, because she couldn't believe how happy she was.  
    Mel chased Don around our kitchen on 72nd St. telling him every line, twist and turn of The Producers, which he was cooking in his wonderfully crazy head at the time.  We were very much in love with both of them, and Mel said "Isn't it wonderful when two people can love each other and be together and don't feel they have to get married in this society,"-- it was the early 60s. Then we got married and he stopped speaking to us until they got married, too. 
    I was especially in love with Annie because she was, I thought,the most gifted comedienne in the theater, and I wanted to write a play for her, which I did.  When written and  ready for production, I gave it to her, but she said "I can't do it.  I'm doing The Devils."  "Why?" I asked her. 
"I've never played a hunchbacked nun before," she said.  "Besides, who knew you'd be finished writing it in three weeks?"
    The play, under the crazy aegis of Hilly Elkins as producer and the somewhat urgent and patently dramatic circumstances-- I was very pregnant with Madeleine-- was in Philadelphia for out-of-town tryout, a standard at the time as was pretty much the budget, $150,000, so you know how long ago it was-- when Mel came down to help us with some comic fillips.  Don and I remembered having laughed hysterically at everything he said, but being unable to recall a single do-able suggestion.  The show, with the ill-chosen title, THE BEST LAID PLANS, had received favorable notices in Philly, "a hit with fixing" said the reviews.  But the fixes that Hilly wanted, which was to turn the heroine, who pretends to be a drug-addicted sociopath in order to win the love of a disturbed playwright, were intolerable to me, as he wanted her to actually do drugs onstage, and it was Philadelphia, for God's sake.  So I refused, and Hilly said "Bitch... you'll change it or I'm closing the play," and Don said "Hilly, you're talking to a woman with a baby in her belly," and Hilly said "Cunt, you'll do what I say," and Don said "Hilly, you're talking to my wife. One more word and I'll have to kill you," and Hilly said, "You and what army?" and BAM, he was down, and Don was on top of him.  Paul Bogart, then(but not for much longer) the director came over to the battle and took off Don's glasses, so Hilly's flailing wouldn't hurt Don.  All of it observed by Mel.
    I was in the hospital in New York giving birth when Bogart was fired and Arthur Storch, a mistake, replaced him, and made everybody so nervous with so many arbitrary changes they all went up on their lines opening night.  My obstetrician wanted to go to the opening, so he let me out. I got to the theater in time for the curtain going down and the last laugh, which wasn't there.  So I knew it had been a disaster.  Mel and Annie drove me back to the hospital, and Mel said, "Well, you had two things happen this week.  If one of them had to be less than perfect, if your daughter had been born with six toes and two noses... that would have been okay.  What mattered was the show."  I laughed so hard he saved me
     They visited us a few days later at home, and Annie read the reviews--there were seven newspapers at the time-- out loud.  She spit at them, literally, and said "You're never as good as they say, and never as bad.  My aunt says that's why there's chocolate and vanilla."
   Then they moved to Hollywood, and so did we, and as such things go, we drifted. But the love for them never did, and we rejoiced at Mel's becoming a comic force in films, though we both were somewhat intimidated, as happens in LA when loved friends hit it, which they obviously had, between Annie's great success as Mrs. Robinson, and people really getting Mel.  When Annie, who'd told me how busy she was on her one visit to us in LA, opened in The Little Foxes in New York, I went to a restaurant after I'd seen the play, and ran into Frank Langella, who'd been another fun friend-- they had played clever games in their Village house, where he was best at Dictionary-- and we talked about the play.
    At two o'clock in the morning, the phone rang, and it was Annie, breathing fire.  "You were at the theatre," she said, "and you didn't come backstage!!!"  I tried to explain to her that I thought she was too busy, sent her flowers, a gift.  But she never forgave me.
    After Don died and I moved to San Francisco, and there was an earthquake, my phone rang, and it was Annie.  "I'm calling everyone I know in the Bay Area to make sure they're all right," she said kindly, and then told me she was going to do a play at Lincoln Center.
    "I'll come see it," I said.
    "Good," she said.  "And afterwards YOU CAN COME BACKSTAGE."
    I did, but it was never the same.  Back in LA I met with Mel at Fox on a project of mine, and Annie came to lunch, a surprise guest.  I wrote something for her that she wanted to do, but we couldn't get it going.  Then I saw her in a restaurant with Mel and asked if I could get together with her, and she said "No," and I saw that her teeth were gray.  And after that came the news that she had cancer.  And then she was gone.
     I saw Mel a couple of times after that-- he was always ready with tips and wanted one or two from me.  I didn't see him again until last night.  God, he's funny.
     I know he didn't like getting older.  Some things we talked about in passing underscored that in the show last night.  But I loved it when he said "Look how handsome I was," about himself in an early movie.  
      And he was.  He really was.  But at the time, you couldn't see the forest for the laughs.