Eddie Mair shares a Mel Brooks anecdote

Mel Brooks takes on a TV exec... and wins

Is there a more electrifying moment in the history of cinema than the scene in Network when news anchor Howard Beale demands his viewers get up and yell out of their windows, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more”?


Don’t ask me. For Barry Norman, you need to turn back a few pages.

I can tell you from my less than encyclopaedic knowledge of films, that Network is a spellbinding, often hilarious satire on TV and TV news. Peter Finch won the Oscar, posthumously, for his portrayal of Howard Beale, the TV anchor who threatened to blow his brains out on air… and whose ratings went through the roof.

On holiday last week I read a brilliant book about the film, written by Dave Itzkoff: Mad as Hell. It’s a beautifully researched, well-written piece of work.

It’s full of intimate details, making you feel like you were there when the film was shot. Itzkoff recounts Faye Dunaway’s sex scene anxiety. He knows the view from the office where Paddy Chayefsky wrote the screenplay. And he reveals that while Chayefsky was a stickler for the written word, when shooting the seminal scene, Peter Finch inserted an extra “as” into the original script (which called for him to say: “I’m mad as hell…”) – and got away with it.

So far, so nerdy, I suppose. You’d need to really love the film to buy the book. But there’s another reason I mention it: it has a great Mel Brooks anecdote that I’d like to share with you.

I love Mel Brooks more than a gentile should. Don’t get me started. The beauty of his stated aim of making us all laugh at Adolf Hitler came home to me when I recently watched Downfall, a film about Hitler’s final days in his bunker (by the way, check the alternative ending. Did not see THAT coming).

Every time Nazis in the film said “Heil Hitler” to the Führer, I was reminded of Mel playing Hitler in To Be or Not to Be. Whenever his Nazis said, “Heil Hitler” to him, he would do a mini Nazi salute and say: “Heil myself ”. And so there I was, giggling during Downfall. Thanks Mel.

Anyway, here’s that anecode. Picture it: midtown Manhattan, New York, 1969. The Carnegie Deli. Chayefsky is bemoaning the state of television with producer Howard Gottfried and Mel Brooks. He says TV execs wouldn’t know whether The Threepenny Opera was written by Bertolt Brecht or Hy the plumber. They “probably wouldn’t know that Bertolt Brecht had been dead for years”.

“Leave it to me,” says Brooks, his eyes agleam. “I’ll call one of the networks.” He went to a phone booth, returning minutes later to report back.

He’d called NBC and asked for an executive. “Hello dere,” Brooks had said. “Dis is Berrrrrtolt Brrrrecht. I vaunted to talk about der TV rights to my musical Der Thrrrrrreepenny Operrrra.”

The secretary said she would put him through and placed the phone on the desk, so the sound from the office was still audible to Brooks.

Secretary: “There’s a Bertolt Brecht calling for you. Something about The Threepenny Opera?”

Executive: “What are you talking about? Bertolt Brecht is dead!”

Secretary: “How can Bertolt Brecht be dead? He’s on the phone for you right now!”

Executive: “Oh, well, that’s different – put him on.”

Eddie Mair presents PM, Mon—Sat 5pm, and iPM, Sat 5.45am, both Radio 4