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Mel Brooks has been entertaining audiences for more than five decades. A master writer, actor, comedian and producer, he came from humble beginnings in Brooklyn to become one of the most celebrated comedic minds of our time.
His signature hit might be The Producers, a 1968 comedy he later adapted into a stage musical — which he then eventually adapted back into a movie. But there's much more on his resume; in fact his ingenuity and flexibility have made him one of the few people who've won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony and a Grammy.
Now, die-hard fans and the uninitiated alike can survey his career via a multimedia box set — The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection Of Unhinged Comedy — featuring little-known scenes, interviews and a CD featuring his songs and comedy clips.
Brooks talks with NPR's Renee Montagne about getting started in showbiz, writing Catskills comedy, and the mix of "very good and very bad things" selected for the set.
On his introduction to show business
"I was working for the Abilene Blouse and Dress Co., and my dream was to one day become a salesman. Everybody in my building, 365 South Third Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, aimed at some position: salesman, maybe a cutter, maybe a pattern maker, something in the garment center. I mean, we all aimed for Seventh Avenue. We never thought we gonna go by or past Seventh Avenue.
"But my Uncle Joe changed all that. If a cab came down the street without a driver, that was Uncle Joe because he was very short. And no matter how many telephone books he sat on, you still couldn't see him. Joe was a good-natured cab driver, and all the Brooklyn [theater] doormen on Broadway, he would collect at 1 in the morning or so and take them back to Williamsburg, wherever they lived.
"In return, they would give Joe tickets to Broadway shows that they were the doormen of. And Cole Porter had just opened his show — I think it was 1931 — and it was called Anything Goes, which is just currently playing [again]. So Joe got two tickets, and I sat up in the last balcony, and there was Ethel Merman, just really bawling it out and she was incredible. ... All my dreams about being a salesman in the garment center went — just replaced them with new dreams."
On whether he thinks there's ever been a time where he's gone too far
"Honestly, on a few things I think I was in bad taste. Maybe in Blazing Saddles. But I don't mind it. ... The whole movie's in bad taste. But I like bad taste."
On the collection and his favorite moment
"I do a song with Ronny Graham called 'Retreat.' That may be the best moment. About a cowardly general during the Napoleonic wars: 'Retreat. Retreat. Drop your sword and run. The foe is near, our chance is clear. Get out of here, hooray for fear, we're done! Run away. Run away. If you run away you'll live to run away another day.'
"And that song goes on. It's really — I'm very proud of that. There's a lot of stuff! I mean, it's just full of stuff. If you're a tasteless fool, then you'll adore this box set.
"If I were you, I'd bargain. It's a little too expensive now. I'd go to a store, like a Barnes & Noble — I would go to the store and say, 'Can you do a little better? ... I mean, it's $89, can you give it to me for $79?' "