Gene Wilder Accidentally Roped Mel Brooks Into Directing Young Frankenstein

Which is Mel Brooks's best movie: "Blazing Saddles" or "Young Frankenstein?" "Blazing Saddles" has social relevancy, fart jokes, and a truly bonkers final act. But "Young Frankenstein" has neighing horses, rolling in the hay, "Putting on the Ritz," and the most excruciating meal of soup in the history of cinema. Every scene in "Young Frankenstein" is gangbusters, and every lowbrow gag sings. The movie even looks pretty good, emulating the expressionist appeal of James Whale's original "Frankenstein" films. Brooks went on to make many more features, including "Spaceballs," but, for me, none live up to the simple pleasures of "Young Frankenstein."

There's one small catch though, which is that "Young Frankenstein" didn't actually begin with Brooks. The seed of the film was planted by none other than the actor Gene Wilder. Brooks had earlier invited Wilder to star in "The Producers," where he played the aspiring producer, Leo Bloom. This time, however, it was Wilder who pitched his vision of "Young Frankenstein" to Hollywood and Brooks who was brought along for the ride.

As crazy as any Frankenstein

Gene Wilder has given different accounts as to how he stumbled on the idea, though he's been consistent in saying he began writing "Young Frankenstein" in a small apartment on Long Island. In a 2013 interview at the 92nd Street Y in New York, he said that he was watching television at the time, although he didn't know if he was "seeing one of the 'Frankenstein' pictures or not." He wrote two pages with the intention of giving Frankenstein a happy ending — something he never had in the original film. In 2016's "Young Frankenstein: The Story of the Making of the Film," written by Mel Brooks and Rebecca Keegan, Wilder describes imagining himself as an "heir to Beaufort von Frankenstein's whole estate in Transylvania" while writing the treatment. The idea of a modern Frankenstein, who is both repulsed and attracted by his grandfather's reputation, became key to the final movie.

In that same book, Brooks claims that he learned about "Young Frankenstein" on the set of "Blazing Saddles." Wilder was writing down ideas on a yellow legal pad — a practice he would continue all through production — and Brooks noticed that the words "Young Frankenstein" written at the top. The director asked Wilder what they meant. 

"I have this idea for a movie about Baron Frankenstein's grandson," Wilder said. "Even though he is clinically a scientist, he is as crazy as any Frankenstein." Brooks decided right then and there to assist Wilder in making the film. It's a nice story, especially Brooks' detail that Wilder offered the $56 in his pocket as a down payment. The full story, though, was more complicated.

Three stooges

Gene Wilder's agent at the time was Mike Medavoy. According to the 92nd Street Y interview, Medavoy called up Wilder one day and asked if he would like to do a film with Marty Feldman and Peter Boyle. Feldman had worked alongside John Cleese and Graham Chapman on the sketch series, "At Last the 1948 Show," and had won BAFTA awards for his eponymous series, "Marty," with his collaborator Peter Took. Boyle was best known for starring in the controversial "Joe," as well as working alongside Robert Redford in "The Candidate." According to "Young Frankenstein: The Story of the Making of the Film," Medavoy thought that a film like "The Three Stooges" would be a great fit for their talents. Wilder, Feldman, and Boyle each had distinctive physicality and screen presence. Put them in a movie together, Medavoy thought, and you would have a winner.

Of course, Wilder had "Young Frankenstein" in mind. He wrote up the Transylvania station sequence and sent it off to Medavoy. "Oh good," Medavoy said, "and we can get Mel Brooks to direct it!" Wilder was unsure at first. As he says in the 92nd Street Y interview, he remembers telling Medavoy that "[Brooks] won't direct something he didn't think of." Wilder tells a similar story in "Young Frankenstein: The Story of the Making of the Film." But something changed during the production of "Blazing Saddles" — Brooks owed Wilder a favor for replacing Gig Young in the role of the Waco Kid, and producer Michael Gruskoff spoke with Brooks in Los Angeles during the production of "Blazing Saddles" about funding "Young Frankenstein."

Nothing you don't want to get into

As Gene Wilder recalls, according to the 92nd Street Y interview, he received a call from Mel Brooks the day after he spoke to Medavoy over the phone. "What are you getting me into?" Wilder recalls Brooks asking. "Nothing that you don't want to get into," Wilder said. Whether through friendship, luck, or behind-the-scenes intervention, Brooks and Wilder collaborated on "Young Frankenstein." There were moments of friction, of course — Brooks and Wilder famously fought long and hard about whether to include the famous "Putting on the Ritz" scene. Wilder argued so passionately for it, however, that Brooks decided to keep it in. The scene is a highlight of the film and a mark of Wilder's authorship.

Of course, each member of the cast brought something special to "Young Frankenstein," as "Young Frankenstein: The Story of the Making of the Film" attests. Martin Feldman's comic timing, and his willingness to make his fellow actors wait for the punchline transformed the movie. Peter Boyle gave Frankenstein's monster a sense of dignity, even when a blind man was pouring boiling hot soup on his crotch. Madeline Khan decided that her character, Frankenstein's fiancee, Elizabeth, would sing "Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life" when seeing the monster's enormous private parts for the first time. We should not forget that the seed of "Young Frankenstein" came from Wilder. But that seed was watered by every member of the cast and crew. Their efforts brought forth one of the funniest comedies of all time.