‘I’m Hysterical! I’m Having Hysterics!’: 56 Trivia Tidbits About ‘The Producers’ on Its 56th Anniversary

Mel Brooks originally saw ‘The Producers’ as a novel, then a play, then a film
‘I’m Hysterical! I’m Having Hysterics!’: 56 Trivia Tidbits About ‘The Producers’ on Its 56th Anniversary

“Under the right circumstances, a producer could make more money with a flop than he could with a hit.”

That simple musing, muttered by accountant Leo Bloom while doing the books of down-on-his-luck producer Max Bialystock, would change the pair’s lives forever. That was the premise of The Producers, the tale of two guys trying to put on the worst musical in Broadway history — Springtime for Hitler — so that they could pocket the money from the financiers and move to Rio.

The 1967 film was Mel Brooks’ directorial debut and is still considered by many to be his best work. After nabbing Brooks an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, The Producers became a Tony-winning musical in 2001, followed by a film of the musical in 2005. It also inspired an entire season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which saw Brooks hiring Larry David to star in The Producers on Broadway in a meta-scheme to tank the hit show and finally be free of it.

In honor of the landmark comedy classic’s 56th anniversary, here are 56 tidbits to celebrate the occasion…

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‘A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden’

“It started out in life as just a title,” Brooks has said about the genesis of The Producers. During a 1962 press conference for the musical All American, which Brooks wrote the book for, someone asked him what he was working on next. He joked, “Springtime for Hitler.” But that joke stuck in his head, and the idea for The Producers was born.

‘Darling Bloom, Glorious Bloom’

Leo Bloom is named for Leopold Bloom, the protagonist in the James Joyce novel Ulysses. “I don’t know what it meant to James Joyce,” Brooks has said, “but to me, Leo Bloom always meant a vulnerable Jew with curly hair.”

‘I’m Terribly Sorry I Caught You with the Old Lady’

As for where Bialystock came from, “Somewhere in the back of my head, I knew there was a good story in the adventures of this producer that I was working for when I was 16 years old,” Brooks said in the film’s “Making of” DVD extra. That producer was Benjamin Kutcher, and much like Max Bialystock, he would have sex with little old ladies to raise money for his theatrical productions.

‘There Is a Lot More to Me Than There Is to Me’

Brooks has said the characters are also based on himself: “Max and Leo are me, the ego and id of my personality. Bialystock — tough, scheming, full of ideas, bluster, ambition, wounded pride. And Leo, this magical child.”

‘Do the Books! Do the Books!’

Brooks first thought of The Producers as a novel, then a play, before deciding it was a film.

‘Get on the Phone. Send Out a Casting Call. Call Every Agent in Town. I Want to See Everybody. Everybody!’

Brooks was aided in writing the script by TV writer Alfa-Betty Olsen, who worked as his secretary and would also cast The Producers.

‘Please. Please Make Audition. Make Audition All Over the Office’

The screenplay was written in the office of Broadway producer Lore Noto, who produced The Fantasticks! Olsen and Brooks would meet there and write, with casting also being done in the same office.

‘I Want to Be a Producer’

“Everything was kind of makeshift,” Olsen said about working with Brooks during that period. “It was just so evident that Mel wanted it very much. You could feel him reaching for the brass ring. Writing The Producers was Mel creating himself; he wanted to declare himself on the world.”

‘Ah, Rio, Rio by the Seao, Meo, Myo, Meo’

Some of the script was also written on Fire Island at Brooks and his wife Anne Bancroft’s beach house.

‘I’m Leo Bloom. I’m an Accountant. I’m from Whitehall and Marks’

Brooks met Gene Wilder backstage at a play featuring Wilder and Bancroft. Brooks told him about a screenplay he was writing called Springtime for Hitler and invited Wilder out to Fire Island for a weekend with him and Bancroft. While there, Brooks read him the first 30 pages of what would become The Producers and offered him the part of Leo Bloom before the script was even finished. It became Wilder’s breakout role.

‘It’s Practically a Love Letter to Hitler!’

In Vanity Fair’s comprehensive 2004 history of The Producers, Sam Kashner wrote, “It took six years to bring the concept to the screen. Once Brooks had started to make the rounds with his 30-page treatment, he quickly found that all the major studio heads recoiled at the idea of Hitler as a comic figure. It was just too tasteless, too outrageous. So Brooks tried independent producers and found much the same reaction, until a friend set up a meeting at a coffee shop in Manhattan with an independent producer named Sidney Glazier.”

‘He’s Gonna Be a Producer’

Assistant director Michael Hertzberg has said, “Sidney Glazier was larger than life. Sidney was just loud and big. He had a huge, huge heart — gigantic. So who took a risk on this crazy man with this crazy thing — Springtime for Hitler? If it wasn’t for Sidney, there would be no Producers, there would be no Broadway show, there would be no nothing.”

‘I Never in a Million Years Thought I’d Ever Love a Show Called ‘Springtime For Hitler’’

Brooks first met Glazier at a coffee shop, where he performed all the parts in his 30-page treatment. Glazier began choking with laughter and declared, “We’re gonna make it! I don’t know how, but we’re gonna make this movie!”

‘It’s the Inner Hitler We’re After. The Young Beautiful Hitler, Who Danced His Way to Glory’

When they took the script to Universal, they suggested swapping Hitler for Mussolini instead. “Make it MussoliniSpringtime for Mussolini. Mussolini’s nicer,” said studio head Lew Wasserman. Brooks and Glazier refused and kept shopping it around.

‘That’s a Funny Name for a Play’

After struggling to find people to make Springtime for Hitler, Brooks and Glazier convinced Joseph E. Levine to finance the film. However, Brooks did have to compromise on the film’s title, as theater companies refused to have “Hitler” on their marquee. That’s how Springtime for Hitler became The Producers.

‘Step Two, We Hire the Worst Director in Town’

Levine believed in the project but was unsure about allowing the unproven Brooks to direct. Brooks agreed to direct a commercial for Frito-Lay starring Wilder and with Olsen as the casting director. After that, Levine changed his tune.

‘I Want That Money!’

Once Levine agreed to put up the other half of the money, Brooks was given 40 days to make the film on a budget of $941,000, “and we couldn’t go a penny over,” said Brooks.

‘That Slimy, Sleazy Max Bialystock!’

Brooks always saw multiple Tony winner Zero Mostel for the part of Max Bialystock, but Mostel was originally uninterested. As Vanity Fair explained, “He didn’t want to follow up his role as the beloved Tevye (from Fiddler on the Roof) by playing ‘a Jewish producer going to bed with old women on the brink of the grave.’” Fortunately, Mostel’s wife convinced him otherwise.

‘The King of Broadway!’

Of working with the notoriously difficult Mostel, Brooks has said, “Zero Mostel was heaven and hell. When in a good mood, he was cooperative. He was ebullient, sweet, creative, and impossible. It was like working in the middle of a thunderstorm.”

‘Give Me Those Books You Fat Walrus!’

When Brooks and Mostel would feud on set, Brooks would ask, “Is that fat pig ready yet?” Meanwhile, Mostel would contest, “The director? What director? There’s a director here?”

‘We Find the Defendants Incredibly Guilty’

Mostel was especially difficult to work with during the courtroom scene. However, Hertzberg revealed he later figured out that it was because of Mostel’s experience being blacklisted from Hollywood during the Red Scare.

‘You’re Not, As You Americans Say, Dragging My Leg, Are You?’

A year before filming The ProducersMostel was hit by a bus and had chronic knee pain throughout much of the production.

‘Oh, Max, Max, I Love You Max’

Regarding Mostel’s performance, Olsen said, “Film was not his medium. He didn’t have a clue. But what he did on The Producers was quite nice; it was always the lowest take, the take with the least volume, the most human take, that was chosen.”

‘Goodbye Forever, Bloom’

While Wilder had been promised the part of Leo Bloom, a young Dustin Hoffman was also considered for the role. Hoffman dropped out of the running when The Graduate came up.

‘Say Goodbye to Petty Clerk’

The Pink Panther and Dr. Strangelove actor Peter Sellers was also looked at for Bloom. He even accepted the part, but he never got back to Brooks, which led to the role going to Wilder.

‘Don’t Worry. I’ll Kiss It and Make It Well’

Despite having Brooks’ approval, Wilder had to audition for Mostel, who was allowed refusal of co-stars. In an interview with NPR, Wilder recalled the experience: “I went to the office on a Thursday or Friday morning and knocked on the door, and Mel opened it. I saw Zero Mostel in the background. And he said, ‘Come on in, come on in. Gene, this is Z. Z, this is Gene.’ And I put out my hand to shake hands with him, and he took my hand. And he pulled me up to his face, and he gave me a kiss on the lips. All my nervousness went out the window. And I think he must have done it on purpose because he understood actors and how I would naturally be a little nervous doing this. And I gave a very good reading, and then I got the part.”

‘You Know Who I Used to Be?’

Wilder also credited Mostel with helping him grow as an actor. “I was a very shy person in those days, and working with Zero, who was bigger than life, helped me grow,” explained Wilder. “Zero was a strong influence on me. We’d have lunch together — a sandwich and a cup of soup — and he would talk to me about the days of the blacklisting and everything he went through. And they ruined his life for a while.”

‘Hysterics Have a Way of Severely Depleting One’s Blood Sugar’

At a TCM festival for the film’s 50th anniversary, Brooks recalled filming the blue blanket scene with Wilder: “It was five’ o clock, and I said to Gene, ‘We’re gonna do the blue blanket scene.’ And he said, ‘But I’m not ready now. I need time. I’m tired. It’s the end of the day. I’ve got to have energy, and I don’t have it.’ ‘Well, what gives you energy?’ ‘Chocolate.’ So I ran out, and I bought Hershey bars and made him eat two.”

‘If You Got It, Flaunt It’

At the same event, Brooks recalled an effort for him to recast Wilder with someone better looking. “Joe Levine, after seeing one week of dailies, said, ‘I’ll give you another $50,000 to find an actor who’s better looking.’ He didn’t get it,” Brooks said.

‘We Are Seeking Mr. Franz Liebkind’

Kenneth Mars, who played Springtime for Hitler playwright Franz Liebkind, was originally considered for the role of its director, Roger DeBris, but Mars argued for, and eventually got, Liebkind.

‘He Keeps Birds. Dirty, Disgusting, Filthy, Lice-Ridden Birds’

It was Mars’ idea to put bird droppings on Liebkind’s helmet (as Liebkind cared for pigeons). Brooks, ever the micromanager, resisted at first but finally agreed. They even argued over how many spots would be on the helmet before eventually settling on four.

‘The Fuhrer — Here Was a Painter!’

Brooks didn’t like it when his actors improvised lines, but one of Mars’ made it through: “Churchill and his rotten paintings. The Fuhrer — here was a painter! He could paint an entire apartment in von afternoon — two coats!”

‘He’s Wearing a German Helmet’

“For the eight weeks of shooting, Mars lived in his costume — stained suspenders; ratty, military-issue woolen underwear; a Nazi helmet,” Vanity Fair reported.

‘Ulla Dance?’

When Lee Meredith was cast as Ulla, Brooks told her she’d have to lose 10 pounds. “I lost 12 pounds. I was petrified,” she said years later.

‘A Receptionist That Can’t Speak English. What Will People Say?’

To prepare for her audition, Meredith checked out a book on Swedish accents from the library the night before her audition.

‘Don’t Be Stupid, Be a Smarty’

Brooks has an audio-only cameo in the film. He dubbed in the line, “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty. Come and join the Nazi Party” during the Springtime for Hitler opening number.

‘Tonight, New York. Tomorrow, the World!’

Much of the movie was shot at the production center studio at 221 West 26th Street.

‘What Can We Do, Blow Up the Theatre?’

The now demolished Playhouse Theatre on West 48th Street was where they shot the Springtime for Hitler scenes. 

‘Step Four: We Open on Broadway, and Before You Can Say ‘Step Five,’ We Close on Broadway’

On November 22, 1967, The Producers had a limited opening in suburban Philadelphia. It bombed. “I could have opened a Regal Shoe Store and drawn a bigger crowd,” said Brooks.

‘Where Did I Go Right?’

The Producers had a weak opening along with mixed reviews but got a giant boost from one-time Leo Bloom contender Peter Sellers. After seeing the film, Sellers took out full-page ads in the trades, calling it “a phenomenon that occurs only once in a life span.” 

‘You Have Exactly 10 Seconds to Change That Disgusting Look of Pity into One of Enormous Respect’

Again, Brooks won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for The Producers in 1969. It was his second Oscar, the first being for a short cartoon film called The Critic in 1964. 

‘Don’t Pay Attention. He’s Crazy’

“I didn’t think I’d win the Academy Award,” Brooks said. “When Frank Sinatra called my name, I yelled from the audience, ‘Take another look at the paper!’ He looked at me like I was crazy, and I didn’t prepare a speech.”

‘May I Take Your Hat, Your Coat and Your Swastikas?’

Despite its success, some Jewish organizations were infuriated by the film’s subject matter. As Brooks explained in 1968, “You really couldn’t blame them. People actually had relatives in the Holocaust.” Decades later, another audience member got angry when The Producers hit Broadway. When he saw Brooks, he said, “How dare you! I was in World War II.” Brooks replied, “So was I. I didn’t see you there.”

‘That’s Exactly Why We Want to Do This Play — To Show the World the True Hitler, the Hitler You Knew, the Hitler You Loved, the Hitler with a Song in His Heart’

As to why he finds Hitler ripe for comedy, Brooks has explained, “It is impossible to take revenge for six million murdered Jews. But by using the medium of comedy, we can try to rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths.”

‘Dare I Say It? Frivolous Musicals’

The idea for a musical version originated from producer David Geffen, who had previously done Dreamgirls. Geffen called Brooks and suggested adapting The Producers for Broadway. 

‘Bloom, You Know What You Are?’

In a 2001 interview, Matthew Broderick, who was cast as Leo Bloom on Broadway, said Wilder had always been one of his favorite actors.

‘Look at Me Now! I’m Wearing a Cardboard Belt!’

In the same interview, Nathan Lane, the new Max Bialystock, said he found Mostel inspirational because, when he watched his performance, “I didn’t know you could do that on film, you could be that big and get away with it.”

‘Think of the Tony!’

The Producers was nominated for 15 Tonys in 2001, winning 12 of them, including Best Musical. The lost awards resulted from several of the show’s actors being nominated in the same category, including Lane and Broderick for Best Actor. (Lane won.)

‘Stick Your Chest Out, Shake Your Tush’

Susan Stroman, the musical’s director, said that Ulla needed to be updated because the original Ulla was “a cartoon.” She explained, “We had to have a blonde bombshell who is acceptable to a modern audience. We had to make Ulla a more real character and not portray her as dumb.”

‘Ulla Dance Again’

When Cady Huffman was cast as Ulla on Broadway, Brooks told her, “Don’t gain an ounce. Not an ounce!”

‘We Have an Appointment with Renowned Theatrical Director Roger DeBris’

Susan Stroman returned to direct the 2005 film, which brought the musical version to the big screen. 

‘What You Say Is ‘Break a Leg’’

Mirroring Mostel’s knee issues during The Producers, Lane needed knee surgery just before he shot the 2005 film.

‘I’m Back! I’m Back’

As in the original film, Brooks had an audio-only cameo with (once more) the line, “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty. Come and join the Nazi Party.” 

‘It’s the Worst Show in Town’

Unlike the original or musical, the 2005 adaptation wasn’t a success, with many feeling that it was too stagey and better suited to the theater than film.

‘He’s So Crazy, He’s So Sloppy, He’s So... So... American!’

In 2016, Lane and Broderick reprised the roles of Bialystock and Bloom for a sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live! where they were Donald Trump’s campaign managers.

Bialystock Is Back

On October 12, 2023, the opening night of the current production of Gutenberg! The Musical! Lane made a surprise cameo appearance as Max Bialystock. Whether this will lead to a revival of The Producers on Broadway remains to be seen.

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