Working With Mel Brooks Redux


This is a repeat/rewrite of a

Mel Brooks

piece I posted about three years ago. It’s a paraphrased excerpt from Circumstances Beyond My Control.
I had retired from theatrical acting but had stayed active in S. A. G. and my commercial agent, Lester Lewis, was still on my case. He sent me up for a Bic pen commercial that was to be directed by Mel Brooks. Having been a devoted fan of Mel since the 1960s this audition was a really big deal for me. I don’t idolize celebrities but I’m as close to that as I ever have been when it comes to Mr. Brooks. Not usually excited about commercial auditions, I just showed up with no expectation, did my best and learned a day or two later whether or not I got the job. This was different. I had practically memorized The 2,000 Year Old Man album and thought that The Producers was the funniest movie ever made. I was exhilarated about this audition and determined to get the gig.

When I arrived at the casting office there were four or five other actors there, all of them muscular and burly. I signed in and asked for a script and was told that the audition would be improvisational. That was cool, I could improvise. Most commercial auditions were for casting directors so when my turn came I was “trilled and delighted” to meet Mr. Brooks himself. He was friendly, funny and immediately put me at ease. He told me he was looking for a caveman and asked me to “do” one and work in the words Bic and banana. I bent over in my best chimpanzee impression, scratched myself, pounded my chest and grunted a few non-words and included bic and banana while glancing over my shoulders for approaching predators.

Mel roared with laughter and asked if I was available the next day to shoot a test for the client. I said I was. He went to the door and called the casting director over and said, “Send everyone home. I have my third caveman”. I was beside myself with elation. I was going to actually work with Mel Brooks. To quote Slim Pickens’ character from Blazing Saddles, “Piss on you. I’m workin’ for Mel Brooks!”

 

Author Ben Bryant as a Mel Brooks Caveman

Author Ben Bryant as a Mel Brooks Caveman

The other two cavemen were Richard Dimitri, who went on to star in Mel’s Robin Hood sit-com, When Things Were Rotten, and a well known Italian-American character actor whose name escapes me.

The next day the three of us, wearing hairy schmattas and under Mel’s zany direction, taped an imitation of the Andrews Sisters for the client who approved the casting.

We shot the spot the following week at the old Filmways stage in East Harlem. I had never had so much fun on a shoot. Saying that Mel was easy to work with would be a gross understatement on every level. He was kind, open to any idea from us actors, completely supportive and, of course, hilarious. We tried all sorts of silly stuff, no two takes were alike and it all worked. He had recorded the voice-over and it was sometimes played back as we did takes, many of which were blown because one or all of us cracked up. We went into overtime both days but nobody seemed to care because the crew, the agency and the clients were all having a great time.

Bic Banana Commercial from Ben Bryant on Vimeo.

The bonus on this job was two days with several hours of overtime and it paid the bills for a couple of months.

For more tales of TV Commercial Production click here and get Circumstances Beyond My Control.

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