"Years ago," Mel Brooks begins the story of how he met producer Gil Cates, "I wrote a Broadway show called Shinbone Alley. I was in my 20s, working for Sid Caesar's Show of Shows, and I got this call asking if I wanted to help write this musical. I'd only done one thing for Broadway - a sketch for New Faces of 1952, which I got a nice note afterward from Arthur Miller telling me that I should 'trying writing something longer' - so this was a big opportunity. The play was based on an old newspaper column, "Archy & Mehitabel," about a cockroach and a cat. The cockroach was sort of the cat's advisor, telling him stuff like, 'You shouldn't be hanging out all night, it's not good for you.' Anyway, the show goes up and did OK. And one day I'm taking a nap backstage and this kid, an assistant stage manager, wakes me up. So I shot up and started yelling at him. 'How dare you wake me up! I'll see to it you never work in this business again!' I was kidding, just joking around, but this kid took me seriously. The look of horror on his face!"
All of which is the most circuitous possible way of explaining how, some 60 years later, Brooks, now 90, finds himself a guest of honor at the 15th annual "Backstage at the Geffen" fundraiser for The Geffen Playhouse, the theater that Cates - who eventually got over the gag, became Brooks' friend and went on to a career producing Oscar ceremonies - spent two decades building into a Hollywood institution. "The Geffen is a very important thing in L.A.," Brooks says. "In New York, there's a hundred theaters, but there is a paucity of theaters out here. And the Playhouse is always trying new stuff, giving young playwrights a chance."
Exactly who'll be toasting Brooks (and co-honoree Quincy Jones) is being kept top secret - part of the charm of the event is that attendees never know who is going to turn up onstage (Lady Gaga gave a surprise performance in 2015, when George Lucas, David Furnish, Mellody Hobson and Elton John were honorees). "My father designed it to be the opposite of every other awards show," explains Gil Cates Jr., who took over as the theater's executive director in 2015 (Gil Cates Sr. died in 2011). "So it's more like a dinner party. There's no press allowed. But the talent is incredible. People have looked at the show, at lists of stars performing, and they're like, 'This could be a TV special.'"
The big finish will be Brooks giving the final speech of the night - and there's an excellent chance he'll have a few choice words for a certain New York real estate mogul turned politician. The comedy legend behind The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein has lately been training his wit on "song and dance man" Donald Trump, as Brooks recently referred to the president. "Everybody is calling him Hitler, but he's not a bad or a dangerous man," he tells THR. "I just think he's being used by very dangerous people. I don't even think he wants the job. There's no money in it for him. I don't think he expected to win. You know how he got elected? I think it was the same phenomenon that got Jesse Ventura elected governor. People went into the voting booth and said, 'Let's have fun.' They were being mischievous. It was America having a laugh. But the joke backfired."
The event takes place at the Gil Cates Theater at The Geffen Playhouse on March 19.
This story first appeared in the March 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.