A Brief History of Mel Brooks, David Lynch and ‘The Elephant Man’

'The Elephant Man' is one of David Lynch's best movies. Did you know that Mel Brooks was the one who hired him to direct it?
The Elephant Man

Brief History is a column that tells you all you need to know about your favorite — and not-so-favorite — pop culture topics. This entry tells the story of how Mel Brooks hired David Lynch to direct The Elephant Man. 

His shirt was buttoned — always buttoned — at the top. His look was “kind of weird.” The man didn’t wear a tie. He said “a lot of ‘R’s, like a Midwestern kid.” He looked just like a young Charles Lindbergh. “I said to him, ‘You’re hired.’ I hired him right there.”

That is how Mel Brooks remembers meeting David Lynch before hiring him to direct The Elephant Man. It’s one of those dissimilar duos that might cause one to do a double-take, or, as Brooks himself once put it: “How does a guy who is known for the best fart jokes in cinema go on to make The Elephant Man?” But if you really think about it for a moment, art is art, and it is not so crazy that one great filmmaker would be able to so easily recognize the genius of another.

How did this meeting happen? How did the guy behind Blazing Saddles and Spaceballs end up producing a serious, black-and-white historical drama about the life of a severely deformed man (played by John Hurt) set in 19th-century London? Here is a brief history of Mel Brooks, David Lynch, and The Elephant Man: 

An Odd Little Picture Called Eraserhead

The script for The Elephant Man was first brought to Mel Brooks by Jonathan Sanger, who at that time was working as the first assistant director on High Anxiety, Brooks’ brilliant Alfred Hitchcock parody. Despite its different style and tone, Brooks felt immediately drawn to The Elephant Man and decided to make it with his production company, Brooksfilms

“My films, even if they’re comic, they’re about: ‘Let’s accept the bizarre. Let’s learn more about these creatures — or these Jews,’” Brooks told The Guardian in 2008. “I know the Elephant Man wasn’t Jewish, but to me, the story had all the aspects of anti-semitism, and [Joseph] Merrick had all the traits of the classic wandering Jew.”

Sanger and Brooks were moved by the film and believed it should be funded by an entity beyond the giants of the Hollywood system. “We quickly make judgments about people, often by what we see, without understanding what really goes behind it,” he told the British newspaper the last year. “I think a good part of the movie’s strength is that you’re getting to understand the thing that you’re frightened of because of its appearance. What you think of as horrific becomes beautiful.”

As they set out to find a director for the film, a producer friend of Brooks’ suggested he see “an odd little picture called Eraserhead,” which was David Lynch’s debut feature. Lynch later said that he did not want Brooks to see the film as he was “afraid that if Mel Brooks saw Eraserhead, [he] would never get the job directing The Elephant Man.

But, of course, Brooks loved it and agreed to meet with Lynch.

Burgers and Bancroft

The two met in the Valley at a Bob’s Big Boy restaurant, where according to Brooks, they were served hamburgers and malt shakes. It was there that Brooks was so impressed with Lynch that he hired him on the spot to direct The Elephant Man.

“All I had done was Eraserhead,”  Lynch later remembered. “Unbelievable that Mel Brooks loved Eraserhead! And he backed me in ways you can’t imagine.”

The Elephant Man was filmed in London, where Brooks was on set every day. It was October 1979, it was cold, and Lynch didn’t have a winter coat. “So I bought him a nice blue overcoat that he wore every day,” Brooks told The Guardian.

But the cold wasn’t the most pressing issue. “He moaned about not having Bob’s Big Boy burgers,” Brooks said. “He’s very obsessive-compulsive that way. But, you know, he did find a burger joint in London, and he ate there every day, too.”

If the project was not already personal enough for Brooks, the cast also included the brilliant Anne Bancroft, who was married to Brooks. “She was so good in that film,” Brooks told The Guardian when asked about her performance. “She had already won the Oscar for The Miracle Worker, and she was the producer’s wife, so, no, she didn’t have to audition. Are you crazy?”

Defending Against Raging Primitives

If all producers were like Mel Brooks, Hollywood might be a very different place.

After The Elephant Man was finished, Brooks and Lynch screened it for the film’s distributor, Paramount Pictures. The story goes that the studio wanted to cut “the more surreal sequences.” Brooks had none of that. “We screened the film for you to bring you up to date as to the status of that venture,” he responded. “Do not misconstrue this as our soliciting the input of raging primitives.”

A mic drop moment if there ever was one.

“People wanted to change this, do this, give me all kinds of hell,” Lynch later said. “Never would Mel let it happen. Protected me all the way.”

And just when you thought it was impossible to love Mel Brooks even more: not only did he defend Lynch’s masterpiece, but he even declined to take a production credit so that audiences would not mistake the film for a comedy. Pure class.

The Elephant Man would go on to be nominated for eight Academy Awards and win zero. But its impact on Lynch’s career — and thus cinema itself — was here to stay.

“Mel Brooks took a chance on me,” Lynch said years later. “It put me on the map.”

Will DiGravio: Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.