My son Max loved the Star Wars movies. I would take him to various showings of them. And for his tenth birthday, he had a Star Wars–themed birthday party. And boy, did those kids love it! So I thought, Science fiction! Now there’s a genre I haven’t wrecked yet…
I destroyed the Western in Blazing Saddles. I savaged classic horror films in Young Frankenstein. I sent up silent films in Silent Movie, and I had fun with Hitchcock in High Anxiety. Of course, even though I poked fun at all of these genres, in truth I dearly loved them. Cowboy pictures and horror films made my childhood so much more enjoyable. But there were not many genres left for me to satirize, so I eagerly attacked science fiction. There was Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and, reaching back for more fun, the unique and campy director Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. It was a genre rich with opportunities for devastating satire.
I called my trusty writing sidekicks Ronny Graham and Tom Meehan, who had served me so well on To Be or Not to Be. They agreed with me that we could have a ball writing our space spoof Spaceballs—a title I came up with that immediately clicked with both of them.
The first thing that popped into my mind was the familiar opening crawl of every Star Wars movie in which they tell their galactic story. If I was going to do a satire of space movies, I would definitely need to have some fun with that opening crawl. We copied their visual format of a receding scroll of information, but put our own twist on it:
Once upon a time warp…
In a galaxy very, very, very, very far away there lived a ruthless race of beings known as…Spaceballs.
The evil leaders of planet Spaceball, having foolishly squandered their precious atmosphere, have devised a secret plan to take every breath of air from their peace-loving neighbor, Planet Druidia.
Today is Princess Vespa’s wedding day. Unbeknownst to the princess but knownst to us, danger lurks in the stars above…
And then in smaller print we wrote:
If you can read this, you don’t need glasses.
We cut from the crawl to our needlessly enormous, outsized spaceship. The Spaceballs’ super galactic ship is so big it takes nearly two minutes to make its way across the screen (which is almost an eternity in movie time!). Finally, at the tail end we see its bumper sticker, it reads: WE BRAKE FOR NOBODY.
The plot of Spaceballs was inspired by Frank Capra’s 1934 classic It Happened One Night. Frank Capra was a groundbreaking pioneer in filmmaking. He was the first director to get his name above the title of a picture, and together with sharp and witty screenwriter Robert Riskin, they made a formidable creative team. It Happened One Night was the first film to sweep the Oscars, winning all five top categories—Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress. It is the story of a runaway heiress (Claudette Colbert) who escapes her marriage by fleeing on her wedding day from a very, very rich but very, very dull groom and then she subsequently falls in love with an attractive wise-guy commoner (Clark Gable).
We took that same basic plot and shoved it into space! Instead of a Princess Leia we had a Princess Vespa of Planet Druidia. She flees from her wedding to the aptly named Prince Valium and instead she falls for Lone Starr, a good-looking vagabond space bum in the vein of Han Solo. For Princess Vespa we got Daphne Zuniga, who had recently starred in Rob Reiner’s film The Sure Thing.
When I first offered her the role she said, “I don’t know. I haven’t done much comedy.”
I said, “That could be a plus!” And I explained to her that part of good comedy is playing it very seriously.
For Lone Starr, I found another newcomer, Bill Pullman. He had only done one picture before. I had seen him in an Off Broadway play, and he had charm, presence, and I knew he was the right guy for the part. He proved me right and he delivered Lone Starr lock, stock, and barrel.
In place of Han Solo’s co-pilot, Chewbacca, we created a half-man, half-dog character named Barf, who would play Lone Starr’s furry sidekick. He was played by the big, warm, lovable John Candy. We outfitted him with doggy ears and a swishing tail that sometimes had a mind of its own. Twisting an old cliché, we wrote a great line for Barf, “I’m a ‘mawg’—I’m half-man, half-dog . . . I’m my own best friend.”
Instead of a futuristic spacecraft, we decided to put our heroes in a Winnebago RV. Of course, it was decked out with ramjet engines and some space bells and whistles, but in the end, it was a strange but wonderful salute to what you’d see on any highway in America. A good old-fashioned Winnebago!
When the Winnebago crash-lands in the desert, John Candy ad-libbed one of the big laughs in the movie. As he undoes his seatbelt after the crash he quips: “Well, that’s going to leave a mark.”
Lone Starr and Barf had the task of rescuing the runaway princess from the clutches of the Spaceballs, whose monster ship was quickly catching up to her. They reach her in the nick of time and get her aboard their Winnebago.
She imperiously announces herself when she enters their ship:
Princess Vespa: I am Princess Vespa, daughter of Roland, King of the Druids.
Lone Starr: Oh great. That’s all we needed. A Druish princess.
Barf: Funny, she doesn’t look Druish.
Another brilliant casting choice, who happened to be a former co-star of John Candy’s from the great Second City TV series, was the uniquely gifted and hilarious Rick Moranis. Rick played our comic take on the villainous, evil Darth Vader. We called him Dark Helmet, and because Rick was short, we decided to literally encase him in a huge black helmet. The giant helmet is a sight gag that works every time. It was a big, dumb, funny idea. It was the kind of cartoonish joke that worked for adults as well as kids. Rick was hysterically funny in the role. He cost me a lot of money because I ruined so many takes he was in by helplessly breaking into loud laughter. He brilliantly improvised one of his most famous scenes in the movie, the one in which he gets caught playing with little action-figure versions of Lone Starr, Princess Vespa, and himself.
When Colonel Sandurz, played by the ever-reliable George Wyner, breaks into his private sanctum unannounced, Rick screams:
Dark Helmet: Knock on my door! Knock next time!
Colonel Sandurz: Yes, sir!
Dark Helmet: Did you see anything?
Colonel Sandurz: No, sir, I didn’t see you playing with your dolls again!
Dark Helmet: Good!
Speaking of action figures… the same way I called Alfred Hitchcock to get his blessings on High Anxiety, I sent the Spaceballs script to Star Wars creator George Lucas. If not to get his blessing, then certainly to give him a heads-up on what I was doing vis-à-vis Star Wars. He was kind enough to read it and respond.The same way I called Alfred Hitchcock to get his blessings on High Anxiety, I sent the Spaceballs script to Star Wars creator George Lucas.
He said he had seen Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein and was a big fan. He enjoyed the script, and only had one real caveat for me: no action figures. He explained that if I made toys of my Spaceballs characters they would look a lot like Star Wars action figures. And that would be a no-no for his lawyers and his studio’s business affairs department. So he gave his blessing to make my funny satiric takeoff of Star Wars as long as I promised that we would not sell any action figures.
I said, “You’re absolutely right.” And that was one of the rules we didn’t break.
So even though in the movie itself we have Dark Helmet playing with action figures… we never sold any.
The exchange with George Lucas also triggered a beloved comedy scene in which a character that I played, Yogurt, a takeoff on Yoda, responds to Lone Starr’s question of “What is this place? What is it that you do here?” with a whole exposé of the movie business:
Yogurt: Merchandising! Merchandising is where the real money from the movie is made. Spaceballs the T-shirt! Spaceballs the coloring book! Spaceballs the lunchbox! Spaceballs the breakfast cereal! Spaceballs the flame- thrower! (The kids really love that one.)
So even though we didn’t actually do any commercial merchandising, we still had a lot of fun with the scene. And over the years Spaceballs movie fans have sent me more than one mockup of “Spaceballs: The Breakfast Cereal.”
In addition to playing Yogurt (not Yogurt the Mighty, not Yogurt the Magnificent, not Yogurt the All Powerful—but just plain Yogurt), I also play another character: President Skroob. He’s the president of Planet Spaceball. I was trying to spell Brooks backward but missed by a letter. I wanted to make fun of presidents, because presidents were not always the smartest people to lead a country:
President Skroob: Sandurz, Sandurz. You got to help me. I don’t know what to do. I can’t make decisions. I’m a president!
It was a joy to come to the set on Spaceballs. In addition to the fun I had with John Candy and Rick Moranis I got to once again work with my friend Dom DeLuise. Instead of Jabba the Hut, he did the voice for “Pizza the Hut”—a mountainous living pizza complete with bubbling cheese and studded with slices of pepperoni. Also in the scene with Pizza the Hut was my old pal Rudy De Luca, who played a robotic space mobster named Vinnie, who worked for Pizza the Hut and delivered a threat to Lone Starr, telling him to pay up a million space bucks “or else Pizza is gonna send out for you!”
We had another wonderful robot character in Spaceballs, Dot Matrix. She’s the princess’s female version of C-3PO. Professional mime Lorene Yarnell was in the Dot Matrix outfit on set and was terrific. She was a real trooper while encased in her metallic shell when we were shooting on location in Yuma, Arizona, re-creating the desert scene in Star Wars. Sometimes the temperature got up to 110 degrees. But Yarnell came through every time. The problem with shooting in the Yuma desert was that if you do more than one take in sand, you’ve ruined the pristine quality of the sand. It would drive us nuts. We had to get a blower or a sand broom out there to make sure that the sand was ready for the next take.
To voice Dot Matrix, I reached out to the incomparable Joan Rivers. The character acts as kind of a governess to Princess Vespa and safeguards her chastity at all costs. Joan made it so memorable and delivered some of the funniest moments in the movie. I love her delivery when Princess Vespa and Lone Starr are finally about to kiss and suddenly the air is filled with a loud alarm:
Lone Starr: What the hell was that noise?
Dot Matrix: That was my virgin-alarm. It’s programmed to go off before you do!
As a special treat, I got John Hurt to reprise his role from Alien (1979) in which a terrifying creature horrifically bursts out of his chest. We had our own version of the creature once more burst out of John’s chest and he got a great laugh when he said: “Oh no . . . not again!” But I couldn’t stop there, so I had the creature go on to sing and dance “Hello My Baby” complete with waving a straw hat and a cane!
One of the most memorable lines in the movie is Dark Helmet’s order to Colonel Sandurz as they chase after the princess:
Colonel Sandurz: Prepare the ship for light speed. dark helmet: No, no, no, light speed is too slow!
Colonel Sandurz: Light speed, too slow?
Dark Helmet: Yes, we’re gonna have to go right to ludicrous speed.
Even though we invented ludicrous speed, somehow it caught on! Obviously famous Tesla automaker Elon Musk is a fan of Spaceballs. His cars feature a ludicrous mode and he’s even announced that for a future model they’ll be “going to plaid.” Which happens later in Spaceballs when, in a twist on Star Trek’s warp-speed visual effect, the Spaceballs One ship actually goes to “plaid.”Obviously famous Tesla automaker Elon Musk is a fan of Spaceballs.
Another of my favorite running bits in Spaceballs was inspired by Blazing Saddles, in which I had the entire town of Rock Ridge all have the last name Johnson. I did the same thing in Spaceballs, it goes like this:
Dark Helmet: Careful, you idiot! I said across her nose, not up it!
Laser Gunner: [turns to Dark Helmet, revealing he is incredibly cross-eyed] Sorry, sir! I’m doing my best!
Dark Helmet: Who made that man a gunner?
Spaceballs Officer: I did, sir. He’s my cousin.
Dark Helmet: Who is he?
Colonel Sandurz: He’s an asshole, sir.
Dark Helmet: I know that! What’s his name?
Colonel Sandurz: That is his name, sir. Asshole, Major Asshole!
Dark Helmet: And his cousin?
Colonel Sandurz: He’s an asshole too, sir. Gunner’s Mate First Class Philip Asshole!
Dark Helmet: How many assholes do we have on this ship, anyway?
[The entire bridge crew stands up and raises their hands.]
Entire Bridge Crew: Yo!
Dark Helmet: I knew it. I’m surrounded by assholes!
Terry Marsh, my friend and the brilliant production designer who did such a great job on To Be or Not to Be, also did a spectacular job on Spaceballs. In a strange way he brought space down to earth, with exaggerated visual space clichés like the super white vast interiors of the Spaceballs’ ship and the warm, homey-looking inside of the Winnebago. To do his wizardry, Terry took over Studio 15 at MGM. He kept reminding me that this was where they filmed the famous The Wizard of Oz. Sometimes when I was directing, I would imagine seeing Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr all cavorting around the same stage.
Instead of the famous signature line from Star Wars, “May the Force be with you,” Ronny, Tom, and I came up with our own version:
Yogurt: I am the keeper of a greater magic, a power known throughout the universe . . . as the . . .
Barf: The Force?
Yogurt: No, the Schwartz!
Sometimes when people recognize me in a restaurant or just walking down the street, I’ll know they’ve seen Spaceballs because they’ll shout, “Hey, Mel! May the Schwartz be with you!”
(I think the person who enjoyed it most was my lawyer Alan U. Schwartz!)
Spaceballs went on to become one of the biggest hits in the Mel Brooks cinematic universe. I think I’ve autographed more Spaceballs posters than for any other Mel Brooks film. I’ve even gotten some letters from young fans that saw Spaceballs before they saw Star Wars. They would often ask me why Star Wars wasn’t so funny.
Tom Meehan, bless his soul, came up with a classic line near the end of the film. It’s when our heroes say a heartfelt and teary goodbye to Yogurt:
Lone Starr: I wonder, will we ever see each other again?
Yogurt: Who knows? God willing, we’ll all meet again in Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money.
It’s over 30 years later, but I’m still not ruling it out!
From ALL ABOUT ME! by Mel Brooks, published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Mel Brooks.