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‘Sean wanted to star in drag but Mel knew he’d steal the show so he kiboshed it’: Script-writer jD Shapiro on the greatest cameo that never was

Sean Connery on the set of Zardoz in 1974.
Sean Connery on the set of Zardoz in 1974.

It was the most surreal lunch of jD Shapiro’s life and should have led to the greatest cameo role in movie history.

The first-time screenwriter was already in dreamland after selling his movie script for Robin Hood: Men In Tights, with Mel Brooks, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind Young Frankenstein and The Producers, directing it.

Then Sean Connery walked in the room and made jD an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“It was during pre-production, and Mel and I were discussing the film over lunch at the Fox Commissary, when I heard someone say hello. I looked up and it was Sean Connery. He sat down with us, and after he and Mel talked for a while, I said to him, ‘Why don’t you be in our movie?’

“And he said, ‘Well, you know boy, I played Robin Hood’. He seemed impressed when I told him I’d seen Robin And Marian.

“I said he should ride in at the end of our movie as King Richard. He lifted his eyebrow and gave me that James Bond look and said, ‘Why don’t I ride in as Queen Richard?’

“I asked him to repeat himself, and that prompted him to get up and do a whole bit. He explained he would ride in on side saddle, wearing a long evening gown, tiara and earrings, and he would slide off his horse and walk around effeminately, thanking Robin for saving his queendom.

“When he returned to his seat, I asked him if he was serious and he said, ‘Yeah, it’ll be a gas’. We sent the script to his agents, and a few days later they called and said he would do it if the character was renamed Queen Richard and if we paid him £1 million for a day’s work, which the studio agreed to pay.

“But if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know he’s not in it.”

Mel Brooks © David Fisher/Shutterstock
Mel Brooks

Connery had made a cameo as King Richard in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, the film Men In Tights was spoofing, a year earlier, so jD knew how big this could be for his first movie.

“After lunch, we went back to Mel’s office and Anne Bancroft, his wife, was there. Mel told her who we ate with and she started gushing like a schoolgirl. Mel has a fragile ego and I saw him getting angrier and angrier.

“I told him we didn’t need to mention Sean Connery in the marketing and it would be a surprise for the audience, who would think it was amazing. I think he felt people would talk about Connery rather than him, and that was the nail in the coffin.

“If I’d only told him that people would think he was amazing for getting Sean into a dress, my life would have been very different. A few years later, I met Sir Sean at a Billy Connolly show in LA and told him what happened.”

jD Shapiro © Steve Ullathorne
jD Shapiro

jD has sold more than a dozen screenplays to Hollywood studios. Star Wars creator George Lucas invited him to the Skywalker Ranch to screen one of those films, We Married Margo, and it was at a promotional event for that film where he first met Robin Williams, who would have a huge influence on jD’s life.

“We bumped into each other in the hotel lobby, and he made a joke and I made a joke and we were going back and forth for maybe 10 or 15 minutes, and I realised a crowd had gathered,” jD recalled with a smile. “He hugged me and asked how long I’d been doing stand-up, and I said I didn’t do stand-up.

“He took me aside and asked why not, and I told him I suffered from anxiety. He told me I had a gift and needed to share it. Every so often, I’d bump into him and he would ask if I was performing yet and I’d say no.

“Eventually I gave it a go and started doing the famous Mitzi’s Comedy Store. One night, Robin dropped in to do a set. He saw me afterwards and asked, ‘Audience or performing?’ Performing, I said, and he gave me a big, sweaty hug. It’s a moment I cherish.”

jD brought his stand-up show to the Edinburgh Fringe last year. It was the first time he had visited Scotland and it proved to be a worthwhile trip. He signed with a London agency, sold a movie to National Lampoon which he’ll direct next year, and met his girlfriend. So it’s no surprise he’s returning this year with a new show recounting his extraordinary life.

“I’m out of my comfort zone because I’m shy and don’t like talking about myself,” he said.

“A lot of the show is about growing up very poor with my mom and three sisters in a lower-class neighbourhood. Whenever I was bad, I would be sent to live with my dad, who lived in an area of New York called Hell’s Kitchen when it was considered one of the worst places in the US.

“The area was run by an Irish gang called the Westies. One day I was walking down Eighth Avenue and a Westie stepped in front of me and asked me if I was Italian. They hated the Italians. I told him I wasn’t, so he invited me for a drink.

“I told him I was 11 years old. ‘That’s OK,’ he said. ‘We own all the bars around here.’ So we went into a bar and he asked me what I wanted to drink and I said whatever he was having, so there I am with a beer and a shot of whisky.

“Then he asked to see my knife, and he got annoyed I didn’t have one. ‘What would you have done if we got into a knife fight?’ he asked.”

jD said he would have shot him, which the mobster thought was funny, and the youngster was taken under the wing of the crime clan.

“One day, when I was 15 or 16, I went into the bar and heard that one of them had been talking to the cops. They pulled out a knapsack with the guy’s head inside it and rolled it along the bar, doing drinks to it.”

jD saved enough money to buy a beat-up car and drove west to California with $100 in his pocket to begin his dream of breaking Hollywood.

He added: “I’ve had a very strange life and it only got stranger from there, but I’m enjoying the journey.”

jD Shapiro: If It Ain’t Woke… Don’t Fix It – Stories From The Hood To Hollywood, Just The Tonic @ The Caves – Attic, Edinburgh, August 3-27, 5.20pm