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Brooks gives voice to non-sheepish sheep

Veteran comic says role brings him closer to grandchild
/ Source: The Associated Press

No one could ever accuse Mel Brooks of being sheepish. So it makes perfect sense that he’s now playing the least sheepish sheep you’ll ever meet.

Brooks, the madcap creator of “The Producers,” “Young Frankenstein” and the 2000 Year Old Man, gives voice to Wiley the Sheep in “Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks.”

Already on most PBS stations, the animated series aimed at 4- to 7-year-olds premieres Monday on PBS KIDS Digital. (Check local listings.)

Its title character is an 8-year-old pig, who’s friends with Dannan the Duck and Ferny the Bull in 1950s rural Ireland. “Jakers!” is their recurrent exclamation of delight and amazement. Each show begins and ends with Piggley as a present-day grandfather telling his grandchildren about his childhood escapades.

Along the way, he imparts how he learned various lessons — such as there’s no such thing as a “Salmon of Knowledge” that magically gives you all the answers to school tests.

In between, Wiley — an American in Ireland — tries to galvanize his fellow sheep. But the flock he’s stuck with is incorrigibly dumb and lazy.

“It’s a great challenge,” Brooks cracked in a recent interview, “because eventually I realize: I’m working with sheep.”

Brooks decided to do the show because his only grandchild, 5-year-old Samantha, was getting interested in animation a couple years ago and he thought it would be great for her to point to a cartoon character and say, “That’s my grandpa!”

“It brings me closer to Samantha. I like doing things where kids enjoy my work,” said Brooks, who did the voice of Joe Snow in 2002’s “It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie.”

Sheep from BrooklynThe 77-year-old writer-actor-director said he was attracted to “Jakers!” — created by Entara Ltd. in London and Los Angeles-based Mike Young Productions — by the writing, the imaginative stories and the fact that each episode has a moral.

“It’s a great way to teach these kids what’s proper, what’s right in life,” he said. And he hopes the message will stick: “You gain in life by giving and by loving and doing instead of taking.”

(Each episode also has a live-action epilogue with soccer star Cobi Jones discussing that day’s theme with kids.)

The “Jakers!” creators were crystal-clear in how he should approach the role, Brooks said.

“They told me, ‘Wiley is you. He’s a sheep from America, from Brooklyn, and he’s impatient with the lack of talent of the other sheep.’ And I got it. I said, ‘You know, that’s me. That’s Mel Brooks. That’s what I do for a living. I’m like a sheepdog. I nip everybody at the heels. I bark and I yell and I scream — you know, push ’em along and get stuff done.’ I was a natural for this character.”

And he was able to pull from a 60-year-old experience — when he felt like “a sheep out of water” — in playing the part of the only American amidst Irish brogues.

At 17 Brooks looked forward to following his brother to Brooklyn College. But, he added: “There was this thing — oh, yeah: World War II.”

So in 1944 he matriculated in a specialized training program at Virginia Military Institute.

“It was very much like ‘Jakers!’ because everybody was tawkin’ like this,” he says, going into a hint of a Southern drawl, “and they said, ‘Would you like some more pecan pie, Dr Pepper? Things I’d never seen or heard of (being) from Brooklyn.”

Of course, he sounded strange to them, too.

“They would talk to each other and say, ‘What did he say?’ They didn’t really understand me. I’d said, ‘Gedouttadare.’ Or ‘Sad-a-day night.’ ... And they’d say: ‘Is he tawkin’? Is that English?’ They couldn’t figure me out. But they liked me. So that was a good blueprint for my experiences as Wiley — Melvin from Williamsburg in Brooklyn.”