Burton Gilliam celebrates 40 years of ‘Blazing Saddles’

Posted Tuesday, May. 27, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

Blazing Saddles

• 4 and 7 p.m. Thursday

• B&B Wylie 12

711 Woodbridge Parkway, Wylie

• $5

• 972-412-9999;


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Burton Gilliam, a Dallas-based character actor, has more than 50 films on his résumé.

But he doesn’t need a moment’s thought to single out his favorite. For him, it’s Blazing Saddles. There can be no other.

The ribald Western movie farce, directed by the great Mel Brooks, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

Still as politically incorrect as ever, the movie has been honored by the Library of Congress and the American Film Institute as one of the classic comedies of all time.

It’s certainly Gilliam’s biggest claim to pop-culture fame. He played an eternally grinning cowboy named Lyle, sidekick to Slim Pickens’ Taggart.

Lyle was the dimwitted bigot who, in the opening scene, demonstrated to black railroad workers how to really cut loose when singing a minstrel-style work song.

Later in the film, he was the first of many flatulent cowpokes to break wind in an unforgettable campfire scene.

Fans still recognize Gilliam from that role. They tell him that Blazing Saddles is a happy memory for them.

“I never get tired of hearing that, because it’s a happy memory for me, too,” says Gilliam, 75. “I was a fireman in Dallas. When Mel Brooks hired me, I quit the fire department and went straight to Hollywood. It was like, bang, one life stops and another life starts.

“I can’t thank Mel Brooks enough for believing in me the way he did. He changed my life for the better. I would be an unfulfilled retired fireman today without him. Outside of personal things like children and family, it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”

On Thursday, the actor will be on site when Blazing Saddles plays once again on the big screen. B&B Theatres Wylie is screening the movie at 4 and 7 p.m. Gilliam will participate in a Q&A after the 7 p.m. showing and will stick around to sign autographs.

“A full movie house is really the only way to see it,” Gilliam says. “Now, 99 percent of the time, you’re going to see it on TV or something and, sure, it’s funny. But there’s no substitute for seeing it in a jam-packed theater, because the laughter becomes contagious. The more people there are, it just goes crazy.”

Blazing Saddles starred Cleavon Little as Bart, a black sheriff in a racist frontier town, and co-starred such Brooks favorites as Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman and Madeline Kahn (who got an Oscar nomination).

Gilliam says he had no clue while making the movie that it would be a box-office hit when released in February 1974, so it’s absolutely mind-boggling that it has endured as a fan favorite for four decades.

“But I’m not the only one who’s surprised,” he says. “Mel Brooks is surprised too. It could have gone the way of Robin Hood: Men in Tights [another Brooks movie, one with lesser staying power].”

It could have, but it didn’t — in large part because in addition to hysterically funny material, the movie also is timelessly relevant thanks to its messages about racism and bigotry.

“There’s a great underlying current that I think over the years people have gotten,” Gilliam says. “Everyone recognizes that the racists in the movie are the butt of the jokes. That’s the way Mel intended it.”

That said, Gilliam remembers reading the script for the first time, seeing N-words peppered throughout and thinking, “Oh, my gosh, how are we going to do this?”

It was another comedy legend, Richard Pryor, one of the film’s five credited screenwriters, who convinced him it would be OK and that, without that volatile word, the movie would lose its power.

“Richard assured me that, if anything bad went down, if there were any complaints, let it all fall on his head,” Gilliam recalls. “Of course, I’m paraphrasing. The way I just said it is not the way he said it.”

The way Pryor worded it, like many of the jokes that appear in the film, can’t be repeated in a newspaper story.

Which brings to mind Gilliam’s favorite scene, when he sings Camptown Ladies.

“I’ve done 52 pictures and some of them have been pretty good, the kind that people remember, like Paper Moon,” he says. “But I know that, if I ever nailed a scene, it was that one.

“That’s one of the reasons I’ve got that big old grin on my face the whole movie long. I was having such fun.”

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