In 1974, Warner Brothers released one of the funniest films to ever hit the big screen. Decades later, we still cannot get enough of Mel Brooks’ western-spoof masterpiece. These are the hidden workings behind Blazing Saddles.
At the premiere for the film, guests arrived in a peculiar way to the now-defunct Pickwick Drive-In Theater in Burbank, California. Instead of entering via cars or limos, all 250 guests approached the theater in a similar fashion to the film’s characters; they came by horseback and watched the film from there.
Calling On The Duke
For three decades, John Wayne was the biggest star in western films. Naturally, Mel Brooks wanted to include the Duke in his film. Story has it that Wayne and Brooks ran into each other on the Warner Brothers lot and Wayne mentioned that he had heard about Brooks’ western parody. Brooks offered him a part and gave him a script. Wayne respectfully declined saying, “Naw, I can’t do a movie like that, but I’ll be first in line to see it!”
Quid Pro Quo
Due to his participation in Mel Brooks’ films, Gene Wilder will always be associated with the brilliant comedian. However, without Blazing Saddles that never would have happened. Brooks had cast Wilder in The Producers, so he knew he could rely on him following a casting emergency. Wilder agreed to take the part as the Waco Kid only if Brooks would consider another film that he had written. Brooks and Wilder would eventually pick up an Oscar nomination for the film – Young Frankenstein.
A Knockout Punch
In one scene, the brutish Mongo parks his horse in a no parking zone. When he is confronted by another man on a horse, Mongo calmly walks over and slugs the horse, knocking them both to the ground. Brooks did not just conjure up this scene. It was inspired by a story from his old boss, Sid Caesar. In Caesar’s memoir, he wrote about how while riding on a trail with his wife, their horse got too wild, so he punched it in the face.
Hold Your Horses
Mongo’s knockout punch is an absolute riot and one of the funnier scenes in the film. However, that did not stop Brooks from receiving backlash for it. Animal rights activists were furious with the treatment of the horse. In reality, no horses were injured. They had two horses on set trained to fall on command.
You Can’t Tell Me What To Do
When Brooks screened the film for Warner Brothers, chief executive Ted Ashley was not pleased with the film. Ashley cornered Brooks and demanded, “You have to do the following: take out (the N-word), take out the bean scene, punching a horse, the Lili von Shtupp and the black sheriff ‘you’re sucking my arm,’ or something. You’ve got to take it all out.” Brooks replied, “Great! They’re all out,” and threw out all of the notes as he walked away.
The Waco (Casting) Disaster
Gene Wilder’s Waco Kid is an iconic character in the comedy, but he was not the first person with the job. At first, Brooks offered the position to numerous actors including late-night television god Johnny Carson. Carson turned it down, and the role eventually went to Gig Young. Young was almost too perfect a choice for the drunk Waco Kid. He had a major drinking problem which affected his performance on set, and he had to be replaced with Wilder.
Gig’s Gig Comes To An End
Gig Young’s time as the Waco Kid did not go well. On the first day of shooting, they shot the scene in which the Waco Kid drunkenly hangs from his bunk and asks Bart if he’s black. Young did not need to act drunk as he was actually sloshed. When he started acting out, production was shut down for the day. Wilder then flew in to take over the part. Young sued Warner Brothers years later for breach of contract.
Sleeping With The Stars
Slim Pickens took his role as Taggart very seriously. He had appeared in various cowboy-related roles before and wanted to make sure that he truly became Taggart. In the film, the gun-wielding Taggart is the head of the gang tasked with forcing the Rock Ridge citizens to leave so Hedley Lamarr can construct a railroad. Pickens elected to get close with his Winchester rifle, choosing to sleep outside with his gun by his side.
What’s In A Name?
Brooks and the film’s writers struggled to find a title for the film that they all liked. The initial working title was Tex X as a reference to Malcolm X but was quickly changed to Black Bart. Still, something felt off. They tried The Purple Sage but didn’t like that either. Brooks claims Blazing Saddles came to him in the shower. He pitched the idea to his wife, actress Anne Bancroft, who loved the idea and he settled on it.
Who Passed Gas?
According to the filmmakers, Blazing Saddles is the first film to include farting noises. The notorious scene shows the gang of cowboys sitting around the fire eating beans and flatulating. Brooks came up with the brilliant scene after observing a particular theme in western films. He noticed cowboys always seem to sit around a fire eating beans and drinking coffee. Brooks concluded that this combination would create an inescapable scenario of deadly farts from the cowboys.
Brooks mixed in more than one fart reference in the film. His own character, Governor Le Petomane, was named after a notorious “flatulence artist.” Joseph Pujol was a 19th-century French performer that went by the stage name Le Petomane. Pujol had an uncanny ability to pass gas due to his strong abdominal muscles. In French, ‘peter’ means to fart and a ‘mane’ suffix means maniac, making him a fart maniac. He could blow candles out from two feet away.
Reach For The Sky
Sheriff Bart was not a favorite of the townspeople. To escape a mob, Sheriff Bart held his gun to his own head to trick the townspeople into letting him go. Brooks got the idea for this scene from a childhood incident. A young Mel tried to steal gum and water pistol from a store. When the clerk attempted to stop him, Brooks pulled his newly acquired water gun on the man who let him walk away with his “loot.”
A Room Full Of Crickets
Warner Brothers hoped that Brooks could create another hit like The Producers. However, when they first saw the film, they reacted quite poorly. The Warner Brothers executives hated it so much that no one laughed at the screening. Brooks believed in the project and felt that they might be the wrong audience, so he set up a screening for the Warner Brothers lot employees, most of them blue collar. The studio agreed to the film after seeing their delightful reactions.
A Stingy Studio
Brooks continued to push the studio on the film, hoping that they could finally come around to it. After showing to the studio executives, the head of distribution said, “It’s simply too vulgar for the American people. Let’s dump it and take a loss.” Fortunately, studio president John Calley insisted that they give the film a try in select cities. They opened the film in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago first. By the end of the summer, it was their biggest moneymaker.
Bringing In A Comedic Genius
As Brooks was working on the script for Blazing Saddles, he was working on a show called Your Show of Shows while living in New York. One night, he saw Richard Pryor perform at a club called the Vanguard and approached him. They quickly became friends, and Brooks brought Pryor into the project. Pryor became an invaluable member of the team. He wrote most of the dialogue for Mongo in addition to being an important comedic mind.
The Gridiron Gang
Hedley Lamarr might have sent the dimwitted Mongo in his first attempt to remove Bart as sheriff to no avail, but Mongo’s actor had plenty of success in his first career. Alex Karras played 12 seasons in the National Football League with the Detroit Lions before turning to acting. The four-time Pro Bowler was named to the All-Pro team nine times and was named to the NFL’s 1960s All-Decade team. He found success as an actor as a main cast member on Webster.
The Franchise That Never Was
Following the film’s success, the producers looked to continue riding the Blazing Saddles wave of profitability. Andrew Bregman’s original screenplay became the basis for the series titled Black Bart. Louis Gossett Jr. was cast as Bart, and the pilot episode aired once on April 4, 1975. Years later, Gossett explained that he kept filming episodes of the show even though it would never see airtime due to a clause in Brooks’ contract which tied Warner Brothers’ sequel rights to their continued production.
Music Musical Chairs
For the film’s music, Brooks wanted to try something never done before: he wanted the film to have foreground music instead of background music. Not only did Brooks want to use foreground music, but he also wanted one of the most renowned band leaders to perform. He hired Count Basie and his band to play April in Paris in a scene in the desert. Brooks also composed the title song for the film with composer John Morris (it was sung by Frankie Laine).
Your Name Is My Name
Hedley Lamarr was quite the conniving antagonist in Blazing Saddles. Brooks found himself in the middle of a lawsuit over his name, however. In the 30s, 40s, and 50s, Hedy Lamarr became a popular actress in MGM films. She did not take kindly to the similarities between Harvey Korman’s character and her name. During the first day on-set, Korman joked that Hedy would sue over the name. She and Brooks eventually settled out of court.
A Child Arrived Just The Other Day
Near the beginning of the time that Mel Brooks spent penning the script, his wife gave birth to their son Max. His finances were not looking so great at the time, and he felt he had to take the project and make it work. Brooks liked to compare himself to Charles Dickens for taking a job due to a need for cash. He hoped that Blazing Saddles would be great so people “don’t think I’m selling out.”
The Uninvited Extra
At the end of the film, Sheriff Bart and the Waco Kid are chased throughout the Warner Brothers backlot by everyone that they upset. As they famously spill out of the Warner Brother gate, they all turn right on the street except one man. This man with a sweater had wandered on set and did not listen to directions to leave the set. When he clearly did not understand what was happening, Brooks had him sign a waiver and left him in the film.
Before she joined the cast of Blazing Saddles, Madeline Kahn was working on Mame, a film adaptation of a Broadway show with the same name starring Lucille Ball and Bea Arthur. Kahn was fired from Mame the day before she began shooting for Blazing Saddles. Lucille Ball felt that Kahn did everything she could to get fired, such as poor acting, so she could leave the film and take the role of Lili von Shtupp. Kahn was still paid for the role too.
There’s Magic In The Air On Broadway
Due to his success adapting The Producers to the stage, Brooks has been approached multiple times about adapting Blazing Saddles for Broadway. He says that he has good ideas on how to make it work but has some hesitations. “It’s pretty dangerous stuff, using the N-word. I wouldn’t shy away from it, but I don’t know if I could get away with it. I got away with it then. I don’t know if I could get away with it today,” he said.
If I May Say So Myself
Blazing Saddles is considered one of the greatest comedy films of all time and Mel Brooks wants people to know it. He thinks it is funnier than Billy Wilder’s classic Some Like It Hot. Brooks said, “Billy Wilder’s film is extremely funny, but scene for scene, there are more laughs in my movie. It’s not right for me to say so, but I really think this could be the funniest motion picture ever made.”
Legging It Out
Brooks had hoped to cast Madeline Kahn as Lili von Shtupp knowing her comedic skills from her off-Broadway work. When she came in to audition, he asked to see her legs. Nervously unaware of his intentions, she replied, “Oh, you’re that kind of guy.” Brooks explained that if he wanted her to be a parody of Marlene Dietrich and needed good legs. She complied after telling Brooks “no touching.” He happily obliged and kept his hands to himself.
The Choice Pryor To Cleavon
Gene Wilder almost began his most famous bromance years as cast members in Blazing Saddles. Mel Brooks desperately wanted comedian Richard Pryor to play Sheriff Bart, a man he once referred to as “the most blessed with talent” that he had ever seen. The studio did not love having the controversial Pryor in the film and suggested Little. Brooks loved the suggestion due to the way the perfect way he delivered his lines and gave the part to Little.
I Can’t Say That, Can I?
As one of Taggart’s henchman, Lyle, Burton Gilliam was supposed to call Sheriff Burt the N-word. Gilliam was quite uncomfortable saying it because he genuinely liked Cleavon Little. Little told him it was alright because it was part of the film. He also added jokingly, “If I thought you would say those words to me in any other situation we’d go to fist city, but this is all fun. Don’t worry about it.”
On The Cutting Floor
Mel Brooks received plenty of flack from the studio for the film. Amidst all of their orders to cut scenes, Brooks only took out one scene from his original cut. In the cut scene, Sheriff Bart visits Lili von Shtupp in her dressing room. As she puts the moves on him, she blows out a candle and asks him, “Is it true what they say about you people?” Sheriff Bart responded, “ I hate to disillusion you, ma’am, but you’re sucking on my arm.”
Frankie Laine had a 75-year career as a singer and songwriter. He had a handful of number one records and seemed like a great choice to compose the theme song for Blazing Saddles. Laine went into the project believing it was to be a dramatic western and composed the piece accordingly. Mel Brooks did not have the heart to tell Laine the movie was a comedy. He thought Laine would sing it differently knowing it was a comedy.
When Mel Brooks wrote the film, he made sure that every word uttered had a purpose. Whether the lines were meant to advance the plot, make you laugh or otherwise, every word was written with intent. One example is when Mongo rides into town on his horse. You can hear a Mexican man say, “Mongo! Santa Maria!” It seems like a throwaway line, but it was actually a reference to Mongo Santamaria, a famous Cuban jazz musician.
A Mel Brooks Sing-A-Long
Toward the end of the film, there is a scene in which Hedley Lamarr and his men ride into a fake town set up by the Sheriff and Waco Kid. As they ride into the town, the camera briefly cuts away to a scene with Lilly Von Schtupp and some German soldiers singing a drinking song. They are singing the same song which Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel sing with Kenneth Mars during The Producers.
A Chocolate Covered Treat For Life
During the chaos and chase at the end of the film, Harvey Korman stops to buy concessions at the movie theater. He stopped to grab a box of Raisinets. In 1975, Mel Brooks told Playboy magazine that the little nod to Raisinets led to a massive influx of the product. He said, “We mentioned Raisinets in ‘Blazing Saddles,’ and now the company sends me a gross of them every month. A gross of Raisinets!”
Shout It Out Loud
Writing the script for Blazing Saddles was no easy task with so many voices in the room fighting for the power position. Brooks said, “Blazing Saddles was more or less written in the middle of a drunken fistfight. There were five of us all yelling loudly for our ideas to be put into the movie. Not only was I the loudest, but luckily I also had the right as director to decide what was in or out.”
One of the most memorable scenes shows Bart pointing his gun at himself. Brooks actually took inspiration from his own childhood when conjuring up the idea for this scene. In a nutshell, young Mel was at a store one day and stole some gum, as well as a water pistol toy. The store clerk ended up catching the little thief. However, Brooks ended up pointing the pistol at them and warned that he would fire if they didn’t let him go.
Writing Around The Clock
One trivial little tidbit about the creation of the movie is that it was written in New York City on the 6th floor of 666 Fifth Avenue. Brooks ended up getting $50,000 for write and directing the movie, while according to him, nobody else got paid. The remaining writers, who hadn’t left already, persisted for many sleepless nights to complete the script. During their breaks, the crew would go out to Chinatown and get beef and broccoli with a Pepsi.
One of the most unexpected fans of the movie was the “Master Of Suspense” himself, Alfred Hitchcock. In 2011, Brooks had an interview with the A.V. Club and revealed that he actually struck a friendship with the man behind classics such as Psycho and The Birds. He even said that although Hitchcock realized that the two were very different filmmakers in style, he did respect what Brooks had intended to achieve and was even a fan of Blazing Saddles.
Another Project Is Born
On the set of Blazing Saddles, Gene Wilder actually came up with the idea of one of the Brooks’ other classic comedies, Young Frankenstein. When Wilder pitched the premise of the story, Brooks was instantly hooked. “His [premise] was very simple,” Brooks said. “What if the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein wanted nothing to do with the family whatsoever? He was ashamed of those wackos. I said, ‘That’s funny.'” The movie ended up being just as successful as Blazing Saddles.
Normally, you associated the Academy Awards, with the highest theatrical achievements in movies that are powerful, and full of drama. However, every once in a while, a “genre movie” will succeed expectations and capture the hearts of the Academy. This ended up happening with Blazing Saddles when Madeline Kahn got nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Lili von Shtupp. It was an amazing turn of events, especially after she was fired from the movie, Mame, in 1964.
From One Gabby To Another
The late director and actor Jack Starret, often credited as Claude Ennis Starret Jr., is renowned for his iconic parody of George “Gabby” Hayes. As a result, Brooks was hell-bent on recruiting him for the project and wanted to reenact this imitation of the actor who was prolific his roles in Western films. “I want you to do your Gabby Hayes in the movie,” he said when he called Starret. He gladly obliged and ended up portraying Gabby Johnson in the movie.
Words Of Advice
One of the Brooks most common working partners was editor John C. Howard. Up until High Anxiety, the duo had basically worked on everything in Brooks’ career. One of Howard’s main words of advice was the following: Get a close-up in every scene, I don’t care what it is…a rat, a smoking cigarette…anything. Just give it to me and I’ll edit it together.” Then there was the late director of photography, Joe Biroc, who taught Brooks to always use two cameras.
In true Brooksian fashion, the movie sheds a dark comedic light over the portrayal of racial injustices within the Western genre. This emphasized by the fact that Sheriff Bart, is the token black character in a town full of white people. Other anachronisms in the movie include the use of the Germany army of World War II, the song “April in Paris” played by the Count Basie Orchestra, as well as the Wide World of Sports, which is alluded to by Slim Pickens.
Not In The Script
Among all of the hilariously written and delivered lines in the film, one line always stood out. The Waco Kid consoles Bart after the townspeople show their hatred toward him. He explains, “You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.” Wilder ad-libbed “You know…morons,” causing Cleavon Little genuinely to crack up to the line he never expected.