Burton Gilliam set to host special screening of 1974 classic
By Kevin Redding
Harrumph harrumph harrumph. On Saturday, April 28, the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington invites one and all back to Rock Ridge circa 1874 for a screening of the groundbreaking, controversial and hysterical “Blazing Saddles” more than 44 years after its original release, featuring a very special appearance from one of its stars.
It was February 1973 when Burton Gilliam, a Dallas, Texas, firefighter of 14 years and a Golden Gloves champion boxer during his time in the Coast Guard, got a phone call from a fast-talking “little ball of energy” from Hollywood he’d never heard of named Mel Brooks.
Brooks, best known at the time as a staff writer on the Sid Caesar-led variety program “Your Show of Shows,” the co-creator of “Get Smart” and the writer-director of the 1968 film “The Producers,” was offering Gilliam the role of a cowboy in his upcoming film, a then-untitled Western-themed comedy. Gilliam laughed and thanked “Mr. Brooks” before hanging up.
Just one of his buddies at the fire station putting him on, he thought. “‘Cuz that’s what firemen do to each other,” Gilliam, 79, recalled, laughing.
Months prior, Gilliam, who was 35 at the time, had responded on a whim to an ad in the Dallas newspaper about a local casting call for extras in director Peter Bogdanovich’s film “Paper Moon,” starring Ryan and Tatum O’Neal.
Despite having no acting experience, Gilliam showed up with his big old grin and even bigger Texan exuberance. Over the course of a few weeks, he beat out hundreds of people in the audition process and impressed Bogdanovich enough to be given a small speaking part as a desk clerk named Floyd. After filming in St. Joseph, Missouri, wrapped, he returned to Dallas and his job at the fire department, looking forward to the June release of the film and thankful for his brush with movie stardom.
But that phone rang again 10 minutes after he hung up and it was Brooks once more, explaining that he had seen a rough cut of “Paper Moon” and wanted Gilliam to meet with him to play this part. Gilliam was hesitant to abandon his job and $12,000 a year salary to go to Los Angeles and commit to the film. He wound up meeting with Brooks and producers three times before finally agreeing to come aboard.
“I remember that first time I met [Mel] — this little guy jumped over a desk and ran over to me and jumped into my arms, pushing me against the wall,” Gilliam said. “He was like a koala bear. I had no other thought but to like him. He was so open and funny.”
Between Gilliam’s first and third trip to Hollywood, Brooks and his team expanded his once-tiny role as Lyle, a dim-witted and callous antagonist to the film’s hero Sheriff Bart (played by Cleavon Little), into a much heftier one that sets the stage for the entire film (“What about ‘De Camptown Ladies’?”).
He received a call of persuasion from Richard Pryor, one of “Blazing Saddles’” many writers, and Brooks promised to pay him his yearly salary at the fire department in the three weeks he’d be filming for, plus overtime.
“About four weeks later, I quit the fire department,” said Gilliam, one of 10 members of his family to serve as a fireman. “I was the only one that ever quit. And after I did, everyone came out of the woodwork to tell me how crazy I was. But I went to Hollywood and stayed for 23 years! And what a great 23 years it was.”
Since appearing in Brooks’ 1974 classic, Gilliam has acted in more than 50 films and television shows, including “Fletch” starring Chevy Chase, “Back to the Future Part III,” “Honeymoon in Vegas” with Nicolas Cage, and episodes of “Mama’s Family,” “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “Knight Rider” and “Walker, Texas Ranger.” He has also appeared in countless commercials and has even lent his instantly recognizable voice to video games.
“To me, the most rewarding part has been meeting the people working behind the scenes — the makeup people, the wardrobe, lighting, sound departments,” Gilliam said. “They were all so good to me.”
When he isn’t in front of the camera, Gilliam has become a staple at various charities across the country.
Through it all, the actor said he never gets tired of answering questions about, and quoting lines from, the movie that made him famous. Although, he admits he never would’ve guessed “Blazing Saddles” would remain so popular and beloved nearly 50 years later, especially one that very clearly could never be made today.
“It’s really a mystery almost that something like this can last this long, and it’s going to last a lot longer,” Gilliam said. “And Mel Brooks is as surprised as anybody that it’s lasted this long. I don’t know what to make of the whole thing. When we did the picture, Mel always said the people at Warner Brothers gave him $3 million and told him to go have a good time. And that’s it right there … it’s something that had never been done before, saying those words and doing those things we did and getting away with it.”
The film, of course, about the arrival of a black sheriff in an over-the-top racist town, is a raunchy (it’s the first film to feature a flatulence scene!), chaotic, uproarious, surreal, wholly politically incorrect and brilliant satire of the western film genre and a no-holds-barred takedown of racism and prejudices.
In the opening of the film, Gilliam’s character Lyle, joined by his gang of thuggish cowboys, orders a group of black members of a railroad crew, led by Little, to sing a song while they work, saying “When you was slaves, you sang like birds.” Lyle expounds a series of racist comments here, including the N-word, which he recalls made him uncomfortable while filming the scene on set.
“It was the second week I was there and I had to say those words to about 25 black guys, saying these things that had never been spoken before in movies and that was a bit hard,” Gilliam said. “So after we were on the scene for probably 25 minutes, they were switching cameras for somebody’s close-up, and Cleavon said, ‘Hey let’s take a walk.’ He told me, ‘Listen, I know you’re having a little bit of trouble saying these things but this is a movie and we’re having fun. Be comfortable and call me anything you want to … it’s okay, this is all fun…”
But, Gilliam said, Little warned him, “After they say ‘Cut!,’ if you call me that, we’re gonna go to fist city.’”
Cinema Arts Centre co-director Dylan Skolnick said he considers “Blazing Saddles” one of the funniest movies ever made, and remembers seeing it in theaters when it came out. While it’s been shown at the theater several times, he said he’s excited to have Gilliam emcee the screening.
“Burton’s one of those guys — his name’s not necessarily famous, but when you see him, since he’s been in a lot of movies and things as a character actor, it’s like, ‘Oh! That guy! I love that guy!’” Skolnick said. “It was great to be able to build an event around somebody like him, where he can be the star for the evening … It’s such an iconic movie and he has a crucial scene in one of the most famous moments.”
Gilliam said he’s looking forward to meeting and talking with the fans, and reminiscing about the making of the movie. “I enjoy those things because I get to talk a lot,” Gilliam said, laughing. “And I always get new questions; I have to be on my toes a little bit and I like that.”
As part of its Cult Cafe series, The Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave., Huntington will present a special screening of “Blazing Saddles” on April 28 at 9:45 p.m. with a Q&A with Burton “Lyle” Gilliam. Tickets are $15 per person, $12 members. To order, call 631-423-7611 or visit www.cinemaartscentre.org.
Photos courtesy of Bobby Bank