With Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks set out to show racism as foolish, ludicrous, and laughable… as well as playing on all the tropes of Westerns. Mel always felt that the most devastating thing you can do to a target is to invite people to laugh at it.
1. James Earl Jones was originally going to play the sheriff, Black Bart (the role that went to Cleavon Little), in a version to be directed by actor Alan Arkin.
“When that project fell apart, Warner Bros. asked me to look at Andrew Bergman’s script. I thought it was a good opportunity to spoof all the Westerns I saw as a kid in Williamsburg and to comment about racism.”
2. Brooks quit when Warner Bros. refused to cast his first choice for Black Bart, co-writer and gonzo comedian Richard Pryor.
“The studio said he couldn’t be insured after a drug arrest. Richard [inset] urged me to return and audition other actors. He thought Cleavon Little was a better choice than him — ‘He’s a stage-trained actor, charming, handsome and strong, plus this guy is coal-black, way darker than me. He’s going to scare the s–t out of that town.’ ”
3. When shooting began, character actor Gig Young (below) was playing the Waco Kid.
“He was great in ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,’ and he was a recovering alcoholic. Unfortunately, he wasn’t really recovering and he vomited something green all over the jailhouse set the first day. So I had to send for Gene Wilder to replace him.”
4. Madeline Kahn balked at showing Brooks her legs before playing chanteuse Lili Von Shtupp.
“She said, ‘So it’s THAT kind of an audition?’ I explained that I was a happily married man and that I needed someone who could straddle a chair with her legs like Marlene Dietrich in ‘Destry Rides Again.’ So she lifted her skirt and said, ‘No touching.’ ”
5. Pryor urged Brooks not to hold back on using the N-word.
“When I thought it was getting to be too much, Richard said, ‘No, we are writing a story of racial prejudice. That’s the word, the only word. It’s profound, it’s real, and the more we use it from the rednecks, the more the victory of the black sheriff will resonate.’ ”
6. After a sneak preview, Warner Bros. chairman Ted Ashley dictated a memo to Brooks ordering him to eliminate all uses of the N-word and those flatulence sound effects, among many other things.
“When he left, I crumpled up all of my notes and threw the wad into a wastebasket . . . I didn’t cut a sentence or a word or even an expression on anybody’s face.”
7. Brooks assumed people would get the film’s many cultural references.
“I always thought the audience was as smart as the filmmakers. When Black Bart is trying to rally the townspeople, he’s basically doing the Agincourt speech from Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’ with an interpolated lyric from Cole Porter’s ‘You Do Something to Me.’ ”
“He had performed title songs for many 1950s Westerns [and] sent me a letter saying this was a better tribute to the West than any of them. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was all a spoof.”
9. Warner Bros. almost didn’t release the film at all.
“When we screened it for executives, there were few laughs. The head of distribution . . . [they] said, ‘It’s simply too vulgar for the American people. Let’s dump it and take a loss.’ But [studio president John] Calley insisted they open it in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago as a test. It became the studio’s top moneymaker that summer.”
10. Brooks thinks “Blazing Saddles’’ is funnier than “Some Like It Hot.’’
“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.”