Mel Brooks’ raunchy, insane Blazing Saddles had a heck of a time getting out the gate, but when it finally did, oh what a race it ran. With pitch perfect performances by Cleavon Little, Madeline Kahn and Harvey Korman, the little Western (spoof) that could took on racial bigotry, sex and bodily functions, defied closed-minded fears and went on to become a great success, both with audiences and the awards circuit. Whether or not one enjoys this shocking, in-your-face comedy, Brooks’ (and his actors’) willingness to charge headfirst into dangerous waters is nothing if not admirable.
1. Blazing Saddles, originally titled Tex X, began as a story outline written by Andrew Bergman (Honeymoon in Vegas, The Freshman, Soapdish). After Mel Brooks (Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Spaceballs, High Anxiety) became involved, the film script was written by Bergman, Brooks, Norman Steinberg (Johnny Dangerously, My Favorite Year), Alan Uger (“Family Ties, Champs”) and Richard Pryor (Bustin’ Loose, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling).
2. Brooks told the story of how he came to be involved with the film: He was “walking the streets of New York, looking in the gutters for change,” having just done The Producers and The Twelve Chairs back to back. Neither film made a lot of money, though The Producers ran a long time. As he was walking, Brooks heard a voice say, “Mel;” it was David Begelman, Creative Management Associates (talent agency) founder—and an old friend. Begelman took Brooks to lunch where he had “scrambled eggs, sliced tomatoes and rye toast with butter,” then Begelman told Mel that Richard Zanuck and David Brown (Jaws, Planet of the Apes,) owned a property called Tex X, but they didn’t know what do do with it. The agent thought it had a “Mel Brooks” feel to it. Brooks read it and liked it, but he told Begelman he didn’t normally do things he hadn’t written himself; Begelman said Brooks should write the script (it was only an outline at that point). Brooks let his wife, Anne Bancroft read Tex X and she liked it too, so Brooks let Begelman know he wanted to work with the original writer, Andrew Bergman. Brooks also wanted to get a group of writers together in a room (like he had done when writing with Carl Reiner, Neil Simon and others on “Your Show of Shows”), whoever has an idea puts it out and the group runs with it. Bergman liked the idea. Brooks said they needed to find a black writer and suggested Richard Pryor—Bergman was concerned (“He’s a little nuts, isn’t he?”). But Mel knew and liked Pryor, who was just starting out as a comedian and he called to ask Pryor to come work with them. Pryor agreed, but told Brooks he would take the train because he didn’t like to fly. There was a certain kind of brandy Pryor liked and asked Brooks to have it waiting for him—“I can get more of it into me on the train before I meet you.”
3. The writing group included a former lawyer who wanted to be a scriptwriter (Norman Steinberg) and his friend the dentist (Alan Ugo), both of whom had to go back to their regular jobs toward the end of the writing process (to earn money). Brooks said he wrote most of the sheriff’s part and Pryor wrote most of Mongo. The group would write for three to four hours, then separate to chill out and get away from each other, coming back “when they could take each other again.” Brooks said they wrote at 666 Fifth Avenue on the sixth floor; he was afraid (because of The Omen) that they were doomed. Coincidentally, that particular building was visible in 1977’s The Exorcist II: The Heretic and a restaurant at the top of the building is featured in Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens.
4. The writers agreed that Tex X was not a good film title, Brooks thought it sounded like a black exploitation film. He suggested Black Bart (the sheriff’s name), but Warner Bros. wouldn’t approve that title. Brooks also suggested The Purple Sage, a reference to Zane Grey’s 1912 novel, Riders of the Purple Sage and was told it was too wild and too arcane—no one would get it. They left the title alone and kept writing.
5. Brooks’ son Max was born during the time of scriptwriting and poor finances influenced his decision to take on the film. Brooks compared himself to Charles Dickens who, he said, took a job writing a story for a London magazine because the author needed money. Brooks claimed that Dickens told a friend he’d better write “like it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, because it’s obvious I’m writing for commercial need.” Similarly, Brooks felt that Blazing Saddles had better be the best movie he ever wrote so people “don’t think I’m selling out. This film was coming on the heels of The Producers and The Twelve Chairs, “everything was very lofty.”
6. “The whole movie cost about $2.6 million—nobody got anything.” Brooks said he hardly made much himself, around $50k to write, direct, for everything. The remaining writers (after those that left for financial reasons) held in there and finished writing. They’d write every day until around midnight, then walk to Chinatown where there was a restaurant they liked—they’d have beef and broccoli and a Pepsi, then walk back. Brooks spoke of working hard to get the script done, it had to be completed by July.
7. Because of a “personal problem,” Brooks needed to get his wife and child moved, so he went out to California and managed to find a house he could buy instead of renting. While “living on per diem, eating beans and paying for the house,” Brooks went to the Warner Bros. studio every day. He got Steinberg and and Bergman to fly out so they could polish up the script, but the one “scary thing” was the farting scene; “because it wasn’t politically correct,” they were worried about it turning off the audience. Brooks went to Warner Bros. executive John Calley to ask him about the scene; Calley said, “Mel, if you’re gonna go up to the bell, ring it.” Brooks said the “crazy, anarchic script had Calley’s blessing.”
9. Madeline Kahn had done Paper Moon; Brooks cast her right away, saying he loved her and knew how funny she was from Off-Broadway. When she auditioned, he said “Let me see your legs.” She said, “Oh, you’re that kind of guy.” Kahn was nervous. Mel demanded to see them, explaining that “If you’re going to do Dietrich, you’ve gotta have the legs.” Kahn showed them and said, “You’re not going to touch them?” He said, “No” and he never did. Brooks called Kahn good natured and (she was) fun on the set.
10. Director/Actor Claude E. Starrett Jr. (aka Jack) knew Mel Brooks and had once done a George “Gabby” Hayes immitation for Brooks. Mel called him and said, “I want you to do your Gabby Hayes in the movie;” he agreed to play Gabby Johnson.
11. Brooks chose Slim Pickens (“Bonanza, Gunsmoke,” The Apple Dumpling Gang) based on seeing him ride the bomb down to earth in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
12. Liam Dunn (Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie), who played Reverend Johnson, was described by Brooks as “very weird.” The actor had emphysema and when he would finish a scene, they’d ask him “Do you want water? Do you want orange juice? Do you want a cigarette?” Dunn would always choose the cigarette; he’d take a few puffs of smoke, then a few puffs of oxygen.
13. Brooks wanted actor Dan Dailey (It’s Always Fair Weather, The Getaway, My Blue Heaven ) for The Waco Kid, calling him the best civilian horse rider around, but Dailey said he couldn’t do it, he was blind (wore “Coke bottle glasses”). Brooks later ran into John Wayne in the commissary and asked him to read the script. Wayne told Brooks he would read it that night and that Mel should meet him back at the commissary at noon the next day. When they met again, the actor said it was too dirty; “I can’t do it, I’m John Wayne.” Wayne did love the script and told Brooks he was up all night screaming, he loved it and would be first in line to see it.
14. Filming started on a Friday. They finally came up with the title Blazing Saddles. Brooks’ wife didn’t like it, but everyone the director phoned did. Gig Young (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, The Hindenberg) first played Jim/The Waco Kid. They began shooting the scene with Young in the jail cell, where he first meets Cleavon Little’s Bart. After saying his first lines, “Are we awake? Are we black?” Young started shaking. Brooks thought it was great—he was acting the drunk perfectly, but the shaking never stopped, then green stuff started shooting out of his mouth and nose and he started screaming. An ambulance had to come and take Young away and Brooks said, “That’s the last time I’ll ever cast a real alcoholic.” Production was immediately halted. Gene Wilder had been bugging Mel for the part since before production, but Brooks hadn’t thought he was the right choice. After losing Young, he called Wilder and asked if he could take over. Because the two men were personal friends, Brooks had been sending Wilder updated scripts all along. Wilder (whose first question to Brooks was “Why was it green?” —in reference to Young’s vomit…Brooks didn’t know) told Brooks he’d fly right out and be ready to go. Wilder had no rehearsal, he spent all day Saturday riding and getting used to a horse and Monday morning, filming began again. They didn’t even lose half a day of shooting. Brooks said Wilder saved his life.
15. When Wilder arrived, he brought with him a four page outline he’d written for Young Frankenstein and asked Mel to do it with him. While editing Blazing Saddles the two worked together writing the script—Blazing Saddles was released in February, 1974—Young Frankenstein was released in December, that same year. Madeline Kahn, Liam Dunn, Wilder and Brooks starred in both films. While working on the script, Brooks realized he was smoking too much and quit, cold turkey. When he started working on Young Frankenstein, Brooks met Marty Feldman, who smoked “two cartons a day and wore a lighter around his neck.”
16. The finished film was shown to twelve executives. Brooks described the scene: They couldn’t help but laugh at a couple of things (the farting scene); the film comes to a “glorious end” and the lights come up…”nothing…just quiet. It was pretty rough.” The silence lasted about ten minutes, with only some throat clearing. Finally, Leo Greenfield (distribution executive) said, “New York, Chicago, LA, we can open in those three cities. It’s funny, but I don’t know if we should open this.” Some people said, “We can bury this. It’s only about $2.6 million, it will cost more to deal with the negatives and the advertisers.” But John Calley thought there was lots of good stuff and suggested they “sleep on it.” Producer Michael Hertzberg (Entrapment, The Producers) decided to set up a viewing at room 12, the biggest Warner Bros. screening room. They went to all the offices and got every secretary, assistant, whoever they could find and filled the theater. Brooks: “Right from the singing and the titles, there was thunder—you never heard laughter like that in your life. People were screaming and yelling and rolling in the aisles. Word got out to the big shots.” The next day, Brooks got a call from Calley, who said he was going to put his job on the line and get it out there, spend maybe a million bucks. Brooks thought the poster was brilliant, with the tagline “Never Give a Saga an Even Break” taken from a W. C. Fields line in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, ” Never give a sucker an even break or smarten up a chump” (credited to P.T. Barnum by Brooks). For the opening, horses were brought down Wilshire Boulevard.
17. At the screening, Warner Bros. head Ted Ashley cornered Brooks and said “You have to do the following: take out the word n*****, 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 all that out.” Brooks (who was writing it down) says, “Great! They’re all out!” He walks away, crumples up the paper and throws it away—they guy didn’t know Brooks had final cut control in his contract. He never heard from Ashley again. “Imagine if I didn’t have final cut?” Brooks lamented over the version that is shown on television, says he can’t even watch it—everything is cut out. The film did well upon initial release; even better for its second, summer release (Warner Bros. didn’t have a big summer release and people kept clamoring for Blazing Saddles).
18. Brooks received a lot of letters from animal lovers who thought they really punched the horse (they didn’t). There were two horses on set, trained to fall down. “Lots of white people got upset, but never any blacks. They knew it (n*****) was used correctly.” Brooks said he doesn’t think the word should ever be used unless “absolutely correctly to show racial prejudice. And we dIdn’t show it from good people, but from bad people who didn’t know any better.”
19. Instead of background music, Brooks wanted foreground music—it had never been done. He brought in Count Basie (“the sweetest guy”) and his band to play April in Paris out in the desert. A composer himself, Brooks wrote I’m Tired and The French Mistake. Composer John Morris and Mel Brooks were both nominated for the title song which was performed by Singer/Songwriter/Actor Frankie Laine. (They lost to The Towering Inferno’s We May Never Love Like This Again.) Brooks said Laine sang with all his heart and tears in his eyes—they didn’t tell him the film was a comedy—Mel thought it worked beautifully.
20. Editor John C. Howard, who worked with Brooks “on everything up to High Anxiety,” taught Mel all about editing. Howard came to the set early and told Brooks to “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.” Director of Photography Joe Biroc (It’s a Wonderful Life, Airplane!, The Choirboys)—who Brooks quipped was about 80 when they filmed and must have been 100 when he died (93, actually)—taught Brooks to use two cameras and then cut them together. Brooks always uses two cameras.
Bonus tidbit: Actress Hedy Lamar (Samson and Delilah, The Strange Woman sued the production for unauthorized use of her name; the case was settled out of court for “not a lot of money, a few thousand dollars. Brooks apologized for “almost using her name.”
And…did you know Mel Brooks (along with fellow comedy writer, Buck Henry) created “Get Smart” and is one of only eleven people who have won a Tony, a Grammy, an Emmy and an Academy Award? It’s twue, it’s twue.
Cindy Davis is riding off into the sunset.