Directed by Mel Brooks and released in 1974, Blazing Saddles is a satirical Western comedy starring Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder. Although the film had its fair share of issues with executives, it was well-received by both audiences and critics. It was nominated for three Academy Awards and was ranked No.6 on the American Film Institutes 100 Years…100 Laughs list. So take a dive to see some behind the scenes facts about this iconic comedy.
Going Too Far With The Horse
One scene in the film shows the character Mongo knocking out a horse with a single punch. Although it was meant to be comedic, which most audiences thought it was, there were some who felt the scene had gone too far.
Animal rights activists were up in arms about the treatment of the horse even though no horses had been injured. They argued that the scene could have been less violent as to not encourage viewers to try it on an untrained horse.
Slim Pickens Was A Rodeo Performer
Some of the actors took their roles to heart, to the point that they were method acting. One of these actors was Slim Pickens, who played to role of Taggart, the head of the gang that is relentlessly trying to terrorize the citizens of Rock Ridge from their town.
He was a real rodeo performer before getting into acting. During filming, to really get into his role, Pickens slept outside like a cowboy, with his Winchester by his side.
Warner Bros. Didn’t Think The Movie Would Be Well Received
Initially, Warner Bros. was fearful that Mel Brooks wouldn’t live up to the legacy of The Producers. On top of that, upon early screenings of the film, the movie was poorly received, which led executives to become even more anxious that nobody would find the movie funny at all.
Regardless of the early responses to his film, Brooks was confident that the masses would find it hilarious, and all they had to do was release it. Uneasily, Warner Bros. did, and they were pleased to find out they had been wrong.
It Was Almost Never Released
Incredibly, Blazing Saddles was almost never released at all. According to Mel Brooks, when the film initially tested with audiences, it bombed. This made Warner Bros. weary about its box-office prospects.
To convince executives they had a hit on their hands, Brooks held a screening for the blue-collar Warner Bros. employees. The screening was a huge success, and convinced the movie studio to release it. It’s a good thing they did, too, since today it’s considered a classic.
Known for his involvement in music, Mel Brooks didn’t hold back when it came to Blazing Saddles. Wanting to do something different, Brooks didn’t incorporate the music in the background like most films, but rather the foreground in some scenes.
This way, he could make them as noticeable as possible. In order to make this happen, he brought on Count Basie and his band, to play the song “April in Paris.” If Brooks wanted to get the audience’s attention, he certainly did.
Alex Karras Was Quite The Athlete
Alex Karras, who plays the incredibly strong and rather dim-witted character Mongo in the film, put his size to good use before acting. Years prior, Karras had played in the NFL for an impressive 12 seasons, was part of the All-pro team nine times, as well as the NFL All-Decade team of the 60s.
On top of that, he was also a four-time Pro Bowler. Upon leaving the Detroit Lions, he pursued acting, landing his first gig on the cast of Webster.
A Misunderstanding During Casting
When creating the character of Lili von Shtupp, Brooks already had his eye on Madeline Kahn who he thought would be perfect for the role and had a good understanding of comedy. When she came in to read for the part, Brooks asked if he could see her legs.
She responded by saying “Oh, so you’re that kind of guy.” Brooks clarified that the character was supposed to be a spoof on Marlene Dietrich and therefore needed a certain type of legs. She understood but reminded him “No touching!”
Richard Pryor Was Almost Sheriff Bart
Initially, Mel Brooks was dead-set on hiring Richard Pryor onto the project to play Sheriff Bart. Brooks loved the comedian, stating that he was “the most blessed with talent.”
Nevertheless, Pryor was a highly controversial person, known for his raunchy material, and an addiction problem so severe that he almost burned himself to death. Regardless, Brooks wanted him in the role, yet Warner Bros. suggested Cleavon Little. Upon hearing Little read the lines, he gave him the part.
Burton Gilliam Was Uncomfortable With One Of His Lines
Burton Gilliam played Lyle, one of Taggart’s henchmen. At one point in the film, the script had Lyle calling Sheriff Bart a racial slur. The thought of saying the word out loud, especially on camera, made Gilliam extremely uncomfortable, and he didn’t want to go through with it.
However, Little understood, and it was clear that Gilliam meant nothing by it and gave him the go-ahead. Yet, Little did say, “If I thought you would say one of those words to me in any other situation, we’d go to fist city, but this is all fun. Don’t worry about it.”
Declined By The Duke
Since Brooks was making a parody on the Western genre, he wanted to include legendary Western actor John Wayne in the film as a nice surprise. Supposedly, the two had met by chance on the Warner Bros. lot with Wayne telling Brooks that he had heard about the movie.
So, Brooks wrote a short bit for Wayne to say in the film. Unfortunately, Wayne declined the offer saying, “Naw, I can’t do a movie like that, but I’ll be the first in line to see it!”
Brooks Kept The Premise Of The Film A Secret From The Composer
Frankie Laine, the composer for the score of Blazing Saddles didn’t exactly know what he was getting himself into when he joined the project, thanks to Brooks.
Frankie Laine was a singer and songwriter for more than 75 years and believed he was composing music for a traditional Western rather than a parody. Mel made sure not to tell Laine that the film was a comedy for fear that Laine would change the music if he knew otherwise.
The Film Is Chock Full Of References
Being the comedic genius that Mel Brooks is, he made sure that every word served some kind of purpose that was either meant to evoke emotion or have an underlying meaning.
One example of this is when Mongo rides into town on his horse, and a Mexican man shouts, “Mongo! Santa Maria!” This is a direct nod to Mongo Santamaria, a famous Cuban jazz musician, and a reference that might have gone over most audience’s heads.
Did You Catch The Producers Song?
In the scene when Hedley Lamarr and his men ride into the fake town built by the Sheriff and Waco Kid at the end of the film, there is a reference to Brooks’ previous movie, The Producers.
As they ride into town, there is a brief moment when the camera turns to Lili von Shtupp and some German soldiers who are singing a drinking song. Unless you saw The Producers, you probably wouldn’t realize that it’s the same song Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel sing with Kenneth Mars in The Producers.
The Film Increased The Sales Of Raisinets
At the end of the film, Harvey Korman stops, by the concessions stand at the movie theater. There, he makes the somewhat unusual decision of purchasing Raisinets, which Brooks claims led to an increase in product sales for the company.
In a 1975 interview with Playboy, Brooks noted, “We mentioned Raisinets in Blazing Saddles, and now the company sends me a gross of them every night. A gross of Raisinets!” It doesn’t sound like the worst deal!
Gene Wilder Wasn’t The First Pick For The Waco Kid
Although Wilder’s performance as The Waco Kid is considered by many to be one of his most memorable, surprisingly, he wasn’t the first in line for the role. Initially, Brooks offered the role to late-night television host Johnny Carson, but he turned it down.
Next up was Gig Young, who agreed to the role. Yet, it turns out that he had a hard time playing the drunk Waco Kid because of his own drinking, and Wilder replaced him.
Impersonating A Famous Actor
If you’re a fan of Western films, there’s a strong chance that you’re familiar with George “Gabby” Hayes. An icon of the Western genre, Hayes was in a number of films throughout his career and is remembered as one of the greats.
While casting for the film, Brooks came across actor Jack Starrett, who could do a flawless impression of Hayes. Realizing this was too good of an opportunity to pass up, Brooks hired Starrett to imitate Hayes in the movie, which is precisely what he did.
Brooks Received The Ultimate Compliment
While people across the world sent Mel Brooks fan mail about how much they loved Blazing Saddles, one person, in particular, had an extreme impact on the director. After learning that legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock had seen his film, he nervously waited to see if he would receive any feedback.
Incredibly, Hitchcock got in touch with Brooks to let him know that he loved it. Although the two directors have essentially opposite style, Hitchcock claimed to have enjoyed the story and production.
It Was Almost Turned Into A TV Show
Credited for the story of Blazing Saddles and participating as one of its screenwriters, Andrew Bergman was instrumental in the film’s success. Once the film became as popular as it did, Bergman’s ideas were used to create new material such as the TV series Black Bart.
The pilot aired on April 4, 1975, with Louis Gosset Jr. as Bart. However, the show was never seen by the public because it was being produced under the contract clause that it was an official sequel to the film.
Only Mel Brooks Was Paid For Writing
To write the film, Mel Brooks and his team of writers set up shop in an office on the 6th floor on a building on Fifth Avenue in New York City. The group of six writers spent countless hours perfecting the script into what we know it as today.
However, incredibly, only Mel Brooks was compensated for his work. Mel Brooks walked away from the film with $50,000 for his writing while everyone else left empty-handed.
Throwing Away The Notes
When Brooks first screened the film for Warner Bros. Chief Executive Ted Ashley was not thrilled with the film. After the screening, Ashley pulled Brooks aside and gave him a firm talking to.
He demanded that Brooks take out the racial slur, the bean scene, punching the horse, and the questionable interaction between Lili von Shtupp and Black Bart. Brooks responded saying, “Great! They’re all out!” Of course, instead of doing what he was told, he ripped up the notes like the conversation never happened.
The Title Underwent Several Changes
Although there were many portions of the writing process that the writers struggled with, naming the film was a big one. Originally, Ten X was going to be the title in reference to Malcolm X, but then it was changed to Black Bart instead.
However, the writers still weren’t satisfied and considered Purple Sage as one of the many other alternatives. Then, while taking a shower, Brooks came up with Blazing Saddles, which his wife loved, and so did everyone else.
There Was A Dispute Over A Character’s Name
Mel Brooks assumed that he had come up with the perfect antagonist for Blazing Saddles when he came up with the name Hedly Lammar. Of course, his character’s name had a striking resemblance to that of Hedy Lammar, a well-known actress that had been under contract with MGM from the 1930s to 1950s.
Hedy Lamarr was far from thrilled by how close Brooks’ antagonist’s name was to hers, which Harvey Korman joked would lead to a lawsuit. He was right, and they were able to settle out of court.
A Unique Premiere
As unique as Blazing Saddles is, it was only right that the film’s premiere was different than most. The premiere took place at the Pickwick Drive-In Theater in California. There was a reason for this.
The guests and cast needed as much space as they could get considering they weren’t arriving in limousines and cars, but on horses! Incredibly, 250 people attended the show on horseback, and all watched the show from their steeds to set the mood.
The Genesis Of On-Screen Flatulence
According to the DVD commentary of Blazing Saddles, it was the first-ever Hollywood film to ever use a recording of someone passing gas.
Mel Brooks came up with his now-iconic scene of flatulence when he noticed that in Western films, most of what audiences see them consume is coffee and beans, a recipe for disaster. So, he took advantage of this usually unnoticed aspect of Western films and threw a little bit of comedy and realism into it.
Mel Brooks And Gene Wilder Made An Agreement
In the commentary DVD portion of the film Space Balls, Brooks admitted that Wilder only agreed to be a part of the project if he gave a look at his idea for a movie. That movie turned out to be Young Frankenstein.
After working together on The Producers, Brooks agreed to give his input. Brooks ended up directing the film and it became a box-office smash. Not only did it make its way onto many “Best Ever” lists, but it was also selected for preservation by the Library of Congress National Film Registry.
An Unexpected Extra
For many viewers, one of the most classic scenes from Blazing Saddles occurs at the end of the film when Waco Kid and Sheriff Bart are chased from the Warner Bros. studio by an angry mob.
However, if you look closely, you might notice one of the extras that slightly stands out. This is because there was an uninvited visitor on set. There’s a man in a bright sweater that had become lost on-site and accidentally wandered onto the set. In the end, Mel Brooks decided to keep the footage.
A Slight Deception
When Mel Brooks was casting, he advertised the film in the business trade papers as a “Frankie Laine-type” voice to sing the film’s title song. Although all he was hoping was for an imitator, Frankie Laine himself showed up at Brooks’ office two days later ready for work.
Interestingly enough, nobody told Laine that the film was a parody when he showed up for work. When the producers broke the news to him, he didn’t seem to mind and was actually pleased with the film when it was released.
Gig Young Was Almost In The Film
Initially, Gig Young was cast as Jim, The Waco Kid. Although the character was supposed to be a drunk, Young actually was. On the first day of shooting, in the scene where the drunk Waco Kid is hanging from a bunk and asking if Bart is black, he apparently was actually intoxicated and had a physical breakdown on set.
According to Brooks, “On the first day of shooting… we hung him upside down in the jail cell, and green stuff started spewing out of his mouth.” This resulted in Brookes shutting down production for the day and Gene Wilder flying cross-country to fill the role.
There’s A Reference To One Of Its Original Titles
As you’ve read, before officially being released as Blazing Saddles, the movie underwent several title changes. Originally, it was titled Tex X. When Mel Brooks stepped in and took over, he rewrote the script and it became Black Bart Before.
Posters for the movie with this title were even produced. As a reference to the almost-used title, the poster was hung up in the background of one of the scenes.
Brooks Was Coming Off Several Flops
At the time Warner Bros. was developing Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks was down on his luck. He was coming off of two financially unsuccessful projects with The Producers and The Twelve Chairs.
As fate would have it, he was walking on the streets of New York when he was approached by David Begelman, the founder of Creative Management Associates and an old friend. They shared a meal and Begelman shared the idea with Brooks.
Brooks Used An Eclectic Group Of Screenwriters
Mel Brooks may have been the only writer paid for his work on Blazing Saddles, but the film was really a collaboration of many. Earlier we talked about where they wrote, but we didn’t mention how eclectic of a group it was.
One of the writers wasn’t a writer, he was a lawyer. Another was a dentist. Both men had to go back to their regular jobs after writing was done. Richard Pryor was also involved in the writing.
Brooks Thought The Film Was Cursed
Interestingly, the film, which went through well-documented issues during production, may have been cursed from the beginning. As Brooks recalls, he and his team of writers would meet at 666 Fifth Avenue on the sixth floor in New York.
Because of the religious symbolism of the number, Brooks was terrified the film would be a disaster. While the building isn’t featured in Blazing Saddles, it can be seen in The Exorcist II: The Heretic.
Brooks Took The Job Because His Son Was Born
While Mel Brooks was working on writing Blazing Saddles, his son, Max Brooks, was born. Financially burdened with the birth of Max, Brooks decided that writing the film wasn’t going to be enough.
He also wanted to make sure he wrote the best movie he could as he was coming off of more prestigious (although less successful) projects. As he put it, he wanted people to think he was, “selling out. This film was coming on the heels of The Producers and The Twelve Chairs, everything was very lofty.”
Max Brooks Has Become Successful As Well
Growing up as the son of Mel Brooks, it would have been easy for Max to follow in his father’s footsteps. Instead of getting into comedy writing, the aspiring younger Brooks dipped his toes into horror.
His first big success came with The Zombie Survival Guide. The success of that book led to him writing World War Z, which would become a movie starring Brad Pitt. Most recently, Brooks released Devolution, a book about a Sasquatch attack.
It Was Made On A Shoestring Budget
From pre-production through post-production, Blazing Saddles was made for $2.6 million. Counting inflation, that comes out to about $10 million today. That may seem like a lot to the naked eye until you learn that most westerns cost anywhere between $50 million and $100 million.
For as a big of a risk as making the film may have seemed like to everyone at the time, the reward was more than worth it.
Brooks’ Financial Issues Stemmed From A “Personal Problem”
While developing Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks was extremely financially burdened and was forced to move his family to California. Once there, he somehow managed to find a house for sale, which was more ideal than renting.
To help keep personal costs low, Brooks survived on a diet of beans. He also managed to convince a few of his writers to fly out to the state and help him finish the script.
Brooks Needed The Studio’s Blessing For The Farting Scene
Once Brooks finished polishing the script he needed to take it to Warner Brothers for approval. He knew that while most of the movie would get the thumbs up, the farting scene could be a big issue.
When he brought up the scene to Warner executive John Calley, he was told, “Mel, if you’re gonna go up to the bell, ring it.” Brooks couldn’t believe it, but wasn’t about to let Calley change his mind.
Liam Dunn Was “Very Weird”
Liam Dunn played Reverend Johnson in Blazing Saddles and was described by Mel Brooks as “very weird.” The actor had emphysema, and after scenes, the crew would be concerned that he would need water to continue filming.
They would ask Dunn, “Do you want water? Do you want orange juice? Do you want a cigarette?” Reportedly, he would always choose the cigarette, and he would follow up several puffs of smoke with several puffs of oxygen.
Brooks’ Wife Didn’t Like The Title
It was the first Friday of filming that the name Blazing Saddles was agreed upon. After going through several title changes, this was the one that would stick. There was just one problem — Brooks’ wife hated the title.
As nervous as this may have made Brooks, everyone around him loved the final title. With Blazing Saddles agreed upon, filming could officially get underway. Of course, more problems would follow.
It Was Nominated For Three Oscars
After all the ups and downs of getting the film approved, made, and released, it turned out all the hardship was worth it. The film was a huge hit, a critical success, and wound up being nominated for three Academy Awards.
Actress Madeline Kahn was nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. John Morris and Mel Brooks were nominated together for the theme song. And finally, the film was nominated for Best Film Editing.