David Huddleston, Actor on 'Blazing Saddles' and 'The Big Lebowski,' Dies at 85

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David Huddleston

His breakthrough role came as a Civil War-era gang leader in Robert Benton’s 'Bad Company.'

David Huddleston, the burly comic actor who specialized in playing blustery characters like the Big Lebowski in the legendary Coen Brothers 1998 film, has died. He was 85.

Huddleston, who portrayed another blowhard — Mayor Olsen Johnson, one of the many Johnsons in town — in the Mel Brooks comedy classic Blazing Saddles (1974), died Tuesday of heart and kidney disease in Santa Fe, N.M., his wife Sarah told The Hollywood Reporter.

In The Big Lebowski, inspired by the noirish work of Raymond Chandler, Huddleston played a multimillionaire (or so he appeared) who shared the last name of the film's protagonist, the hippie Jeff "the Dude" Lebowski (Jeff Bridges). Julianne Moore portrayed his daughter.

In a career of more than 60 films, his breakthrough role came as a vicious gang leader with a sense of humor in Robert Benton’s directorial debut, the Civil War-set Bad Company (1972), which also starred Bridges. 

Huddleston also appeared opposite John Wayne in Rio Lobo (1970) and McQ (1974), with Jimmy Stewart in Fools' Parade (1971), opposite Bette Davis in the telefilm Family Reunion (1981), with Gregory Peck in Billy Two Hats (1974) and opposite Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit II (1980). He played the title role in Santa Claus (1985).

He once said that Blazing Saddles was “probably the most fun I have ever had on a set.”

"It was a great privilege to work with David Huddleston on Blazing Saddles," Brooks said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. "His performance was sublime. He helped make all those Johnsons of Rock Ridge immortal. He was one of a kind and will be greatly missed.”

Huddleston also appeared as a judge in the 2005 film version of Brooks' The Producers.

Huddleston received an Emmy Award nomination in 1990 for his guest-starring stint as Grandpa Arnold on The Wonder Years; produced and starred as a mayor of a Midwestern town in his own series, 1979's Hizzoner, for NBC; and played a Republican senator on NBC's The West Wing.

One of his last onscreen appearances came in 2010 as Danny DeVito's old business partner on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

On the stage, Huddleston said that his crowning achievement was playing Benjamin Franklin on Broadway in a revival of 1776 and again at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. He received a Drama Desk nomination in 1984 for his portrayal of Charlie in Death of a Salesman, and he played Chef James Beard in a one-man show at the Rainbow & Stars.

A native of Vinton, Va., Huddleston spent a year at Fork Union Military Academy and four years in the U.S. Air Force. He took advantage of the G.I. Bill to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, where he graduated in 1957 and made his professional theatrical debut.

His wife noted it wasn't surprising to see such great pals as James Cagney, Ralph Bellamy, Harry Morgan or Pat O’Brien hanging out in his home. He once asked Cagney, "What’s the best advice you can give me on acting?" and Cagney replied, "Try never to get caught at it, kid."

In 2012, Fork Union made Huddleston one of only 14 alumni to be honored in its 100-year-plus history. 

In addition to his wife of 32 years, survivors include his son Michael and daughter-in-law Nancy.

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