Mel Brooks on Why 'Blazing Saddles' 'Could Be The Funniest Motion Picture Ever Made'

Mel Brooks AFI Awards - P 2012
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Mel Brooks AFI Awards - P 2012

At the TCM Classic Film Festival, the writer-director regaled the audience with tales of how Warner Bros. executives almost buried the film.

When it comes to Blazing Saddles, humility fails Mel Brooks. “It may be my favorite movie,” the filmmaker told Robert Osborne before a packed 40th anniversary screening for the TCM Classic Film Festival Friday night at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. By the end of the Q&A, Brooks was only getting bolder. “It’s not right for me to say so, but I really think this could be the funniest motion picture ever made.”

The TCM gathering is one of very few film festivals in the world where the filmmaker interviews take place before the screenings because pretty much everyone in the audience has already seen the movies. Since it was a given that much of the crowd was with Brooks on those self-accolades, or close enough, he was in a mood to share how not every Warner Bros. executive was rolling in the screening-room aisles in 1974.

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"This is true,” he prefaced. “I remember the first screening the executives had; there were very little laughs. John Calley, who was [president of] the film studio, laughed, and so did Dick Shepard, God bless them both. But there were about eight other big execs at WB, and all they did was say ‘Oy… ooh… s---… oh my God.’ At the end of it, [then-head of distribution] Leo Greenfield—nice guy—said, ‘I’ve never asked WB to bury a film, but will you please bury this film. You can’t issue this one. It’s simply too vulgar for the American public.’ And I said, ‘They are vulgar! They’ll love it!’ But Callie said, ‘No, let’s try it in New York, Chicago, and L.A., and if there’s any love for it, we’ll release it. If it doesn’t do any business, we’ll bury it.’ So they opened it in those three cities, and believe it or not, it ended up being the biggest hit WB had that year.”

 But not before more executives non-laughingly weighed in, this time one at the top of the chain.

"We had a sneak preview at the Avco Embassy on Wilshire. We had cattle in the lobby, cowboys pulling up and hitching their horses… and the audience loved it. But the truth is that the [studio chairman] at the time, who shall be nameless…Ted Ashley,” he said, nearly shouting the name—“Mr. Ashley who ran all of Warner Bros. took me by the scruff of the neck, threw me into the manager’s office, handed me a legal pad and a pencil, and said ‘Take these notes… No farting! You can’t punch a horse. You can’t beat up an old lady.’ And there were like 20 of those notes… Had I listened to him, the movie would have been 12 minutes long... So when he left, I crumpled up all of my notes—Calley was with me, God bless him—and I threw [the wad] way across the manager’s office and hit the wall into the basket, and Calley said, ‘Good filing.’ That was the end of that. I didn’t cut a sentence or a word or even an expression on somebody’s face. So, you’re in on a lot of private stuff that people didn’t know. But keep it under your hat.”

For the roles of the black sheriff and his white gunslinger buddy, Brooks wanted Richard Pryor — a co-writer on the picture — and Gig Young. Fate and insurance companies had other plans.

"I knew Gig Young was a recovering alcoholic, so I said he was perfect for the Waco Kid,” Brooks told Osborne. “Unfortunately, he was not really recovering. So during the first scene he began spewing something green from his mouth. He sprayed the jail cell all green, and I said to his agent, ‘I don’t think he’s ready.’ I didn’t know what to do so I called my best friend in New York, Gene Wilder… He said ‘I’ll be out tomorrow.’ Boy, he saved me and he saved the picture. He was the best Waco Kid I could have chosen. It was fate.”

As for Pryor, “I asked Warner Bros. to hire him as Black Bart, and they said no, they were having problems with insurance, we can’t do it. There was a big to-do. I nearly quit, and Richard said, ‘Don’t quit, I haven’t got my last payment for writing!’ So Richard and I did a lot of auditions looking for the black sheriff.” Straight off of Broadway, they found Cleavon Little, who was “absolutely eloquent and beautiful. And Richard said something really profound.” Some of the other possibilities for the role had lighter skin, but Pryor told Brooks, “This guy is coal black. He’s gonna scare the s--- out of that town. That’s the guy you want, he’s so damn handsome.”

When it came to the racial epithets — as stunning in 2014 as they were in 1974 — Brooks gave all the credit or blame to Pryor. When the director said he thought the use of the N-word in the script was getting to be too much, “Richard said ‘No. We are writing a story of racial prejudice. It’s profound, it’s real, and the more we use it from the bad guys’ or rednecks’ side, the more the victory of the black sheriff being loved by the townspeople [will resonate]. I said, ‘Okay, Richard, the N-word will be all over the screen.’”

As with a number of TCM Festival screenings, the new DCP print was made for a forthcoming Blu-Ray special edition, in this case due out next month. But home viewers won’t get the privilege of seeing the film in one of its actual settings, since the fourth-wall-breaking Blazing Saddles still stands as the only Western ever to have its climax take place at the Chinese Theatre.