Cleavon Little (1939-1992) portrayed Sheriff Bart in the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles (1974), which brought him a BAFTA nomination. He began his career in the late 1960s on the stage. In 1970, he starred in the Broadway production of the musical Purlie (1970) winning both a Drama Desk Award and a Tony Award.
Blazing Saddles, a film that probably could not be made in our own politically correct era, began as story outline by Andrew Bergman that he intended to produce himself. It was titled Tex-X, a play on Malcolm X’s name. Alan Arkin was hired to direct with James Earl Jones playing the sheriff. Brooks liked the story and purchased the film rights from Bergman. Brooks brought in a group of writers and posted a large sign: “Please do not write a polite script.”
Brooks came up with the name Blazing Saddles while taking a shower one morning.
Richard Pryor was Brooks’ original choice to play the Sheriff Bart, but the studio, claiming his history of drug arrests made him uninsurable, refused to approve financing with Pryor as the star. Little was cast in the role, and Pryor stayed on as a writer. Brooks offered the other leading role, the Waco Kid, to John Wayne; he declined, deeming the film too dirty, but assured Brooks that “he would be the first one in line to see it.” Gig Young was cast, but he collapsed during his first scene from alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Gene Wilder replaced him. Johnny Carson turned down the role of Hedley Lamarr role before Harvey Korman was cast. Madeline Kahn objected when Brooks asked to see her legs during her audition. Brooks:
“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.'”
Brooks had numerous conflicts with Warner Bros over the frequent use of the N-word, plus Lili Von Shtupp’s (Kahn) seduction scene, the farting around the campfire, and Mongo (Alex Karras) punching a horse. Brooks, whose contract gave him final control, declined to make any changes, except for cutting Bart’s final line during Lili’s seduction:
“I hate to disappoint you, ma’am, but you’re sucking my arm.”
When asked later about the use of the N-word, Brooks said he received consistent support from Pryor and Little. He recently wrote:
“If they did a remake of Blazing Saddles today, they would leave out the N-word. And then, you’ve got no movie.”
Brooks said he received many letters of complaint after the film’s release, most of them were from white people.
The world premiere of Blazing Saddles was in February 1974, at the Pickwick Drive-In Theater in Burbank. 250 invited guests, including Little and Wilder, watched the film on horseback.
Film star Hedy Lamarr sued Warner Bros., charging that the film’s running parody of her name infringed on her right to privacy. Brooks said he was flattered; the studio settled out of court for a small sum and an apology for “almost using her name.” Brooks said that Lamarr “never got the joke.”
Blazing Saddles grossed $120 million, becoming only the tenth film up to that time to pass the $100 million mark. The film received three Academy Award nominations: Best Supporting Actress for Madeline Kahn, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Song. The film also earned two BAFTA awards nominations, for Little and Best Screenplay. It won the Writers Guild of America Award for Original Screenplay for writers Brooks, Bergman and Pryor.