Gene Wilder's Blazing Saddles Role Almost Went To John Wayne

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Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder had a truly incredible 1974. It is rare enough that someone makes a comedy that stands the test of time as one of the greatest films in history, regardless of genre classification. They made two. Amazingly, "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein" were both released in the same year, and I would consider "Young Frankenstein" to be the funniest film ever made, with "Blazing Saddles" not too far behind it. These two films, along with Brooks and Wilder's 1968 Oscar-winning breakout "The Producers," show two comedy kindred spirits operating at a high level. Each one brings out the best in each other, and I wish it didn't stop with just those three movies.

Well, it was almost just two movies. For as simpatico as those two comic geniuses were at the time, Gene Wilder was not originally going to play The Waco Kid (known to his friends as Jim). In fact, Brooks was not particularly looking for a funny actor to play that part. He wanted someone directly from the old Westerns that "Blazing Saddles" was lovingly skewering.

If you think about classic Hollywood Westerns, chances are pretty good that the first name that comes to your mind is John Wayne. With "Stagecoach," "The Searchers," "True Grit," and dozens of other Westerns under his belt, he became a brand name unto himself, and if he wasn't wearing a cowboy hat, you thought something was wrong. It seems hard to believe, but Wayne was the first actor approached for the role. However, Brooks' sense of humor was a little too blue for the Duke.

Can't be in a dirty movie

In 1973, John Wayne was shooting the Western "Cahill U.S. Marshal," where he played Cahill who was ... well ... a U.S. Marshal. This was a Warner Bros. picture, which just so happened to be the same studio behind "Blazing Saddles." Mel Brooks was writing the final draft of what was called at the time "Black Bart" when he ran into John Wayne in the WB commissary. (Side note: Why don't we hear tales of studio commissaries anymore? I love the intermingling of all the films shooting on the studio lot.)

Mel Brooks recalls in the book "John Wayne: The Life and Legend" by Scott Eyman how he approached Wayne and asked him to be in the movie:

"He knew who I was. [H]e had seen and loved 'The Producers.' Before he could change his mind I slammed the script on the table and said, 'Please read it at your convenience — like the next hour.' ... I met him at the same table at the same time the next day, and he said, 'I read it and found myself actually laughing out loud. It's much too rough and raw. I could never be in a movie that used the N-word, or that had such low-down dirty talk. I'm sorry I can't be in your movie but I promise you I'll be the first one in line to see it.'"

John Wayne had an image to uphold and wasn't going to let this affect that. While a nifty bit of stunt casting, I don't think he would've been right to play that part. His star power would throw the balance off from the film's lead, Cleavon Little (or Richard Pryor, who the role was written for). I'm glad he passed.

Gig gets the gig

Mel Brooks wanted someone older in this role, which makes sense if you look at the character on paper. The Waco Kid is a washed-up alcoholic who used to be the fastest hand in the West. This is a guy past his prime, and having an older actor fits that bill. His next choice was Dan Dailey, a former musical comedy star, who also passed because it was too dirty. Ultimately, the person cast in the role was Gig Young, the character actor who had won the Academy Award for "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" a few years earlier. He was pushing 60 years old when he got cast. Young was also an alcoholic.

His first day of shooting was the Waco Kid's introduction, where he is hanging upside down in a jail cell. In the audio commentary for "Blazing Saddles," Brooks tells the story as to why Gig Young is not in the picture:

"We drape Gig Young's legs over the bed and hung him upside down, and he started to talk, and then he started shaking. I said, 'Boy, this guy's giving me a lot. He is giving me plenty. He's giving me the old, alchy shake, you know. Great.' And then it got serious because the shaking never stopped, and green stuff started spewing out of his mouth and nose. And he started screaming, and I said, 'That's the last time I'll ever really cast anybody who is that person.' You know, if you want an alcoholic, don't cast an alcoholic. Cast somebody, maybe an actor, who can play an alcoholic."

So, an ambulance came and took Gig Young away, and Mel Brooks had no Waco Kid. So, he called up his buddy Gene.

Landed on the perfect choice

Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder had been in the early stages of writing "Young Frankenstein" when Wilder got the call about "Blazing Saddles." Being a good friend and a mensch, he agreed to help out and come do the movie. Gig Young began his brief stint of shooting on a Friday morning, and Gene Wilder started shooting the following Monday. The rest is history.

While the impulse to have an older white guy paired with a young Black man makes sense in the riff of the Western, I think having the two be contemporaries that we can truly buy as friends is the secret sauce of "Blazing Saddles." When those two ride off into the sunset together at the end of the movie, we can imagine a whole host of adventures between the two of them for many years to come. Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder also both come from the New York theatre scene of the 1960s, and even if they never worked together before, you can feel the same spirit within them. They act as two halves of the same whole, not old school meeting new school.

Mel Brooks may not have gotten his first choices for these two characters, but he landed with the right ones. Now, you cannot imagine anyone else playing Sheriff Bart and the Waco Kid beside Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder. "Blazing Saddles" with Richard Pryor and John Wayne wouldn't have the heart that makes you come back to the movie over and over again.