RIP Gene Wilder, 83, Comic Genius Who Saved 'Blazing Saddles'
Of all his memorable movies roles – and Gene Wilder had many – my favorite was Wilder as the washed-up Waco kid gunslinger in Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles."
So why "Blazing Saddles," when news reports about his death today at age 83 from complications with Alzheimer's disease mention "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," "The Producers," "Young Frankenstein, "Stir Crazy," "Bonny and Clyde," "Silver Streak" or "The Woman In Red" with his wife, Gilda Radner?
Because Wilder wasn't supposed to be in Brooks' crazy Western spoof. It's one of my favorite stories from 30+ years as TV/Media writer.
Brooks first wanted legendary "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson for the role. Carson wisely turned him down, saying that he wasn't an actor.
Next Brooks asked 61-year-old show biz vet Dan Dailey ("Pride of St. Louis," "There’s No Business Like Show Business"). He agreed to it, then pulled out, "Blazing Saddles" co-writer with Brooks, Norman Steinberg, once told me.
So they hired 61-year-old Oscar-winner Gig Young ("That Touch of Mink," "They Shoot Horses Don't They?").
“He showed up the first day drunk, and fell on his face. Mel literally called Gene on a day’s notice and said, “You’ve got to do this for me!',” Steinberg said.
So Wilder, who was nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actor in Brooks' "The Producers" in 1967, came to save the film. (More "Blazing Saddles" trivia: The original choice for Sheriff Bart was comedian Richard Pryor, a writer for two weeks on the script, not Cleavon Little. And before they hired Harvey Korman to play villain Hedley Lamar, Brooks wanted longtime Western star John Carradine to spoof himself, playing a villain named John Carradine.)
I can't imagine "Blazing Saddles" without Gene Wilder – or with Johnny Carson, Dan Dailey, Richard Pryor or John Carradine. (Here's a YouTube clip of Wilder displaying the Waco Kid's "fastest hands in the world.")
After "Blazing Saddles," Brooks and Wilder collaborated on the script for "Young Frankenstein," and he starred in dozens of films and a TV series called "Something Wilder" (1994-95). He also earned an Oscar nomination for best screenplay adapted from other material for "Young Frankenstein."
Thanks for all the laughs. Anyone for one last roll in the hay?