Mel Brooks’s beloved Blazing Saddles, about the rise of a Black sheriff in the American west of 1874, is widely regarded as the most audacious comedy of the legendary director’s career. A subversive, fearless satire bent on tackling the ever-present absurdity of prejudice, it has maintained an impressive and growing fan base for half a century. On the 50th anniversary of the movie’s release, here are some remarkable tidbits about one of the greatest spoofs ever made.
1. Blazing Saddles could have starred Richard Pryor.
Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder were frequent collaborators over the year, having co-starred in four films together between 1976 and 1991 (Silver Streak; Stir Crazy; See No Evil, Hear No Evil; and Another You). Had things worked out differently, Blazing Saddles could have been their first big-screen co-venture. For a time, Pryor—who did secure a writing credit on the film—was going to play Sheriff Bart. In 2013, during a conversation at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, Wilder explained that Pryor’s addiction issues caused him to lose the part to Cleavon Little.
2. It was originally going to be titled Tex X: An Homage to Malcolm X.
3. John Wayne politely declined an offer to appear in Blazing Saddles.
As Brooks was really hoping to include the Western genre’s most recognizable star in Blazing Saddles, he asked John Wayne to read the script. Although the Duke apparently found it hilarious, he chose not to join the cast, fearing for his career. However, Wayne reportedly declared, “I’ll be the first one in line to see it!”
4. Blazing Saddles was the first movie to incorporate audible flatulence.
“Blazing Saddles, for me, was a film that truly broke ground. It also broke wind … and maybe that’s why it broke ground,” Brooks once said. Having noticed that that cowboys in traditional westerns generally subsisted on a diet of canned beans, Brooks argued that, “you can only eat so many beans without some noise happening there.” (He had a point.)
The resulting fart scene, in which a gang of thugs pass gas around a campfire, made movie history. Brooks knew this gag would get a big reaction, so he deliberately “made the farts louder” to prevent the audience’s laughter from drowning them out. However, despite his foresight, the offending noises were muted in the Blazing Saddles TV release.
5. The hulking henchman “Mongo” was portrayed by a former NFL player.
Alex Karras was a defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions who began appearing in films during the early 1960s. (The scene in which Mongo punches out a horse was inspired by Brooks’s former boss, comedian Sid Caesar, who supposedly knocked one unconscious in real life.) Karras would later begin acting on the small screen and is perhaps best known for playing George Papadapolis in the 1980s sitcom Webster.
6. Slim Pickens slept outside with a Winchester rifle to get a feel for his character.
To get into the mind of Taggart, his cowboy character, Slim Pickens chose to spend most nights sleeping outdoors, with his rifle in hand. If you want to see Taggart’s noggin meet the business end of a shovel, check out the hilarious—and definitely NSFW—clip above.
7. Gene Wilder was far from Brooks’s first choice to play “The Waco Kid.”
“He was magnificent!” Brooks said of Wilder in the 2004 Blazing Saddles DVD documentary Back in the Saddle. Multiple actors, including Johnny Carson, turned down the part before screen veteran Gig Young was hired for the role. At first Young seemed perfect for the boozy character … until it became painfully clear that he struggled with alcohol in real life. During the first day of shooting, the actor—who was reportedly going through alcohol withdrawals—became violently ill and had to be rushed to a nearby hospital.
“We draped Gig Young’s legs over and hung him upside down. And he started to talk and he started shaking,” Brooks recalled of shooting the scene. “I said, ‘This guy’s giving me a lot. He is giving plenty. He’s giving me the old alky shake. 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 cast anybody who really is that person.’ If you want an alcoholic, don’t cast an alcoholic … Anyway, poor Gig Young, it was the first shot on Friday, nine in the morning, and an ambulance came and took him away. I had no movie.”
Fortunately, Wilder knew most of “the Kid’s” lines and was able to take over the part almost immediately.
8. Wilder pitched the premise of Young Frankenstein to Brooks on the set of Blazing Saddles.
Young Frankenstein, the movie that would become Brooks’s next directorial project, began with an idea Wilder approached him about while filming Saddles. “His idea was very simple,” Brooks said. “What if the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein wanted nothing to do with the family whatsoever? He was ashamed of those wackos. I said, ‘That’s funny.’”
Young Frankenstein was released in December 1974, the same year Blazing Saddles arrived in theaters.
9. Max Brooks was born during the movie’s lengthy writing process.
Max Brooks—the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft—was born while his dad was busy writing the film. Max has gone on to have an impressive writing career of his own, focusing largely on zombie stories like World War Z. (You can check out his official site here.)
10. Madeline Kahn earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of saloon singer Lili von Shtupp.
After being fired from the cast of Mame (1974), Madeline Kahn took the part of a saloon singer in Blazing Saddles and earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for the role. The film marked the first of several collaborations with Brooks (including Young Frankenstein).
11. Blazing Saddles almost spawned a TV series.
The pilot for a spinoff TV series called Black Bart was filmed in 1975. Unfortunately, it never got picked up.
12. Many people consider Blazing Saddles one of the greatest comedies ever made.
The American Film Institute ranked Blazing Saddles No. 6 on its list of the 100 Funniest Movies of All Time. In 2006, it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” enough to be selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. Additionally, former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg cited Blazing Saddles as his all-time favorite film, and the late Roger Ebert gave it a perfect four-star rating, describing it as “a crazed grab bag of a movie that does everything to keep us laughing except hit us over the head with a rubber chicken … It’s an audience picture; it doesn’t have a lot of classy polish and its structure is a total mess. But of course! What does that matter when Alex Karras is knocking a horse cold with a right sock to the jaw?”