[INTERVIEW] DFW Native Burton Gilliam Discusses Blazing Saddles And His Career

Burton Gilliam Blazing Saddles

Hollywood legend Burton Gilliam is a DFW native with quite the impressive resume. Some may know him locally for his car dealership ads in the early 90s but most will recognize him for his roles in Blazing Saddles, Back to the Future III, and Paper Moon. His Texan grin and charm landed him roles in some of the most notable films in history. However, he is far from the typical Hollywood actor.

Gilliam began his career as a Dallas Fire Fighter and boxer. After deciding it would be neat to audition for a role as an extra in a movie, he immediately landed his big break and was thrust into acting. After his first movie was a success, he was soon cast as Lyle in Blazing Saddles. Now 83, Gilliam still holds the role close to heart and remembers it vividly.

Gilliam will be appearing at the Dallas Comic Show this weekend, November 6th and 7th. Fans will have the opportunity to meet the legendary actor in person for autographs and pictures. Due to the fact that Gilliam is a DFW resident and film icon, we could not wait until Dallas Comic Show to have a few words with him. Fortunately, he was kind enough to grant us an interview in advance to talk about his life and career. Read below to see our exclusive interview with Burton Gilliam!

People usually associate you with the western genre. What is your favorite western movie?

Blazing Saddles, without a doubt. It’s the biggest thing that ever happened to me in my motion picture life. I started in a picture four months before called Paper Moon, which really put me on the map although I didn’t know that it was going to. I was a fireman in Dallas for 14 years. Just through luck, I got in this picture called Paper Moon and, boy, it started something that I was not prepared for.

You went from a fireman to Hollywood star with Paper Moon. Your interview as an extra turned into a full-blown career. Why do you think the director was so impressed with you?

Well, one reason was Civil Shepherd. She was going with [the director] Peter Bogdanovich and she loved me. As soon as we met, she was saying, “Honey, he’s just so cute. Give him the part; give him the part!” So, that's what he did. I guess it did take about five days for it to sink in but Paramount casting calling and said, “Peter wants you to do this.” I said, “Well, okay, let's do it. I'll take my vacation from the Dallas Fire Department in the weeks coming up and we'll do this because that's what they wanted.” They brought me up to Kansas City, and then drove me on into St. Joseph. That's where it all started, right there.

Social standards today would obviously never allow Blazing Saddles to go into production if it was filmed in 2021.

[Laughs] No. Blazing Saddles can never be reached. No way. Mel knows that. I talk to him all the time and he's so thankful that we had about a two-year period in there to do it. Before that two-year period, we couldn't do it and after that two-year period we certainly couldn't do it again. It has always been one of the top comedian pictures ever done and will continue to be high on that list. We just couldn't do it again.

If it couldn’t be made today, why do you think there are generations still so obsessed with the movie. How is that even possible?

I have no idea and Mel Brooks has no idea either. It's just phenomenal, the way it has lasted and will continue to last.

You were at the helm of cinema’s first “fart joke."

Oh, boy!

That is quite an accomplishment. Has Guinness or anyone else given you an award or official recognition for it?

They should! We were out in desert about 125 miles northeast of Los Angeles and Mel knocked on my trailer door at about 7:30 in the morning. He said, “Well, I'm going to make you famous today.” I said, “What?” He answered, “Yeah, you know what we're doing? You're going to be the first one and it has never been done in motion picture history.” And I didn't know that. Wow, don't you know that my mom and dad would be so proud of me?

Who wouldn’t be? You are also known for your scene singing Camptown Races. How did you come up with your dance?

I just made up my own little dance, and the other guys followed me. The first take we did, we went all the way through it. Mel said, “Cut. Man, that is great. I want you to continue doing that, but we can't use that one.” I didn't know anything about going out of the camera or their loop. I was all over the place. I went down probably 15ft that way and 15ft that way doing my little dance. He said, “You've got to stay within the camera range.” He got out of stick and drew an area about 10ft by 10ft. He said, “You can't go out of that right there. You’ve got to stay within that.” He did end up using pieces of it though. It took over a day to shoot that because we had so many people in the scene and they did close ups on everybody. Like to said, I didn't know what I was doing but I knew that I was doing it right because everybody was laughing at it. Mel Brooks was laughing at is, so I knew I was doing it right whether I was going out of camera range or not. I was still doing it right.

You mentioned laughing. I know you've talked in other interviews about how the cast would constantly crack up while filming scenes. Were you and the rest of the cast professional when you were together off camera or did the shenanigans just continue?

I was as close with the extras as I was with the cast, which I didn't know is really unusual. The stars of the picture, any picture, for some reason, don't really associate with most of the extras on the picture. It's just not the way they do things, but I've always been really close to the extras because they make the scene happen. If it weren't for the extras, gosh, you'd just be out there trying to make a scene happen. It's the people behind you that are really doing it for you.

Of course, Gene Wilder was your costar in the film. Willy Wonka was such a huge success just 3 years before Blazing Saddles was released and fans tend perceive actors as their characters. Were you initially able to separate Wilder from his eccentric candy-making counterpart?

It was as easy as falling off a log because Gene was never anywhere being close to the character that he plays and I don’t mean just on Blazing Saddles or Willy Wonka. Gene Wilder was not funny. He did not get funny until the words came out of his mouth and then he went back to being Gene Wilder. Gene was a guy who was very serious all of the time. He wasn’t so serious that people didn’t like him, but he always had his nose in a book or script and was not talking about the scene that was about to take place. He just wasn’t a funny guy until the words came off the page, into his mouth, and out of his mouth.

The current film industry is saturated with sequels and overdone plots. Can you please talk Mel Brooks into doing one final masterpiece?

He has done a lot of great pictures. To me, nothing will ever replace Blazing Saddles because I wasn’t in the other pictures.

You had just finished Paper Moon before joining Blazing Saddles. Did Mel Brooks or Gene Wilder give you any advice?

Mel Brooks never said anything but Gene did. When you are filming, a scene could take an entire day. He would always say, “Just think about what this character might really be thinking in the back of his head while you are doing this. Where is he coming from and what is he thinking about?” Gosh, I would do that and it would just solidify what I was already doing. I would tell him that I would do that and would think about it. Every time I would think, “I’m holding back here. I need to really go for it and get it done rather than being timid or playing underneath the character.” I would open up and play over the top with the character just like Gene Wilder did. Look at those things he did, crazy things, like Willy Wonka. My gosh. Through him, even though he was really laid back while off the camera, I learned to really go for it like he always did.

You are a DFW native. How has being from Dallas played a role in your career?

It made me more secure. I had to quit my job from the Dallas Fire Department but I had a life long before I became an actor. A lot of actors don’t. They have set their sights on becoming an actor and became one or they set their sights on it and it didn’t work. That is true for the most part. I’ve always been a Dallas/Fort Worth guy. I went to Woodrow Wilson High School and I am in their hall of fame because of what I did with Blazing Saddles and winning more golden gloves that anyone in the history of the sport over a ten-year period. There are only about 49 of us. I wasn’t popular in high school at all but, boy, my part in Blazing Saddles and my track record winning golden gloves put me into their hall of fame.

Don't miss your opportunity to meet Burton Gilliam this weekend at the Dallas Comic Show to have some of your own questions answered. Dallas Comic Show will be held at Music City Mall in Lewisville, just off highway 35. The convention offers free parking, inexpensive tickets, a larger selection of vendors, and a number of notable guests. For more information or tickets check out their site by clicking here!