Thursday, January 17, 2008

Casting 'The Waco Kid'

This is an article that was written as a supplement to the AMC DVD_TV Enhanced Version of Blazing Saddles, which aired in December 2007.

Blazing Saddles: The Accidental Casting of the Ideal ‘Waco Kid’

Though it’s now difficult to imagine anyone but Gene Wilder as ‘The Waco Kid,’ he was far from Mel Brooks’ first choice for the role. In fact, Wilder was practically the opposite of what Brooks was looking for.

Wilder recalled that in 1973, “Mel was in California doing preproduction on a film he had lined up before Young Frankenstein. It was called Black Bart. The title was later changed to Blazing Saddles. He sent me a copy of the script… I wasn’t there at the inception, in the writing stage, but that script was one of the things that made me want to do the film. Because the writers have done something remarkable, in that they’ve smashed racism in the face and its nose is bleeding. But they’re doing it while you laugh.”

“When Mel had a week off, he came to New York and wanted to have a working session on Young Frank, as he always called it,” said Wilder. “He came to my place, and we spent 45 minutes making coffee and discussing the merits of different brands while we ate a little rugelach. This was a ritual with Mel before anything serious could be discussed. While we were having our coffee and rugelachs, Mel asked me to play the part of Hedley Lamarr in Black Bart. I said, ‘Oh Mel, I’m all wrong for that part – but how about Jim, the Waco Kid?’ Mel said, ‘No, I need an older guy – someone who could look like an over-the-hill alcoholic. I’m trying to get Dan Dailey.’”

Mel Brooks had been searching for the perfect ‘Waco Kid’ for some time. “Dan Dailey was my choice. Strange choice, but I thought: leather-faced, big heart. I heard from people he was the best rider in the world of any actor, except the cowboy actors… Ben Johnson and Slim Pickens were the best riders in the world. But for a civilian, Dan Dailey, who was a song and dance man and a great actor, was the best horse rider. He could do anything on a horse.”

Brooks recalled, “I said to Gene, ‘You’re too young, you can’t play the Waco Kid. I need an old alky, a guy with lines in his face. You know, an old man.’ So Gene said, ‘I can do it. I’m telling you I can do it. I love this guy. I can do it.’ I said, ‘No, you can’t do it.’ But he wouldn’t back down. Anyway, I said, ‘We’ll work again on something else, Gene, but Blazing Saddles is not it.’”

Wilder recalled, “When coffee matters were finished, we went into my study and talked for about an hour about Frankenstein. The next day, Mel took off for Los Angeles to start filming Blazing Saddles, and I started writing Young Frankenstein… Shortly after I finished the first draft, I got a call from Stanley Donen, who asked me to do the part of The Fox in the movie of Saint-ExupĂ©ry’s classic book, The Little Prince.”

Meanwhile, the casting process was not going well for Mel Brooks. “I got Dan Dailey on the phone in Hawaii and I said, ‘Come on, come on.’ He said, ‘I love it. It’s so crazy and so touching and I love it. Let me think.’ Then he called me back and said, ‘I’m blind, I can’t see. I’m wearing coke bottles for glasses. It would be dangerous.’”

So Brooks started thinking about who else could play a drunk, worn-out old gunfighter. “I met John Wayne at the commissary,” Brooks remembered. “I gave the script to him. He said, ‘I’ll meet you here tomorrow at 12 noon, the same table. I’ll read this overnight.’ And he read it and he said, ‘I can’t do this. This is too dirty. I’m John Wayne. But man, I was up all night screaming, laughing. I’m gonna be the first one on line to see this movie.’”

After trying to convince Johnny Carson to take the part, Brooks settled on Academy Award-winner Gig Young, who had a well-known drinking problem. Brooks recalled, “I had seen a movie called They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? with Gig Young in it and I said, ‘He’s an old alky, great.’ I got the guy.”

So on the first morning of filming, Cleavon Little and Gig Young began shooting the jail cell scene where their characters meet. Brooks recalled, “We draped Gig Young’s legs over and hung him upside down. And he started to talk and he started shaking. 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.”

“I stopped production, Friday at noon,” Brooks recalled. “I said, ‘We’re in for a day, whatever a day costs – $30,000, $20,000. That’s a day. Everybody go home. We have to think.’ I called up Gene Wilder I told him what happened.” Wilder was at home in New York when he got the call. “Mel called from a soundstage at Warner Bros. He said, ‘I need you right now!’ I said, ‘Mel, I have to be in London in two weeks to do The Little Prince for Stanley Donen.’ Mel said, ‘Call him up! Ask him if you can come later!’ So I called Stanley, who said, ‘Do you really want to do it?’ I said, ‘Well, I want to help out Mel.’ Stanley said, ‘All right, I’ll put you at the end of the schedule instead of the beginning.’ And the next day I was on a plane.”

That was a huge relief for Mel Brooks. “Gene said, ‘OK. I’ll be out tomorrow morning. There’s a night flight. We’ll go over the costumes tomorrow. I’ve got the script.’ I’d kept sending him updated versions of the script, because he’s my pal. So he said, ‘I’ll read it on the plane. We’ll just do it. You just set it up for Monday morning.’ And I did. He came out. Saturday, there he was. We got him outfitted. We worked on his hair and we got him a horse. On Sunday, he rode the horse all day to get used to the horse, and he was pretty good.”

“On Monday morning, eight o’clock, he was hanging upside down,” Brooks said. “We only lost a half a day, because I’d covered with Cleavon the other half of that first day – his close-ups, his entrance. Gene just hooked his boots, hung down and said, ‘Are we black?’ He saved my life, because he’s not only a genius actor, but he’s a good friend. And he never said, ‘I told you so.’ I wanted an old alky. I got a young Jew from New York – and he was magnificent.”

Blazing Saddles DVD: “Back In the Saddle” Featurette
Blazing Saddles DVD: Director Commentary
“Interview with Gene Wilder,” Larry King Live, CNN, 5/2/02
Gene Wilder, Kiss Me Like a Stranger, 2005
James Robert Parish, It’s Good To Be the King, 2007

1 comment:

sambson said...

This incident was also covered in Marc Maron's podcast with Mel Brooks (episode 358).