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.