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Brooks (jokingly) ablaze over Saddles honour

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Cleavon Little (top), Mel Brooks (left) and Harvey Korman in a scene from Blazing Saddles, which is 40 years old.

WARNER BROS. Enlarge Image

Cleavon Little (top), Mel Brooks (left) and Harvey Korman in a scene from Blazing Saddles, which is 40 years old.

Mel Brooks has a bone to pick with the American Film Institute, which bestowed a lifetime-achievement award on the comedic icon in 2013.

It was a great honour. But somehow, Brooks' 1974 classic Blazing Saddles ended up No. 6 on the AFI's list of all-time greatest comedies, behind films such as 1959's Some Like It Hot (No. 1) and 1933's Duck Soup (No. 5). Filmmakers would kill for the coveted spot. Not Brooks, 87, who still comically fumes over his placement.

"I am so angry at the AFI. Blazing Saddles should be No. 1. And then there should be 50 spaces before the next one gets into the running." Brooks co-wrote, directed and starred in the film. "I don't think there's a movie in history -- even (Charlie) Chaplin, (Buster) Keaton and Harold Lloyd -- that could beat it for laughs. It's the most real belly laughs of any movie ever made."

To be fair, Brooks even puts it above his own other classics, such as 1968's The Producers (No. 11 on the list) and 1974's Young Frankenstein (No. 13). But as Blazing Saddles celebrates its 40th anniversary with a Blu-ray release, the film continues to earn universal comedic respect and more belly laughs.

"I love Blazing Saddles," says Seth MacFarlane, star of his own western comedy, A Million Ways to Die in the West, due May 30. "Actually, anyone in comedy who has good taste loves Blazing Saddles."

Despite its crude humour, which includes an infamous campfire scene featuring the digestive impact of beans and coffee on cowboys, even critics admit it's a classic. In 2006, Blazing Saddles was added to the National Film Registry for the Library of Congress. Brooks says he was proud of the honour for a movie that does deal with serious themes.

"I think maybe they didn't see the campfire parts," he says with a laugh. "But the movie still resonates and will never die. The engine that runs the movie is hatred and race prejudice."

Blazing Saddles might be set in 1874, but its story of a black sheriff trying to win over racist small-town America resonated in 1974 and still does 40 years later. Its frequent use of the n-word was shocking, but the term was placed into the screenplay by African-American comedian Richard Pryor, who "worked by my side," Brooks says.

"I would say, 'Richard, do you think we have to use that word here?' and he'd say, 'You must, you must,'" Brooks says. "If the bad guys couldn't say that word, we couldn't have our victory or comeuppance. We couldn't have our hero ride out in a blaze of glory."

Brooks almost abandoned the project when the studio refused to allow Pryor -- who was suffering from personal issues that made his work sporadic -- to portray the heroic black sheriff. But Pryor insisted that the show go on, and stage actor Cleavon Little was a memorable replacement, along with Gene Wilder as his sidekick and Madeline Kahn as a dance-hall performer.

"I know we would have gotten more laughs (with Pryor). But we didn't need that," Brooks says. "And with Richard writing it, he came up with great, great scenes."

The ride continues, with talk of a Broadway musical version -- "I have a few tunes in mind. We'll see," Brooks says. And there are future milestones, such as a 50th anniversary in 2024, which Brooks promises to blow out in true Old West style.

"Well, a lot depends on me being alive," he says. "But if I am alive, we should have a big campfire on the Warner Bros. sound stage and invite everyone still alive from the film and serve nothing but black coffee and beans. And then we'll see what happens."

-- USA Today

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 7, 2014 D8

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