Interview – Burton Gilliam

Interview – Burton Gilliam

It is not often a person has the opportunity to live two different lives. Many times, for better or worse, we are consumed by a career until the day we retire from the hustle and bustle. Then there are the unique and inspiring stories of individuals such as Burton Gilliam, a Texan man who had 14 years of service in the fire department before being lured away into a career of acting. As much of a surprise to him as to anyone who knew him, Gilliam would go on to attain success after appearing in 1973’s Paper Moon and the memorable role of Lyle in Mel Brook’s 1974 Comedy classic Blazing Saddles. An unexpected turn of events, Gilliam has since starred in a list of films, television series, and commercials, always leaving an impression beyond how short or long he remains on the screen. Recently we caught up with the gracious performer to talk his introduction to the world of acting, his experience working on Blazing Saddles, living the dream, plus more. – You have been involved in film and television for over four decades now. First and foremost, what inspired you to pursue a career in acting?

Burton Gilliam – I never thought about being an actor until I was one. I saw an article in the Dallas paper in about June of 1972 and it said some big director I never heard of, Peter Bogdanovich, was coming to Dallas to audition people to be extras in a picture called Paper Moon (1973). It said Ryan O’Neal was the star of the show, and I thought, “My goodness, I might get to see Ryan O’Neal. I think I might like to go try and be one of those extras and see what they do.” I went down, the line was over 450 people, and over a 2-week period I wound up with the sixth largest part in the picture. I took a vacation from the fire department and they halted me off to St. Joseph, Missouri, to do the picture.

I came back to the fire department, never thinking I would do anything again; never entered my mind, I thought it was a one shot deal. Well, about 4 months later I received a phone call from a guy who said his name was Mel Brooks and I had never heard of Mel Brooks, but he convinced me who he was and he wanted me to come out and talk to him about a picture called Blazing Saddles. I said I can’t because I didn’t have any more vacation time, he thought that was funny. (Laughs)

Anyway, he convinced me to come out and see him; I went out and told him no the first time. Then, Richard Pryor called me about week later and said we really want you to do this part, we have rewritten it for you. I went back to see him again and told him no again, because they couldn’t get together with money. Mel said the casting department handles all the money, which is almost true but not quite. They told me there wasn’t any money in the picture so I said I’m gone. I went back to Dallas and next thing I know I get a call from Mel and he asked what happened, I said you don’t have any money. Mel asked, “How much did they offer you?” I told him they didn’t offer me anything, they said you don’t have any money. Connie called me back in a few minutes, I went back to see Mel again, sat down in front of him, and he said, “Look, how much is it going to take to get you to do this part?” He thought I was going to shoot the moon on this scene and I thought I was too! (Laughs)

Now this is early February of 1973, and I told him, “Well, with the fire department I make $12,000 a year.” Now I know that impressed him. (Laughs) I told him I couldn’t quit the fire department for less than I make in the whole year. He said, “$12,000. We are going to give you 3 weeks, that would be $4,000 a week, that is fine.” It was just like that! I must tell you I have thought it over through the years and I know I left some money on that table, I don’t know how much, but I know left some. (Laughs)

I told him I’d do it and about 3 weeks later we started the picture. I quit the fire department, and everybody said you are crazy! You have 14 years here in the fire department, you are giving up all of that? I told them, “Yeah, but Peter Bogdanovich told me I could do this. There is a guy named Mel Brooks, and I am already talking to some of the people in the movies and they say I can do it.” I did it, and I have to say I proved a lot of people wrong.

Paramount Pictures

Universal Pictures – Wow, what a story! You risked giving up a career to start a new one. Look at where you are today, you have done so many films/television series through the years.

Burton Gilliam – I tell you it has been the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me in my life, outside very personal things such as getting married, having kids, and grandkids. It really has been the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me. I have tried to tell that a number of times to Mel Brooks. He just shoos it off, he won’t except the fact that if it weren’t for him I would be a retired firefighter; I would be living down in East Texas, I would have a couple of cows. (Laughs) He won’t even talk about that but it is because of him, if he hadn’t of stayed after me, I would have been a retired firefighter right now. – Things worked out wonderfully. You will actually be at a special screening of Blazing Saddles on April 28th at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, New York. Will you be speaking at the event?

Burton Gilliam – Yes, I have done this many times. Mel Brooks has done it a number of times, but it’s a real big thing – Mel gets $60,000 a pop, I don’t get that. (Laughs) What I will do is I will get there before the film starts, introduce it, then we will all watch it, then after the film is over I will do a Q&A. That is the part I love the most, because I really like to think people sometimes come up with questions that make me really think, “Hey, how did we do this?” or “How did I say this?” That is the best part of the whole evening for me. – And it is exciting to get to meet fans who are so passionate about the film. After all these years, are you still surprised at how people have so much interest in the movie?

Burton Gilliam – As everybody knows, we can’t ever do that picture ever again. There will never be another one like it, it just can’t be done. Having that being said, it is still as popular today, with all ages, as it was back then. I mean people everyday say, “Hey, you are in Blazing Saddles? My daddy showed me that picture when I was 13 years-old.” I get that everywhere, all day long. I recently played in a golf tournament, played with a man and his son who was 14 years-old, and they knew they were going to play with me, so he told his son the day before it’s time you see Blazing Saddle. That happens all the time. Yeah, it can’t be made again, but it’s still high on the popularity list. – It certainly is an all-time classic Comedy.

Burton Gilliam – If Mel was sitting right here and the third man in on this conversation, if you asked him if he thought this thing was going to do what it has done? He would tell you no, I had no idea! He would tell you Warner Brothers gave me $3,000,000, told me to go have a good time, and we did it. That was really what it was all about – having a good time and hoping something good came out of the picture – but nobody had any idea it was going to be what it turned out to be.

Blazing Saddles still. © Warner Bros. – That is really special when these unexpected surprises happen. You will also be at Chiller Theatre in New Jersey the weekend of April 27th through 29th signing autographs and meeting fans. It will be a very busy weekend.

Burton Gilliam – It’s going to be really busy. We star Chiller Theatre Friday, and that Saturday will be really busy because we will leave the signing show, drive over to Huntington, and on the way we are going to stop for dinner at a well-known hamburger place. We are going to stop, meet the folks, sign some pictures, and have a good time! – That is great, it sounds like it will be a blast. Have you ever been a guest at Chiller Theatre in the past?

Burton Gilliam – No I have not, but I understand it is huge! I know a lot of people that I have worked with and people I have met, actors, who will be there. It will be like a reunion for me and I am really looking forward to this, it’s going to be a fun time. I have done signings before, but not on the scale that Chiller is, this is huge. – Yes, Chiller Theatre is a great event. Fans will no doubt have plenty of stories to tell you when meeting you.

Burton Gilliam – The best part is not that they will get to meet me, but I will get to meet them. I love to meet new people and talking to them. It’s part of my nature, it’s what I do. (Laughs) Mel Brooks couldn’t have chosen a better person to do the part that I did because I knew after reading the script, I was going to have fun doing this thing and the people I was working with, they were going to have fun too.

Universal Pictures

Columbia Pictures – That excitement bleeds through in the film. You have done a lot of different roles in film and television through the years. Of your many roles you have had many roles in Comedy. Do you enjoy working in Comedy?

Burton Gilliam – Yes, because in Comedy you give them more than they really want, that is what I found; a lot of times they like more, they can always bring down, but they can’t take you up. That is why I like Comedy, because I can be as broad as I want to be with it. – And you always have had memorable roles in films, no matter how big or small.

Burton Gilliam – That’s right! They have given me some of the greatest lines that I could not ever had imagined having if I had not Blazing Saddles to bump everything off of. When I did Paper Moon, I played a character that was so broad and overtime it set the whole broad character in me free and let me go. – It has always stood out. With Blazing Saddles, beyond working with Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor, you worked with a wonderful cast of stars. What was it like working with everyone?

Burton Gilliam – Well, let me backup a little. When I did Paper Moon, I worked with Madeline Kahn there as well. When we finished the picture, she had to get back to New York, so she finished a Friday night, I finished the next night. She had to get back so took the red eye flight, but when she did, about 7 PM, about the 1st of December, she knocked on my door and told me how nice it was to work with me, she had a great time, and just knew the picture was going to be well-received. I was so brand new, I didn’t know what to say but when she turned to leave the room, she turned back in again, and said, “Burton, you and I are going to work together in this business again.”

Madeline was way out yonder in many ways, she said, “I know things that people know.” When I tell this story, right now, I am getting chills; I have told this story many times. She told me you and I are going to work together in this business because I know you are good. It is going to happen again for you and me. I told her I am going back to the fire station, she said I don’t care what you are going back to, you and I are going to work together again. About 5 months later we are doing Blazing Saddles, and she had nothing to do with it. When I walked in the room and saw her, she said, “Are you in this picture?” I said, “Yeah, I am.” She jumped up, grabbed me around the neck, and said I told you, I told you!

But to work with all those people in Blazing Saddles, the closest thing to probably a superstar, and he wasn’t one yet, was either Harvey Korman or Gene Wilder. They weren’t super-superstars; we didn’t have superstars, we had people that were just really great at what they did, working actors. It was an ensemble cast, and everybody who was a so-called star in the picture had something to do and we all did it pretty doggone well.

L to R – Michael J. Fox and Burton Gilliam in Back to the Future Part III. © Universal Pictures. – That certainly was great chemistry. What can you tell us about some future projects?

Burton Gilliam – I wish I could tell you, but I don’t have a thing in that genre. I know I will always do television, but I haven’t done a picture in 3 years. I get to do a lot of commercials, I do about 50 commercial a year, and they are all written for me. The Blazing Saddles character is my brand, and all the commercial I do is off of that character. It started around 10 years ago, now, when I do all these commercials, they say we want you to do the Blazing Saddles‘ character. We don’t refer to the Blazing Saddles‘ character, I am just there, I have the wardrobe, and people know that’s the guy from Blazing Saddles.

I am at an age, now I don’t look my age, I am going to be 80 in 3 months, and I can pass all day long for 62. I am really satisfied with the career I’ve had. Though, I really do think there is one more big thing out there for me. I don’t know what it’s going to be, I suspect it’s going to be a picture, but I know there is one more big left there. I am ready to get it done. – That would be exciting to see it! You are still going strong into 80 and that is really special.

Burton Gilliam – And I get to go all over the country and do presentations of Blazing Saddles, personal appearances; this is so far beyond than what I would have ever expected when I got in the business. I will tell you something very serious, my mom and dad passed away shortly after I got in the business, they never knew I was going to be an actor, they had no idea. I can tell you this, my mom and dad would be so proud of their number 2 son, but there is something that goes with that, they wouldn’t certainly be surprised. – Yes and they are smiling down on you right now. Last question for you. On CrypticRock we cover a good deal of Horror and Sci-Fi films. Do you have good memories of doing the few Horror films you have be a part of?

Burton Gilliam – I did a picture called The Terror Within 2 (1991), which was directed by my friend Andrew Stevens. We just lost one of our other actors, R. Lee Ermey, passed away recently. I have only done a couple of Horror films, but man, they are so much fun! Most of those aren’t big budgeted pictures, but boy, they are so fun to do. They work so fast, you have to be on your toes, it is almost like working television – television moves a little too fast for me, I like to take my time. When you do those kind of films, it is always so much fun.

Warner Bros.

For more on Burton Gilliam’s special appearance Saturday, April 28th, at the Cinema Arts Centre visit here

For more information on Chiller Theatre visit here 

Purchase Blazing Saddles:

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