By his own count, Burton Gilliam has acted in “52 movies, a couple hundred TV shows, and I don’t know how many commercials.” But he’ll forever be remembered as part of the first, and most epic, fart joke in cinematic history.
“Not just ‘a part of,’ ” boasts Gilliam, who costarred in in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles as Lyle, the racist cowboy with the ear-to-ear grin. “I am the very first one. I set the stage for all those other guys. You can only do those things so many times before you got to say, ‘Hey, I’m worn out. Gimme the sound effects.’ But I think I did a good job.”
Blazing Saddles was only the second time that Dallas-born Gilliam, who turned 80 in August, ever stepped in front of a movie camera. He had already lived a dramatic life, first as a boxer in the Coast Guard and then as a firefighter in Dallas for 14 years. He’ll discuss his unlikely four-decade career as a character actor — and anything else his audience might want to bring up — at New Hope’s RRazz Room on Saturday night.
“I like to talk to people who come up with different questions,” Gilliam said from a Dallas golf course last week just before a morning tee-off. “If they can come up with something better than, ‘Hey, did you ever meet Brad Pitt?,’ I’m going to love them.”
Gilliam got his start in 1973 thanks to an ad in a Dallas paper looking for extras for Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, which was shooting in the area. “I’d never been in a grade school play,” the actor says in his deep drawl. “But I thought, ‘Well, that might be fun. I might get to see Ryan O’Neal.’ I went down with 450 people and finally got into this room with the casting director, the guy liked me, and the long and short of it was that after two weeks, I ended up with the sixth-largest part in the picture and almost got an Academy Award nomination out of the thing.”
Possessed of enough homespun wisdom to avoid getting a swelled head out of the gate, Gilliam wrapped his surprise turn as Floyd the desk clerk and returned to the Dallas Fire Department. Three months later, the phone rang. “Some guy says, ‘Hello, my name’s Mel Brooks, I’m a writer-producer-director-actor, I’m getting ready to do a picture, and I want you to be in it.’ I said, ‘Thank you, Mr. Brooks,’ and I found out that Mel Brooks and Warner Bros. had [a lot of] money. It wasn’t any money to them, but it was to me. In four and a half weeks, I made more than I would make in two years in the fire department, so I thought, ‘Man, I can’t pass this up.’ ”
Gilliam hasn’t stopped working since. He was an airplane mechanic flummoxed by Chevy Chase in Fletch, a gun salesman hawking his wares to Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future Part III, and an Elvis impersonator parachuting alongside Nicolas Cage in Honeymoon in Vegas. He’s done guest spots on countless TV shows, including The A-Team, The Waltons, Charlie’s Angels, The Dukes of Hazzard, Knight Rider, and Walker, Texas Ranger, and appeared in hundreds of commercials, including a 12-year stint as the spokesman for Pace Picante suce.
“Nothing will ever surprise me anymore,” Gilliam says when reflecting on his career. “It just came flying out of nowhere. If I had stayed with the fire department, I would probably be retired now after 60 years, living down in East Texas and probably have two cows. I would never have had the great feeling that I have whenever I get in front of that camera and they say, ‘It’s your close-up, pal. Go to work.’ All they ever asked me to do was go out there and have a good time.”