The Mel Brooks classic that became a TV series that ran for four seasons without being broadcast anywhere.
Update: large parts of this story may, in fact, be fiction. See the addendum at the end for details.
Film rights are a strange and complex thing, especially when it comes to existing properties. The contracts for these things can involve a labyrinthine series of clauses and negotiations, where the owners of the original property want to include cut-off clauses that will enable them to claw back the rights and sell them again, possibly for much more money if the adaptation has been a success, the artistic creator wants to hold on to some level of creative control and the film studio wants to ensure that neither of those things happens. We’ve seen assorted shenanigans at work across the board – the James Bond copyright snafu that saw the film rights for Casino Royale owned and exploited by another company than the one that made the official series, and perhaps most famously in terms of contractual obligations, the first Fantastic Four movie, made as a low-budget throwaway affair simply to ensure that the film rights stayed with Constantin Film, who was not quite ready to make a ‘proper’ version of the story but who saw the potential in the property and didn’t want to let it go.
But perhaps the most absurd of these contractual obligation projects came with Blazing Saddles, which was adapted into a TV series that ran for four seasons – which would suggest a major hit show by 1970s television standards, except for the fact that it never aired. Not a single episode beyond the pilot was shown on TV anywhere.
Blazing Saddles was a major hit in 1974 and remains one of the most beloved Hollywood comedies – well, perhaps not with Millenials and Generation Z, given the film’s rather liberal use of the sort of racist language that is now strictly forbidden, even in context. Mel Brooks’ comedy western mocked American racism brutally – perhaps a little too brutally in the use of one particular word, which is bandied about throughout the film. It was a different time.
Brooks was on fire as a filmmaker in 1974, and there was every reason to expect Blazing Saddles to be a massive hit, as indeed it was. Having dealt with studios enough by this point, Brooks knew that they might want to take the project away from him and produce sequels – the story essentially opened itself up for on-going narratives. And so he came up with a cunning plan. The contracts for the film stated that there could only be film sequels if a TV series follow-up was made within six months. Brooks and his legal team were pretty certain that the film was too profane and vulgar to ever be adapted as a TV series. I mean, what could they do? Strip it back to its most basic elements while throwing out everything that made the film what it was?
Well, that was precisely what happened. In 1977, Warner Brothers announced plans for a sequel film – in fact, a series of sequels – to Blazing Saddles, and when Brooks and his lawyers waved the contract at them, they pulled their ace card – a four-season series based on the original film that had gone into production very quickly in 1974. As Brooks explained, “Warner Bros comes to me and says they want to make another Blazing Saddles, and I say, ‘No. You don’t have the right to do that.’ They say, ‘Yes we do, we’ve been making a TV series and still control the rights.’ What TV series? I haven’t seen a TV show. They take me onto the lot, into a projection booth, and show me three episodes. My lawyers never thought to put in language that said they had to air the damn thing, only that they had to make it.”
You have to almost admire Warner Brothers’ gall here, and – oddly – their belief in Blazing Saddles. Not only did they rush a series into production in 1974, but they kept it in production – because the contract only allowed a new movie within six months of the last Blazing Saddles project – for four years until they finally had a movie ready. TV shows might be cheaper than films, but nevertheless, imagine how much they had to spend, making four seasons of a show just to hold onto the film rights.
In fact, the pilot episode of Black Bart, as the series is called, was shown once in 1975 on CBS, with no one even noticing. Well, why would they? As well as changing the title (because the contract also failed to state that any TV series be called Blazing Saddles), Brooks wasn’t credited, with Andrew Bergman, who originally came up with the Blazing Saddles idea listed as creator. The show starred Louis Gossett Jr as Sheriff Bart, continuing his battles against both criminals and racists, while the other film characters were replaced with similar, but not identical characters to avoid crediting Brooks. Both the cast – including Gerrit Graham – and the characters are lightweight versions of the originals, the humour is almost non-existent and the laugh track just hammers home how unfunny the show is. And yet it is a professional work, and arguably no less forced than several other sitcoms of the era. So the question is: why didn’t they just put in a bit more effort and then show the damn thing instead of paying everyone to shoot twenty-four episodes that would sit, unseen, in the Warner Brothers vaults?
Presumably, the answer is that a TV show – even a good TV show – would have diluted the appeal of another film. The 1970s were a different time (we mentioned that, right?) and there was less crossover of film and TV – sure, some films – like Planet of the Apes – were adapted into TV shows, but those shows were rarely successful and were seen as having essentially killed off any chance of audiences then going to the cinema to watch a movie version. If anything, Black Bart might have served as a sign of just how bad a Mel Brooks-free version of Blazing Saddles could be. So instead of putting any effort into making a decent TV series based on the property (and there’s certainly the potential there), Warner Brothers simply put the least possible effort into making something that would still legally stand up as a TV show that could, in theory, be broadcast – and then buried it.
What the cast and crew thought of all this is hard to gauge – Gossett has talked about the weirdness of it all, but you have to wonder just how anyone managed to drum up any enthusiasm once it became clear that the show would never air. Ironically, the plans for a Blazing Saddles sequel ultimately went nowhere – by 1979, it was clear that the moment had passed and audience tastes had changed. The sequel was shelved, and the series was finally cancelled. The pilot episode has since turned up on the Blazing Saddles DVD and blu-ray, but the other episodes have yet to be seen. It’s entirely possible that they were never even completed beyond the ones shown to Brooks, and may have been trashed. A pity, as we’ll never know if it accidentally improved.
IMPORTANT UPDATE: We feel it’s important to point out that some sources are claiming since we originally posted this that the entire story – with the exception of the Black Bart pilot, which definitely exists and is perhaps a weird enough thing in itself – is in fact a spoof that has somehow become accepted as reality – ‘fake news’, as I believe it is known. There are several sources online claiming that this story is authentic; others claiming that it is satire (links appear in the comments). Unless Mel Brooks – or perhaps Louis Gossett – wants to come clean on the actual facts, it perhaps remains a mystery. Stranger-than-fiction may, or may not, be actual fiction, and isn’t that depressing when it’s a story as good as this? As Tony Wilson said (or possibly didn’t say, there’s the rub), “when you have to choose between the truth and the legend, choose the legend.”
Help support The Reprobate: