Being in “Blazing Saddles” changed Burton Gilliam’s life. And 45 years after the release of this iconic comedy, people still crack up when they see it, and love to hear his insider stories about being on the set.

Mel Brook’s 1974 movie is considered the ultimate spoof of life in the Old West. Co-written by Richard Pryor, it features Cleavon Little as the first black sheriff of a frontier town set to be demolished because of a new railroad route. Gilliam plays Lyle, a guy trying to get the train project on track.

The Academy Award-nominated film has gags aplenty — and gas, too, especially when beans are eaten around the campfire. It also takes a satirical look at racism. Brooks must have directed it with just the right touch, because Roger Ebert gave it four stars.

“Blazing Saddles” will be screened at The Ridgefield Playhouse on Friday, Feb. 22, followed by a Q&A with Gilliam, hosted by Ira Joe Fisher and WLAD’s Bart Busterna. Gilliam is among the top character actors of our time and has been featured in over 90 films, including “Back to The Future Part III” and “Paper Moon.” He’s worked with everyone from Burt Reynolds and Patty Duke to Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood.

Gilliam, 80, hadn’t had much acting experience when he did “Blazing Saddles,” which starred Harvey Korman, Gene Wilder, Slim Pickens and Madeline Kahn. “Paper Moon” was before “Blazing Saddles,” he said on the phone. “I thought I was going to be an extra in ‘Paper Moon.’ I had never even been in a grade school play.

“For me it was just a chance to see Ryan O’Neal, that’s what I was hoping,” said Gilliam, who was working as a Dallas fireman when he saw the newspaper ad for extras and wound up with a co-starring role. He isn’t sure what made him stand out, but he sure enjoyed it.

More Information

The Ridgefield Playhouse, 80 E. Ridge. Friday, Feb. 22, 7:30 p.m. $20. VIP meet and greet party bundle: $50. 203-438-5795

Three months later, Brooks called the fire station looking for Gilliam. He’d seen a rough cut of his work in “Paper Moon” and wanted to fly him to Los Angeles to consider the role of Lyle, the comedic nemesis and bungling sidekick to Pickens’ character in “Blazing Saddles.”

Gilliam had been a fireman for 14 years when he decided to leave to pursue acting. “The whole fire department went crazy; they knew I was gonna fall flat on my face.” But Gilliam proved them wrong. “I am the best actor who ever came out of the Dallas Fire Department.”

When asked his secret to success, he said, “I just flat got lucky. They gave me something to do without knowing much about me and I gave them more than they expected.”

There are some scenes in “Blazing Saddles” that Brooks would have liked to shoot over, if they’d had more time, Gilliam said, but he couldn’t recall any major flubs — the kind that are fun to look for in films. He did say there was a problem with the credits though, but if you want to know more, you’ll have to ask him at the Q&A.

Gilliam said his greatest achievement is his ability to put smiles on people’s faces. “I like to think wherever I go I leave them with a smile on their face.”

lkoonz@newstimes.com; Twitter: @LindaTKoonz