Saturday, June 22, 2013

Boob-Tube'n :: Pilot Error :: Back in the (Blazing) Saddle Again with Robert Butler's Black Bart (1975)

In the wild western town of Paris, Arizona, a totally hip black sheriff overcomes the hostility of the townsfolk with a cunning wit and a sharp tongue as he tries to bring the corrupt mayor's gun-slinging nephew to justice for blowing off several hayseed's toes while forcing them to dance for his amusement at the local saloon. Mayhem ensues. 

The first thing you'll probably notice while watching Black Bart, the failed TV pilot / spin-off of Blazing Saddles, is that Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman and Madeline Kahn aren't listed in the credits. Or Mel Brooks, for that matter. What we get in their stead is Lou Gossett Jr., Steve Landesberg, Noble Willingham and Millie Slavin trying hard to fill some very large boots and saddles.

The only holdover from the film was scriptwriter Andrew Bergman, who had written the original treatment for Blazing Saddles; a treatment that was set to be filmed sans Brooks and company several years earlier as a vehicle for James Earl Jones and slated to be directed by Alan Arkin, then under the title, Tex X (a sagebrush spin on Malcom X, 'natch). When this adaptation fell apart at the last minute, the script wound up in Mel Brooks' lap, who loved its potential, and he invited Bergman to join a rewriting roundtable with Norman Steinberg, Alan Unger and Richard Pryor for a little overhauling. And the rest, as they say, is cinematic history.

When the film hit big at the box-office, Warner Bros. decided to cash-in with a TV spin off. This was nothing new. M*A*S*H and The Odd Couple are probably the best examples of this, but that's barely scraping the surface. Logan's Run, The Bad News Bears, The Planet of the Apes and Shaft all made the transition. Even Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (Alice), Animal House (Delta House) and Westworld (Beyond Westworld) found their way onto the tube. And while most adaptations barely lasted a single season, others managed to even eclipse their big screen progenitors. But unlike those mentioned, Black Bart never made it past the pilot stage.

Again, Bergman is listed in the credits for the pilot but I honestly don't know how much he contributed, if anything, or was just credited as the originator of these notions and characters. Regardless, he's joined by co-writers Michael Elias and Frank Shaw with directing chores falling to Robert Butler -- the latter three men also serving as the pilot's producers. Elias and Shaw already had plenty of sit-coms and variety shows on their resumes, and both had already worked together on The Bill Cosby Show. And some evidence suggests this whole thing originated as another Elias and Shaw treatment / cash-in called Superdude that was quickly dusted off and folded into this pilot when Warners OK'd an official adaptation. Butler is probably best remembered for his work at Disney, especially shepherding a young Kurt Russell through all those Dexter Reilly movies, but he was no stranger to the boob-tube, having directed several episodes of Batman, I Spy, and Hogan's Heroes

Just like with the movie, the producers first choice to play Bart was Richard Pryor but a wary studio nixed this again. (Pryor's substance abuse problems and penchant for disappearing made them nervous. There's a legend that while writing Blazing Saddles Pryor failed to show up for several days until he phoned in saying he was in Detroit and needed money to get back to L.A.) Cleavon Little wasn't interested in reprising the character and so the role went to Gossett Jr., who does quite well, comically speaking, and he's truly great as the voice of reason amongst all those deaf ears. I've always loved Landesberg, starting with his work as Det. Arthur Dietrich in Barney Miller, and aside from his cracker accent, he holds his own as our Waco Kid surrogate. Willingham, another familiar face, is fine as our villain of the piece, and Slavin really overachieves on a character saddled as nothing more than a walking sight-gag based on her accent, limp and eye-patch. Sharp eyes will easily spot Brooke Adams as a saloon girl and 1970's comedy stalwart Gerrit Graham as a witless minion. 

Cursed with a repeating laugh-track (a truly evil bane of this era) Black Bart tries very hard to mine the same mother lode Blazing Saddles had struck. Alas, Butler lacks Brooks' sense of comedic timing. The notes are there, but those behind the camera just can't seem to find the tune proper. It's not necessarily bad, it's just not that good and there was no real potential present aside from the slapstick elements to see it expanded any further than this one joke premise. However, one should note the language used was fairly salty, with the liberal use of several "N"-bombs that had my eyes and ear wide open barely two minutes in. And when the end credits rolled one can only weep over how far Hollywood's spine over such things has eroded. 

It's said that films like Blazing Saddles could never be made today. Sadly, even a watered-down version like this TV spin-off would never see the light of day either. This makes me sad. What Brooks did in that movie was nothing short of brilliant; an open and brash assault on the ignorance and stupidity of racism by tearing it apart and laying it bare and beating it to death via some full-frontal comedy. It may sound naive but think this is a far more effective tactic than trying to politically-correct something out of it existence. (I'm looking right at you, Crash.) I don't know if this is what Elias, Shaw and Butler had in mind for the series but they (and we, as an audience) never really got the chance to find out.

Black Bart premiered on April 4, 1975, on CBS, but was never heard from again until resurfacing as a bonus feature on the 30th Anniversary Special Edition DVD of Blazing Saddles almost a decade ago. (Yes. Blazing Saddles is nearly 40 years old. Wow.) After a lot of digging, I was unable to unearth the exact reasons as to why it was never picked up. Too volatile a subject matter? Perhaps. Too thin a premise? Maybe. Was it just not good enough? Probably. Personally, I found the pilot to be not all that terrible -- definitely not as bad as I thought it would be; and it had a lot more bite than you'd think, especially without the freedom of an R-Rating. One certainly cannot discount the enthusiasm of all involved, even if their end results teetered between kinda funny and fairly dumb. But in the end, you get a sense that they'd exhausted all of their jokes already in just a mere 25 minutes, leaving both the cast and crew of Black Bart with nowhere else to go.

Black Bart (1975) Warner Bros. Television :: CBS / EP: Mark Tuttle / P: Robert Butler, Michael T. Elias, Frank Shaw / D: Robert Butler / W: Andrew Bergman, Michael Elias, Frank Shaw / C: Michael D. Margulies / E: Neil Travis / M: Tom Scott / S: Louis Gossett Jr., Steve Landesberg, Millie Slavin, Noble Willingham, Gerrit Graham, Brooke Adams

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