It’s difficult to imagine John Wayne and Gene Wilder being considered for the same role, but that’s exactly what happened with the Waco Kid, an ex-gunfighter turned alcoholic in Mel Brooks’ 1974 cowboy comedy Blazing Saddles. On the DVD commentary for Blazing Saddles, Brooks talks about how Wilder came to play this atypical role. The director had originally wanted Wayne for the part, but the Stagecoach star turned it down, saying the script was just too dirty. Wilder, who had appeared as high-strung accountant Leo Bloom in Brooks’ The Producers, lobbied for the role, but Brooks opted for Gig Young instead. When Young’s real-life drinking problem became an issue during filming, Wilder replaced him and managed to bring a dreamy, wistful quality to this broken, pathetic character. In the wake of Wilder’s death on Monday at the age of 83, it’s a good time to revisit “Waco Kid,” a musical tribute to the actor’s Blazing Saddles character from a Brooklyn band called Colburn Sound Express.
The twangy, Johnny Cash-style song and its accompanying video focus on Wilder’s key monologue from Blazing Saddles. In the scene, the retired Waco Kid, who now goes simply by “Jim,” explains to Bart (Cleavon Little), the newly appointed black sheriff of Rock Ridge, how he went from being the fastest gunfighter “in the world” to being a town drunk who spends most of his time in a holding cell. Seems the Kid was being challenged to gunfights wherever he went. Eventually, this led to a showdown with “a 6-year-old kid” who turned out to be most unsportsmanlike. The lyrics follow Wilder’s dialogue so closely that the video’s editor is able to sync footage from the movie with the song, making it appear that Wilder himself is singing. For the record, however, Blazing Saddles is one of the classic Brooks comedies that has not yet been turned into a musical.