How Richard Pryor Invented the Shaft of the Prairie

He may have been high and drunk while working with Mel Brooks on ‘Blazing Saddles,’ but the great standup still hit his mark.

Richard Pryor may have been the only Blazing Saddles writer to snort coke and kill a bottle of Courvoisier over the course of a day’s work, but in one crucial respect he fit in perfectly: he had the fearlessness that comes from having nothing to lose.

Later, Blazing Saddles would be seen as one of those smash hits that change the culture. It ushered in a wave of genre spoofs (“Young Frankenstein,” “Airplane,” “Top Secret”) that lent Hollywood comedy a new knowingness; it established a highbrow-lowbrow formula that has kept The Simpsons going for twenty years and counting; and not least and not best, it opened up the Pandora’s box of fart jokes. But at the point of its conception, “Blazing Saddles” was a small studio movie, with no stars attached or to come, and the four men who gathered around its writers’ table were either untested or on the skids. Norman Steinberg was a fledgling writer with no film credits; Andrew Bergman, a history PhD who had just failed to land an academic job.

Mel Brooks himself felt washed up after the box office disappointments of “The Producers” and “The Twelve Chairs”; one reason he wanted to re-create the writers’ room of “Our Show of Shows” was to shuck off his recent failures. Then there was Richard, who had made a name for himself, then decided it wasn’t the name he wanted. Their response, as writers, to their shared precariousness was to go berserk, to forget about pleasing anybody other than themselves—or, as Brooks put it, to write “for two weirdos in the balcony. For radicals, film nuts, guys who draw on the washroom wall—my kind of people.”

The writing process was spectacularly fitful. Sometime in the late morning, the writers would assemble, and the dialogue would start to fly. Both Richard and Mel Brooks were performer-writers: They thrived on acting out their riffs instead of dictating them. (During his gig on Our Show of Shows, Brooks said to himself, “My God, I’m not a writer, I’m a talker”—a self-assessment that could have applied equally to Richard.) Meanwhile a secretary would take notes, scrambling “like a one-armed paper hanger trying to keep some kind of order,” Bergman recalled. “After an hour of working, we’d start perusing these [takeout] menus. Then we’d order lunch for about forty minutes, trying to figure out what we’re going to get.”

After lunch, the script riffing would resume, and then, “at three o’clock, Mel would say, ‘My brains are exploding, I can’t do this anymore,’ which was about right, and that would be it.”

The screenplay that emerged from this month of spasmodic creativity was darker and more pointedly political than the original treatment spiked as it was by the contributions of Richard, whom Brooks called “very brave and very far-out and very catalytic.” In Bergman’s original treatment, the black sheriff was a Bunyonesque figure who romanced the daughter of a railroad owner; Bergman’s inspiration was the swaggering Panther spokesman H. Rap Brown, and the part originally fell to the grandiloquent actor James Earl Jones. By the time Richard and his fellow writers had finished with him, “Black Bart” was a trickster who fit more closely Richard’s self-conception, a hero so deviously outrageous that his deputy Jim calls him “one crazy nigger.”

This Black Bart “sports some violet shades” and “moves like a moist dream across the prairie.” One of his first moves as sheriff is to crumple up and throw away a Wanted poster with a black man on it, reasoning, “He’s got enough trouble without a bunch of honkies chasing his ass all over Mexico.”

He whiles away the time in his office by taking a black jockey ashtray and painting it white. After he and Jim clobber some Klansmen off camera, Jim asks him, “Did you have to stick the cactus up his ass?”—to which Bart replies, dreamily, “I had to.” And Bart has sexual as well as political bluster. When Jim asks him what happened during his night with Lili von Shtupp, he quips, “I don’t know, but I think I invented pornography.”

Excerpted from BECOMING RICHARD PRYOR Copyright © 2014 by Scott Saul.  Excerpted by permission of Harper Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Photos by Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images