In today’s age, the road to fame and fortune can come at a high cost, but having someone to get advice from can make a world of a difference. Actor Burton Gilliam, best known for his work in “Blazing Saddles” and other Westerns, visited with Falcon Theatre students during fifth period on Thursday, Jan. 17 in the Lecture Hall. He spoke about his discovery, time in Hollywood, film work, and answered students’ questions.
The Dallas, TX born talent explained his high school experiences and early careers before diving into his discovery and acting career. Gilliam attended high school only 32.9 miles away from Timber Creek, and graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1956. Gilliam wasn’t involved in theatre in high school, but loved boxing instead.
“[The boxing ring] was a stage for me,” Gilliam said. “I loved getting up in front of 12,000 people and punching some guy in the nose. I was scared to death, but I found out that fear and speed go hand in hand, and I really was scared a lot of times, but being scared made me a little bit faster.”
Gilliam continued on by talking about his life after high school. He went into the Coast Guard, and then served for 14 years as a Dallas fireman beginning in 1959.
“[I] never thought about being an actor until I saw an article in the Dallas paper that said some big director, Peter Bogdanovich, who was really big in the seventies, was coming to Dallas and he was going to audition people to be extras in a movie, and it said Ryan O’Neal was the star of the picture. And I thought, I might get to see Ryan O’Neal,” Gilliam explained.
Despite having no prior acting experience, Gilliam stood in line with 450 people, and over a two week period, wound up with the sixth largest part in the movie. “Paper Moon,” directed by Bogdanovich, was released in 1973, and kickstarted Gilliam’s acting career. Gilliam was hauled off to St. Joseph, MI for a few weeks to shoot the picture, and was back at the fire department once he finished in December of 1972. Three months later, Gilliam received a phone call while at the fire station.
“When you answer the phone, you say ‘Fire station number 39, give me who’s speaking,'” Gilliam said. “Well I said that and this guy on the other end says, ‘Hi my name is Mel Brooks. I’m a writer, director, producer, actor and I’m getting ready to do a big picture and I want you to be in it.’ I said, ‘Thank you Mr. Brooks,’ and I just hung up the phone.”
Although Gilliam initially thought that the phone call was a joke played on him by one of his fellow firefighters, Brooks called him a second time and told Gilliam not to hang up. The movie Brooks told Gilliam about was “Blazing Saddles,” the motion picture that primarily got Gilliam’s name out in the film business. This satirical take on western movies was directed by Brooks, and starred many talented actors including Brooks, Cleavon Little, and Gene Wilder. Gilliam explained that after the script was rewritten, he took the part of Lyle and moved to Hollywood.
“I knew of [Gilliam] from his work in Back to the Future Part III and Blazing Saddles,” Falcon Theatre student Lucas Bradanini said.
After sharing his story, Gilliam turned the floor over to the theatre students in attendance so that they could ask whatever questions they had. This 30 minute Q and A session was led by aspiring actors in need of Gilliam’s words of experience. The questions were mainly about advice concerning agents, acting lessons, mistakes to avoid, as well as the film industry as a whole. When answering these questions, Gilliam would explain his experiences concerning the question, then provide some guidance for the students.
“I learned that the movie business is all about being at the right place at the right time,” Bradanini said.
Once the 3:45 p.m. bell rang and it was time to go, Gilliam ended the discussion with one final piece of advice:
“If I can do it, you can do it,” Gilliam said. “That’s as simple as it is.”