Tony Winner Cleavon Little Dies at Age 53 : Entertainer: The actor was known to millions as the black sheriff in the movie comedy ‘Blazing Saddles.’
Cleavon Little, who portrayed a submissive octogenarian in “I’m Not Rappaport,” won a Tony award for the title role in “Purlie,” but to millions will always be Bart, the puckish black sheriff who kept a swarm of greedy rednecks at bay in “Blazing Saddles,” died Thursday.
He was 53 and died of colon cancer at his Sherman Oaks home.
Producer-comedian Mel Brooks once called Little the “most cooperative actor I ever worked with.” Brooks said shortly after Little’s death that “he even insisted on doing his own stunts,” recalling that one involved being buried to his neck in mud.
Brooks, Richard Pryor and others wrote the 1974 picture from a story by Andrew Bergman. It was a tale of a black man who had been hired as sheriff so the bigoted occupants of a small Western town would sell their land to speculators who knew a railroad was coming through.
Little, however, teams with a faded, alcoholic gunslinger (Gene Wilder) to save the town from the evil attorney who masterminded the scheme (Harvey Korman as Hedley Lamar).
Brooks played a twin role as Indian chief and governor in cahoots with Korman, and Madeline Kahn did a parody of Marlene Dietrich.
Mixed into that thin thread of a story, however, was toilet humor, excruciating puns and coarse Yiddish.
In one memorable Stepin Fetchit-like vignette, Little rescues himself from an angry mob by holding himself at gunpoint with his own revolver.
“He was absolutely sensational in that scene,” Brooks said. “We needed a flat-out stand-up comic to do it and it was amazing that an actor--a very fine actor like Cleavon--was able to pull off this comedy stunt. But he did it so brilliantly.”
Brooks described the filming as the “greatest experience of my life.” It was “classic vulgar insanity that I knew no one--including most of my family--would ever come to see.”
Actually, the zany blend of farce and satire became one of the highest-grossing Westerns ($45 million) of all time.
Little came to the film comedy from a series of stage triumphs.
He won his 1970 Tony in “Purlie,” a musical adaptation of the stage comedy. He was Purlie Victorious Judson, who returns to his Georgia hometown hoping to convert a big church into an integrated house of worship.
With Judd Hirsch--a longtime friend--he broke box office records in “Rappaport,” which won a 1986 Tony for best play. Unlike most Broadway stars, Little and Hirsch liked the chemistry they had established so much that they decided to tour in the poignant tale of two old men, one an angry socialist who calls policemen “Cossacks,” and the other a stoop-shouldered maintenance man beaten into anonymity by his job and his race. Hirsch won a best actor Tony.
On television, Little appeared regularly in the “The David Frost Revue,” “Temperatures Rising,” “Bagdad Cafe” and “True Colors.”
He also was cast as the star in the 1979 situation comedy series “Mr. Dugan.” But the show, about a fictitious black politician, was canceled before it was shown.
In 1988, Little, who trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Art, won a guest actor Emmy for an appearance in Hirsch’s “Dear John” comedy series.
Little’s other film credits included “What’s So Bad About Feeling Good,” “Cotton Comes to Harlem,” “Greased Lightning,” “Scavenger Hunt,” “High Risk,” “FM,” “Fletch Lives” and “Toy Soldiers.”
Little co-starred with Barry Newman in “Vanishing Point” as the blind radio announcer Super Soul, whose voice guides Newman as he races his Dodge Challenger in an existential chase across the Nevada desert. The 1971 film has become a cult favorite.
Brooks added one more thing about Little:
“You know in this business producers and actors aren’t supposed to eat together. (But) I enjoyed Cleavon Little’s company so much, I insisted on having lunch with him every day. I’ll miss him very much.”
Little, who was divorced, is survived by a daughter, Adia Millett-Little, his father, Malchi, two sisters and two brothers.
A memorial service is scheduled Monday at 1 p.m. at the First Apostolic Church of Inglewood.