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by Leslie Farin
Best known for his role as Lyle in Mel Brook’s bold comedy, Blazing Saddles, Burton Gilliam is redefining old age. He carries his 80 years lightly, is full of positive energy and keeps busier than many people half his age.
“My dance card’s fuller’n a big fat dog tick”
“My dance card’s fuller’n a big fat dog tick”, Gilliam told me. His trademark toothy grin, braying voice and Texas drawl remain unchanged, and he continues to entertain Blazing Saddle fans, making about 20 appearances per year. To the delight of the crowd, he often gets them to sing “Camptown Races” along with him. The movie came out in 1974, but seems to have a cult following with audiences ranging in age from 40-70 years.
Burton Gilliam was in 51 movies in all, starting with Paper Moon, for which he answered the open casting call for extras in Dallas that started his acting career. “I didn’t even know what an extra was”, he said. That was in 1972 – he worked as a fireman at the time, following in the footsteps of his father and other family members.
Burton set records as a Golden Gloves boxer before he did movies
Many people don’t know Gilliam achieved fame long before his film success, setting the record for most wins as a Golden Gloves boxer. In fact, he had just returned from a visit with friends from his old boxing team when we spoke.
In 1974, Gilliam moved to Las Angeles to pursue his movie career. He was typecast in Hollywood as a cowboy, but didn’t mind as he knew he “was never gonna be asked to do Shakespeare”. He was also aware he couldn’t sound more Texan if he tried. He returned to the DFW area in 2001 with his wife, Susan, settling in Allen, Texas, happy to be closer to his 2 children, 5 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren.
Gilliam is charming, entertaining and extremely humble, all qualities which are ageless. I thoroughly enjoyed our visit. He downplayed his success, which includes commercials and voice-overs for which he continued to be hired once back in Texas. He shared stories about his family, telling me both his mom and dad passed away before he started acting, and how surprised and proud they would be if they knew. No one, not even himself, expected him to become, in his words, “anything special”. He is grateful that he answered that casting call for Paper Moon, mainly out of curiosity and to hopefully meet Ryan O’Neil, and that he was given an opportunity that changed the trajectory of his life.
Family, friends, appearances and golf take up a lot of Gilliam’s time these days. He also participates in philanthropic events, happy to be in a position to give back to the community. He enjoys responding to the 20 or so pieces of fan mail he still receives weekly, not surprising considering Blazing Saddles is one of the most notable and quotable Academy Award winning comedies ever.
So what’s on Burton Gilliam’s bucket list now that he’s 80? Mostly travel. Though he was fortunate to see many different cities, states and countries in his life, he would like to revisit them. His priorities have changed; as a younger man he was not as interested in learning about different cultures and historical facts as he is now. With fresh eyes, he wants to “redo, rego, resee” these places, accompanied by wisdom and experience that only comes with age.
Burton Gilliam definitely enjoys life at 80. He is comfortable with who he is, where he’s been and where he wants to go. Perhaps most importantly, he’s still smiling and continues to be a wonderfully funny guy. Let’s face it, 80 is not young and can be tough for some people. Gilliam keeps his mind and body healthy with many activities, asking “why not, not why” as often as possible, and gives no indication he will stop anytime soon. If you see him out and about, say hello. His big contagious smile will make your day, and you will make his.