WHEN Richard Pryor withdrew from the cast of Mel Brooks's riotous western spoof Blazing Saddles in 1974, Cleavon Little stepped into the role of the black sheriff in a white town. At times very funny, Blazing Saddles could also be very offensive (anti-gay jokes replaced anti-black humour). Nevertheless it was a huge success at the American box office (the sixth highest-grossing film of 1974), and gave Mel Brooks his first major film success.
The black film critic Donald Bogle wrote: 'Blazing Saddles presented audiences with a new-style coon: a coon with a double consciousness. Here in this uneven but energetic spoof on westerns, Cleavon Little plays a black man who shows up in a white (and hostile) Old West community. As the town's new sheriff, he knows the only way he'll survive is by playing the role of the dumb black nigger; he does precisely that and is able not only to survive but to triumph, too.'
Little was nominated in Blazing Saddles for a British Academy Award as Most Promising Newcomer along with Sissy Spacek (Badlands) and Georgina Hale, who won for Mahler. For a time it looked as if Little might become a leading player in films. Sadly, his film career never quite lived up to its early promise.
Little was born in Chickasha, Oklahoma, and studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1965-67. He made early film appearances in What's So Bad About Feeling Good? (1968), John and Mary (1969, starring Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow), Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) and Vanishing Point (1971), in which he played Super Soul, the blind radio announcer. In Greased Lightning (1977) he supported Richard Pryor and afterwards was relegated to featured roles in a succession of forgettable low-budget films. In recent years he played occasional supporting roles in films like Fletch Lives (1989), starring Chevy Chase.
Little made his Broadway debut in Jimmy Shine (1968) and played the title-role in the hit musical Purlie (1970). The source of the show was Ossie Davis's 1961 satirical comedy Purlie Victorious, and the new version introduced Broadway audiences to a black musical that had a social message. Critics praised the show, and it won numerous awards including several for Little, who became the first black actor to win a Tony award for a leading role in a musical. Other successful appearances on Broadway included I'm Not Rappaport (1985-87), which won the Tony for Best Play.
Little made numerous appearances on television, including The Homecoming (1971), with Patricia Neal; the pilot for the long-running series The Waltons; a medical comedy series called Temperatures Rising (1972-74); Dear John (1989), for which he received an Emmy award; and the comedy series Bagdad Cafe (1991), with Whoopi Goldberg.