Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Who Is That Guy?!": Burton Gilliam

Possessing the type of face and persona that went out of fashion in Hollywood as the '70s turned into the '80s, Burton Gilliam's is a name that always piques my interest when I see it in the opening credits. Gilliam built up quite an impressive acting resume for someone who entered the business on a whim in his middle '30s. A character actor whose face I've recognized since I was young kid watching Blazing Saddles and Fletch, Gilliam's familiar mug and "shit-eatin' grin" were a mainstay of '70s-'80s big and small-screen fare, often in good ole boy variations with names like Buck, Jimmy Jack, Jammer, Tex, Smiley, Buford, Ringo, Deke, Delbart, Bud (on 2 occasions), and Virgil.

A champion Golden Gloves boxer while in the Coast Guard, Gilliam mulled turned pro before becoming a firefighter (for 14 years) like his father before him. Based in the Dallas area, it was a newspaper article about the local filming of Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon that prompted Gilliam to visit the casting office about extra work on the film. The neophyte performer apparently made quite an impression, as he received a speaking role as a desk clerk with the appropriately hillbillyish moniker of Floyd. Gilliam went onto to appear in a string of small, but memorable character parts in films like At Long Last Love, Farewell, My Lovely, Hearts of the West, Gator, Telefon, and my personal favorite, Thunderbolt & Lightfoot.

Typical of many of the freewheeling, often raunchy (i.e. very politically incorrect) films of that era, Gilliam's Thunderbolt & Lightfoot moment is refreshingly ribald and offbeat. He shows up in the latter part of the film for a single scene with co-lead Clint Eastwood in which he boasts of terrorizing the town's new Western Union security guard. With his best shit-eating grin, Gilliam (credited as "Welder") tells Eastwood--whose face registers something between amusement and disgust--how he once lured the shy, overweight guard (Cliff Emmich credited as "The Fat Man") out of his office.

"I got up to close to 'im, unzipped my pants, and took out my pecker. An, I put that dude right in his hand. He turned white and didn't know whether to hold it, drop it, or run off down the street with it. It was the funniest thing I ever saw in my life."

The supreme satisfaction with which Gilliam tells the story, coupled with Eastwood's reaction shots make this scene a hoot; the scene demonstrates why Gilliam was one of the more memorable character faces of an era very rich in screen characters. It's also the first and only time I've heard a man refer to his organ as "that dude."

Throughout his peak career years in the '70s and '80s, Gilliam made many a guest appearance; in the latter decade, television dominated, as rural-set films were on the wane and country and action television shows like The Dukes of Hazzard and The Fall Guy continued to flourish. Recent credits include a guest role on the Dallas-filmed television series The Good Guys as "Locksmith" and continued work as Dallas-area television pitchman dressed as--what else?--a cowboy. He also manages to keep busy refereeing boxing matches.

A priceless 1980 Carl's Jr. ad with Gilliam:

Burton Gilliam gets a day named after him:


J.D. said...

Wow, thanks for the info on this guy! He's one of those actors that you spot in a film and recognize who he is but can never remember his name.

Loved him in FLETCH where he has that fantastic scene with Chevy Chase in an airplane hanger. He matches Chevy line for line. Great stuff.

Ned Merrill said...

Yes, absolutely...I love these kinds of actors as well. Glad you dug the piece. That airplane hangar scene crack me up every time. I can't remember if I saw Gilliam in FLETCH or BLAZING SADDLES first. I think I saw them both via my grandfather when FLETCH was new (circa '85).

Anonymous said...

I had the extreme pleasure of meeting and talking with Burton yesterday at the Cliff Harris Reunion Classic golf tournament in Plano benefitting the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Burton is one of the nicest people you will ever meet - very humble and warm.

Terry White said...

Looked this guy up as he was hilarious in Blazing Saddles and in Thunderbolt & Lightfoot. Barton Gilliam is just one of those faces you remember, as is his voice perhaps.
I have made a little list of names of actors that amuse me and included Gilliam in it, though more because I always used to think, erronously he might be someone else. So here it is:
Rip Torn, Red Buttons, Slim Pickens,...and Barton Gilliam.
Though I am only moderately familiar with the work of Torn and Buttons, I always loved seeing Slim as a kid in westerns. Then when still only just into my teens I went to see Blazing Saddles at the cinema and there he was as Taggert, Hedleeey Lamarr's right-hand man. Then Barton Gilliam appears in that brilliant vignette as the railroad gang boss singing Camptown Ladies and doing that little dance.
I did see Fletch when it came out but can't recall the scene in the hanger with Gilliam so I'll look out for that next time it's on.
Here's a couple of scenes with Gilliam ('Lyle') and Pickens ('Taggert') sharing the limelight together...
Blazing Saddles - Work Song:
Blazing Saddles quicksand scene:
Thanks for all the laughter Barton.

Ned Merrill said...

Thanks for checking in, Terry. Glad you enjoyed the Gilliam piece. FYI, it's actually BURTON Gilliam. :-)

LilyPetals said...

Thanks for the article. Was watching Paper Moon and that face was driving me nuts.

Jerry Jocoy said...

He was a Dallas, TX firefighter before Blazing Saddles,,, he is a great guy !!!