Cleavon Little, 53, who played the sheriff in Mel Brooks’ western spoof “Blazing Saddles,” won a Tony for “Purlie” and captured an Emmy for his guest role opposite Judd Hirsch in “Dear John,” died yesterday at his home in Sherman Oaks after a yearlong battle with colon cancer.
Little’s lead role in the uproarious 1974 smash hit “Blazing Saddles” stemmed from original scripter Andrew Bergman’s “vision of a guy on horseback and a town waiting for him to show up and he looks like (black militant) H. Rap Brown.”
The role evolved into something less militant, but Little’s suave, sly, amused performance made him an effective straight man in a Brooks extravaganza poking profane fun at every aspect of the western genre and at the blatant racism of a corrupt, all-white community.
Born in Chickasaw, Okla., Little started his career on the N.Y. stage and won both the Tony and the Drama Desk Awards for Broadway’s 1970 tuner “Purlie,” opposite Melba Moore. He played the title role of a rural Georgia preacher originated by Ossie Davis in Davis’ 1961 comedy about Southern racism, “Purlie Victorious.”
Little also appeared on Broadway in “Jimmy Shine,””Narrow Road to the North, “”All Over Town” and “I’m Not Rappaport” with Judd Hirsch. Off-Broadway, he appeared in “Keyboards,””The Resurrection of Lady Lester,””The Great McDaddy” and most recently in “All God’s Dangers.”
Besides “Blazing Saddles,” his pix included “What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?,””Cotton Comes to Harlem,””Vanishing Point,””Greased Lightning,””FM,””Toy Soldiers” (1984) and “Arthur 2, On the Rocks.”
On TV, Little had regular roles in the series “Temperatures Rising,””Bagdad Cafe” and “True Colors.”
He played a lawyer working with Sidney Poitier’s Thurgood Marshall in George Stevens Jr.’s Emmy-winning 1991 two-parter “Separate But Equal,” which dealt with the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation decision.
Little is survived by his daughter, father, stepmother, two sisters and two brothers.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Monday at First Apostolic Church of Inglewood.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests memorial donations to LIFE Foundation (Love Is Feeding Everyone), 310 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A. 90036.