Norman Steinberg Dies: ‘Blazing Saddles’ Screenwriter & ‘Flip Wilson Show’ Emmy Winner Was 83

Norman Steinberg, who co-scripted Mel Brooks’ comedy classic Blazing Saddles with and won an Emmy for Flip Wilson’s 1970s variety show, has died. He was 83. His family said Steinberg died March 15 but did not provide other details.

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Born on June 6, 1939, in Brooklyn, Steinberg was a disgruntled lawyer when he met Brooks in the 1960s at a Manhattan coffee shop, where he would run into the future EGOT winner regularly. After repeatedly telling him that we wanted to be a comedy writer, Brooks relented and told Steinberg to submit a script for his James Bond-spoofing sitcom Get Smart! The series was canceled, but Brooks told the would-be scribe that this his script was funny — and Steinberg quit his hated job at a law firm that same day.

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Steinberg started writing for the music trade mag Cash Box before landing a gig writing a political humor album for David Frye. He later moved to Los Angeles, where he was partnered with George Carlin writing for NBC’s comedy-variety series The Flip Wilson Show. That year, the show’s writers won an Emmy.

Blazing Saddles
Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little in ‘Blazing Saddles,’ 1974

Brooks later hired Steinberg and Richard Pryor to work on the draft of a screenplay by Andrew Bergman, for a comic Western then called Tex X. That eventually became Blazing Saddles, the classic Western spoof starring Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder that often is mentioned among the funniest — if most irreverent — movies of all time.

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Blazing Saddles was among the highest-grossing films of 1974. It centers on Bart (Little), who is appointed sheriff of the town of Rock Ridge by the governor (Brooks) and his duplicitous Attorney General Hedy Lamarr — sorry, that’s Hedley (Harvey Korman) — in a plot to boost the governor’s political ambitions. Wilder played the sheriff’s unlikely deputy, the Waco Kid. The huge cast also included Brooks regulars Madeline Kahn and Dom DeLuise.

Steinberg’s other films include My Favorite Year (1982), starring Peter O’Toole; Yes, Giorgio (1982), starring Luciano Pavarotti; and the Michael Keaton comedy Johnny Dangerously (1984). His television credits include the CBS comedy Cosby, Showtime’s Paradise and — in a rather radical left turn just after Blazing Saddles — the special Free to Be … You and Me.

That 1974 CBS project, conceived and produced by its star Marlo Thomas, began as an LP and was an early advocate for gender equality. It upending then-common stereotypes with such songs as “Ladies First,” “Glad to Have a Friend Like You” and “It’s All Right to Cry,” which was sung onscreen and on the soundtrack by hulking NFL star Rosey Grier. Steinberg received his first producing credit on the Emmy-winning special, billed as a supervising producer and helping to develop the original LP for television.

From left: Richard Dimitri, Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg and Dick Gautier, on the set of ‘When Things Were Rotten,’ 1975.
From left: Richard Dimitri, Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg and Dick Gautier, on the set of ‘When Things Were Rotten,’ 1975.

His next producing gig would be on Brooks’ Robin Hood-spoofing ABC series When Things Were Rotten. Starring Dick Gauthier, Dick Van Patten and others, the sitcom lasting only half a season in 1975.

Steinberg went on to create, write and executive produce Doctor Doctor, a CBS sitcom starring Matt Frewer that aired 40 episodes over three seasons on CBS from 1989-91. He later served as an EP on the first two seasons of Cosby, Bill Cosby’s post-The Cosby Show sitcom that ran from 1996-2000 on CBS.

Steinberg next was an EP on the WB’s Raising Dad, Bob Saget’s Full House follow-up sitcom whose lone season aired in 2001-02. Steinberg then co-created with Richard Christian Matheson the 2011 Cinemax erotic thriller series Chemistry, which also lasted one season.

His most recent writing credit was co-penning last year’s Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank, the Blazing Saddles-inspired animated tale that featured martial arts-wielding animals.

Steinberg is survived by his wife, Serine Hastings; his son, Nik; his daughter, Daphne; daughter-in-law, Lilly, and son-in-law, Andreas; grandchildren Oona, June and Gus; a sister, Joan Minsky; step-children Freja and Alex, their partners Danny and Caroline, and their children, Llewyn and Arthur; and Bonnie Strock, his former wife and mother of his two children.

A memorial service will be held in the spring, in New York, at a date and location to be determined. The family requests that donations be made in his name to The Norman Steinberg Scholarship Fund, c/o Kmur Hardeman, Long Island University, TV Writers Studio, Media Arts Department, 1 University Plaza, HC 212, Brooklyn, NY 11201.

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