George Roy Hill’s 1969 film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was based on real-life outlaws by the same names. The film was one of the first of the fresh buddy-comedy genre – a welcome relief to the sensitive landscape of the Vietnam War era. Hollywood heavy-weight Paul Newman was the big man on campus on set, whereas the then lesser-known Robert Redford was just being introduced into the world of big cinema.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid went on to collect four Academy Awards, including Best Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Song, and Best Cinematography. As fun as the movie is to watch, even today, it happened to be a joy to make – for pretty much everyone except for Katharine Ross (and you’ll see why).
This is a look into the making of the classic and the history of the real-life outlaws behind the story.
At first, the film was supposed to be called The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy. The role of Sundance was offered to Jack Lemmon (whose production company, JML, produced the film Cool Hand Luke, also with Paul Newman). Lemmon turned down the role, though, because he hated riding horses. He also didn’t want to play yet another Sundance Kid type of character.
Other actors considered for the role were Steve McQueen and Warren Beatty, but they both turned it down. According to screenwriter William Goldman, both McQueen and Newman read the script at the same time, and each agreed to do the film. But McQueen backed out due to disagreements with Newman. There’s also the fact that studio executives wouldn’t give McQueen top billing across the board.
As a result of these disagreements, the names in the title were reversed to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which has a better ring to it. Goldman claimed that he always had Paul Newman in mind for the role of Butch Cassidy. But he needed someone for the Sundance Kid after Jack Lemmon and McQueen both turned the role down.
Warren Beatty and Marlon Brando were also options, but they also refused. In the end, it was actually Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, who suggested the studio try the up-and-coming stage actor Robert Redford. At the time, Redford had only done a few films. Newman, Woodward, and director George Roy Hill begged the studio to cast Redford.
Robert Redford was the new kid in town, but boy did he have ambition. He reportedly wanted to do all of his own stunts in the movie, particularly the stunt where Sundance jumps on top of a moving train and runs along the top as it moves. This, apparently, was very upsetting to Newman. He wasn’t upset because Redford was trying to show off or anything.
Newman was concerned about his co-star’s safety. Redford later recalled what Newman told him: “I don’t want any heroics around here. I don’t want to lose a co-star.” In the end, Redford left the life-threatening stunts to the professionals. As for the non-threatening ones, both Newman and Redford performed many of them.
Richard Zanuck, the son of 20th Century Fox’s co-founder Darryl F. Zanuck, was president of the studio at the time. He put himself in some hot water when he bought the screenplay of the film. Richard was only allowed to spend $200,000, but he ended up spending twice that amount for William Goldman’s script.
$400,000 in today’s economy equals nearly $3 million. At the time, such an amount had never been spent on a screenplay. Luckily for Zanuck, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid became the highest-grossing film of 1969. Still, he got fired the following year. Not for this particular incident, but for money, Fox lost over flops like Dr. Dolittle.
The studio hired a certain stuntman to perform the eye-catching bicycle tricks Butch did in the film. But when it came time to shoot those scenes, it proved to be rather embarrassing for the stuntman. He couldn’t manage to stay upright on the bike. Ultimately, Newman ended up doing most of those stunts himself.
It looked better in the film, anyway. But Hill was annoyed that the studio had essentially wasted money on such a stuntman. The only scene in which Newman didn’t do a stunt himself was the one where the bike crashes through a fence. Newman wasn’t just agile and talented, he was also quite the prankster…
In Hollywood, Paul Newman became a legend when it comes to on-set pranks. On the set of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the director was the victim of Newman’s shenanigans. One time, when Hill ignored Newman’s suggestion for a scene, Newman allegedly sawed Hill’s desk in half. And when the director sat down, the desk collapsed onto his lap.
Sources say that Newman did it because Hill wouldn’t pay for liquor he had borrowed from his office. But that’s just hearsay. Newman also had the reputation of being a jokester on the set. He had to see a joke through to its punchline before he would “allow” the cast and crew to continue working.
Katharine Ross, who played the character of Etta Place, was dating the film’s cinematographer, Conrad Hall. Ross had an interest in camera work, and so her camera-savvy lover let her operate an obsolete camera during one scene. The director was furious, though, when he found out that an amateur was operating the cameras.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but when we got back to the hotel, the production manager came and told me that I was banned from the set except when I was working. And it became very difficult to shoot for me. In fact, it took a long time before I even wanted to see the film,” Ross later admitted.
She also said her favorite scene to shoot was the silent bicycle riding sequence with Newman. She was most at ease then because the film crew’s Second Unit was in charge – not Hill himself. “Any day away from George Roy Hill was a good one,” she stated.
To shoot all of the film’s scenes in Bolivia, the entire cast and crew traveled to Mexico. While there, pretty much everyone suffered from what is known as Montezuma’s Revenge. No, it is not a gang of motorcycle riders that attack locals – or anything of the sort. Montezuma’s Revenge is a severe form of diarrhea that comes from drinking the local water.
As it turned out, the only people who weren’t affected by the disease were Newman, Redford, and Ross who – due to their rather posh lifestyle – refused to drink the water that the catering services provided. Maybe they knew that Mexico’s local water was polluted. Who knows? Either way, they stuck to drinking soda and alcohol for the duration of their stay.
After Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid debuted in 1969, it went on to be considered the quintessential buddy comedy of the ‘70s. However, although it did well in theaters, critics weren’t particularly impressed. A problem they had with the film was that it didn’t adhere to the standard of traditional Westerns. In other words, it was too funny.
In fact, some critics felt that it was simply too funny for the time period it was depicting. Richard Zanuck recalled how screen-test audiences found the movie to be hysterical. As a result, it had to be re-edited several times for it to be considered “respectable.”
If you saw the movie, you might remember the disclaimer at the beginning of the film that states: “Most of what follows is true.” But, as a matter of fact, such a statement could never really be confirmed. Screenwriter Goldman was fascinated by the real-life outlaws and was shocked to learn that no one had really written about them.
Goldman was a novelist before he wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and, thanks to the appeal of the notorious outlaws (which we’ll get to soon), he decided to write about what he knew. He spent eight years doing research before he penned the screenplay. He said that his love for the crime duo came about after reading about them. “The whole reason I wrote the thing, there is that famous line that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, who was one of my heroes: ‘There are no second acts in American lives.’”
Those learning of these facts today might be surprised to hear that Hill went so far as to ban Katharine Ross from the set for operating a camera during one scene. But, anyone who worked with him in the past knows that Hill was domineering by nature. Goldman once said that he didn’t know what the producers contributed to the film since Hill garnered all the credit.
“[On] a George Roy Hill film, George is the giant ape. Because of his vast talent, his skill at infighting, his personality, he runs the show,” Goldman said. I’m sure taking credit for a film that earned seven Oscar nominations (four of them wins) would make any director feel justified in his actions.
Paul Newman has famously stated, “I have steak at home, so why should I go out for a hamburger?” He wasn’t referring to meat at all, rather he was talking about his faithfulness to his long-term wife, Joanne Woodward. But apparently, at least in 1968, it was all talk. The actor allegedly began an 18-month affair with Nancy Bacon, a Hollywood journalist, while filming Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
The affair wasn’t a secret either. “Referring to his old remark, they’d say: ‘Paul may not go out for a hamburger, but he sure goes out for bacon,’” Bacon told biographer Shawn Levy. Regardless of the affair, Newman and Woodward remained married from 1958 up until the time of his death in 2008. Woodward, by the way, is now 90 (as of July 2020).
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid grossed $82,625 in its opening week from just two theaters in New York City. For only two cinemas, that’s pretty impressive. It went on to earn $15 million in rentals in the United States and Canada by the end of 1969. Overall, it raked in $102.3 million at the box office in North America alone. If you adjust that amount for inflation, it amounts to $699.3 million today!
It became the top-grossing film of its time. According to Fox Records, the film had to reach $13,850,000 in rentals to break even. By December 11, 1970, it had grossed $36,825,000, meaning the studio made a considerable profit.
Sam Elliott is known for his roles as cowboys and ranchers, so it only makes sense that his film debut was in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. You can’t really see his face very well in the film, but Elliott played a card player. After completing the film, Katharine Ross married the cinematographer Conrad Hall, but she would later come to realize that the love of her life was someone else on the set.
Things came full circle when she married Sam Elliott in 1984. They didn’t have any scenes together in Butch Cassidy, but they met for the second time in 1978 when they both starred in The Legacy. The cute and happy couple are still married to this day.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s real-life team of bandits and outlaws were collectively known as the “Wild Bunch” but, in the film, the group’s name was changed. If you remember, in the movie, they’re referred to as the “Hole-in-the-Wall Gang,” named after a place in Wyoming that Butch used as their home base.
The reason for the name change was because Fox executives learned that Warner Bros. was producing a film called The Wild Bunch. The film wasn’t even about the same guys, but it was nonetheless very similar to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Warner Bros. was working hard to get the film released before Butch Cassidy.
Fun fact: In 1988, Paul Newman founded the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for children with serious illnesses. The camp was made to look like a child-sized version of the Old West as seen in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
The real “Butch Cassidy” was a man named Robert Leroy Parker, who was born in 1866 in Beaver, Utah. The eldest of 13 children, he became a notorious train and bank robber and the leader of a gang of outlaws called the “Wild Bunch.” As a teenager, Parker met a fellow outlaw named Mike Cassidy and eventually took on the man’s last name as his own.
Later on, he worked as a butcher in Wyoming, which is how he became known as the notorious “Butch Cassidy.” His family also happened to be among Utah’s early Mormon settlers who moved from England to America in the 1850s. To contribute to his family’s finances, Butch Cassidy left home to work on ranches.
At 13, Butch Cassidy had his first run-in with the law when he was accused of stealing a pair of overalls from a shop. As the story goes, after a long ride into town, he saw that the shop was closed. So he simply let himself in, took the overalls, and left a note promising to come back with payment. Instead, the shop owner had him arrested.
Although he was ultimately let go, the experience left him resentful toward the legal system and authority figures. It was in the early 1880s, at a Utah ranch, that he met Mike Cassidy, a cowhand, and small-time horse thief. He admired the old man who taught him about horses and shooting a gun.
After the old man fled the area after getting into trouble, 18-year-old Parker left Utah in 1884 in search of new opportunities. He spent time in the mining boomtown of Telluride, Colorado, and then in Wyoming and Montana. On June 24, 1889, he pulled off his first bank robbery, leaving with more than $20,000 in his hands.
Soon afterward, Parker starting using the last name Cassidy, in honor of his mentor. At first, he referred to himself as Roy Cassidy. But, according to popular legend, after he landed a job in a butcher’s shop, he became known as Butcher Cassidy, which later morphed into Butch Cassidy. And, with the name, came notorious crimes…
The real-life “Sundance Kid” was a man named Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, who was born in 1867 in Pennsylvania. He was all of 15 years old when he traveled west with one of his cousins. By 1887, he was in Sundance, Wyoming, where he stole a gun, a horse, and a saddle from a ranch. He was then captured and sentenced to 18 months in jail.
According to the folklore, it was during his time in jail that he adopted the nickname “Sundance Kid.” Although he tried to live his life as an honest ranch hand after he was released from jail, he did what most outlaws do: He went right back to a life of crime. Eventually, he became caught up with Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch.
The Percy Garris character in the film was based on a real person named Percy Seibert from Maryland. Seibert was a mining engineer who worked for Butch Cassidy in Antofagasta, Chile. While Garris’ character dies in the film, Seibert was still alive when Butch and Sundance were reported dead. In fact, Seibert was a coroner’s witness for his buddies, confirming their deaths in 1908.
In the film, a “super-posse” of law enforcement officers team up to hunt the Hole in the Wall Gang. In real life, however, there really was a super-posse that searched for Butch and Sundance. But what happened wasn’t as dramatic. As soon as Butch and Sundance learned who was in the posse, they fled to South America.
Etta Place was yet another character based on real life. In reality, Place was clearly involved with the wrong crowd. It was said that she made it on her own as a “woman of the night,” but screenwriter Goldman didn’t feel so good about that idea. He thought that Place was too young and pretty to give herself away like that.
The way he saw it, most women in Old West photos look haggard and unhealthy. The real Etta Place didn’t look like that, so he decided to make her a teacher in the movie instead. Even though she really existed, the true identity of Etta Place is virtually unknown. That probably wasn’t even her name. Some believe her real name was Ethel Bishop, a music teacher who lived near a brothel.
While shooting Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the cast and crew were visited by Butch Cassidy’s real sister, Lula Parker Betenson. In-between shots, Betenson would tell true stories about her brother’s escapades. We can only assume that her stories helped with accuracy in the film. Once the studio learned that Betenson was on the set, they made her an offer.
They wanted her to endorse the movie by being in a series of ads, but she agreed to do it on one condition: that she saw the film before its release and genuinely liked it. Although the studio didn’t agree to those conditions, she did the endorsements anyway, and for a small fee.
Although their names are not related in any way, actor Ted Cassidy played Harvey Logan in the film. The film portrays Logan as a simple-minded thug. In reality, he was anything but. The real Harvey Logan was allegedly a womanizer and cold-blooded murderer. He also went by the name “Kid Curry.”
The outlaw was known as “the wildest of the Wild Bunch.” Logan reportedly killed at least nine law enforcement officers in five shootings. And that’s not to mention the other innocent lives he took. But, then again, movies always spin the truth for dramatic effect. But since this is a behind-the-scenes list, it’s something you ought to know.
George Roy Hill wanted to be in control on the set of his film, so it’s not surprising that this would often lead to conflicts. One of the biggest arguments between him and Newman on the set revolved around what became known as “the Bledsoe scene.” In the scene, Butch and Sundance visit an old sheriff named Bledsoe.
They were seeking assistance to get enlisted in the Army to serve in the Spanish-American War. Newman expressed his feelings that the scene should be at the end of the super-posse chase – it would serve as their motivation for fleeing. Hill fought Newman over this almost every day, and Newman was ultimately ignored.
The veteran actor that he was, Newman, was initially wary of taking on a comedic role. After all, he was trained to do so much more than comedy and had proven it in his previous films. At one point, he began doubting his own performance during the filming of the movie. He believed that he was playing Butch “a little too high, a little too broad.”
It was director Hill, of all people, who got Newman to relax a little bit and actually do less on the set. This worked because it allowed Newman to find his own level of humor that let him play the character naturally. In the end, Hill wasn’t all that bad.
When it came to tardiness on the set, Robert Redford took the cake. He was reportedly always late, which annoyed most of the cast and the crew. At one point, Paul Newman joked around, saying they should rename the film “Waiting for Lefty.” Redford was left-handed, you see. There’s also a 1935 play of the same name about a group of people who are waiting for someone named “Lefty,” who never shows up.
Newman and Redford got along just fine, but they came from two different schools of acting. There were things that they disagreed on, like the need to rehearse a scene before shooting it. Redford thought it was unnecessary and that it took away from the spontaneity. But he gave in and rehearsed out of respect for Newman.
One of the most memorable scenes in the film is when Butch and Sundance jump into the river to escape the super-posse. The scene took a lot of hard work and was even filmed in two different places. In the first part, which was filmed in Colorado, Newman and Redford start the jump. But they landed on a mattress.
They then relocated to Malibu, California, to continue the sequence. The shots of them making a dive into the river were filmed there at Century Ranch. And they weren’t the ones who made the final jump. Two stuntmen jumped from a construction crane that was hidden by a painting of the cliffs.
At the end of the film, there is a scene where Butch, Sundance, and Etta are watching a movie about themselves and the gang. In that scene, Butch and Sundance are criticizing the movie, calling out its inaccuracies. That’s when Etta gets up and walks out of the theater. She heads for a train station to begin her journey to America.
If you don’t remember it, it’s because the scene was ultimately cut from the final cut. After all, George Roy Hill thought it was “a little heavy-handed and unnecessary.”
Another scene feels like an outtake, but it was intentionally used. When Etta hands Sundance a pistol, and they lock up the manager in the cell, there appears to be some confusion with the keys. Sundance hands the gun back to Etta and she laughs.
In the film, Butch, Sundance, and Etta find themselves in Bolivia, which did happen in real life. But before they ever got to Bolivia, the real-life trio had a long way to go. At first, they spent time near Patagonia, Argentina, in a town called Cholila. They had to flee the country after robbing a bank. Then they went to Chile, where they befriended Percy Seibert (aka Percy Garris).
Also, the real Butch and Sundance were reported dead in San Vicente, Bolivia, in 1908. Despite this fact, conspiracy theories have claimed that their deaths were faked because their graves were never found.
After Paul Newman and Robert Redford first met on the set of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, they developed what would become a life-long friendship. A few years later, they both starred in The Sting and were even talking about doing a third movie together, just before 83-year-old Newman died in 2008.
Not surprisingly, Robert was heartbroken over the loss of his best friend, and he paid tribute to Newman in an emotional statement: “There is a point where feelings go beyond words. I have lost a real friend. My life — and this country — is better for his being in it.” He’s definitely right about that. America (and the world) were in love with the late actor and his films.
Redford built a reputation for looking out for his pals, colleagues, co-stars, and strangers. The actor/director has been referred to as a serial collaborator. When he discovers someone who’s the “right fit,” he tends to stick with them and works with that person over and over again. This actually isn’t uncommon in Hollywood. In Tinseltown, chemistry is important.
One example is Redford’s professional relationship with screenwriter William Goldman. Redford acted in five films that the screenwriter created: A Bridge Too Far, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, The Hot Rock, and The Great Waldo Pepper. Goldman clearly adores Redford and grew to understand him, appreciating his work and wanting him in many of his projects.
Nowadays, Redford likes to spend his time hiking up mountains rather than walking down Hollywood’s red carpets. When he’s not enjoying Mother Nature, the man keeps busy with his seven grandchildren! Sadly, for his fans, though, the 83-year-old has decided to retire (at least that’s what he claims).
In 2018, he announced that he was officially retiring from acting. His final performance was in the crime thriller, The Old Man & the Gun. But the retiree seems like he won’t really ever fully retire. Sure enough, Redford popped up on-screen recently with his cameo appearance in Avengers: Endgame. He also reprised the character he played in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Thanks to the film, the real-life Sundance Kid, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, is thought of as Butch Cassidy’s best friend. But, that role was filled by another Wild Bunch member by the name of William Ellsworth “Elzy” Lay. Cassidy and Lay met around 1889 in Browns Park, which borders Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming.
In 1899, Lay was arrested and convicted of killing a sheriff after a train robbery in New Mexico. He received a life sentence but was ultimately pardoned in 1906 after helping authorities stop a prison riot. In the mid-1890s, Sundance met Etta Place, who became his companion and joined the Wild Bunch. They eventually settled in a remote outlaw hideout in Utah.
While Butch Cassidy became notorious for carrying out holdups in the West in the 1890s, he wasn’t famous for excessive gun violence. When he wasn’t committing crimes, Cassidy was considered to be a friendly man and even had a reputation for being helpful to his neighbors. The details of his death remain a mystery, however.
Some accounts state that on November 4, 1908, in southern Bolivia, two men who looked like Cassidy and Sundance robbed a payroll as it was being transported. Three days later, the bandits arrived in San Vicente, Bolivia. Villagers were suspicious that these new strangers were connected to the robbery, and so Bolivian soldiers were called in, and there was a shoot-out.
During the shoot-out, the Bolivians either gunned down the suspects, or one of the outlaws killed his partner and then turned the gun on himself. Either way, the bodies were buried in unmarked graves in a San Vicente cemetery. But there’s no conclusive evidence that links Cassidy and Sundance to the robbery and shoot-out.
Researchers later exhumed the remains of those thought to be the payroll bandits. They determined that they weren’t the two American outlaws. Meanwhile, after the alleged deaths of Cassidy and Sundance, multiple reports were made about the two men in the United States, where they supposedly lived for several years under aliases. The true fate of Butch and Sundance remains a mystery.