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The Big Idea Behind BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID

As with any legend of the Old West, many conflicting stories about the real Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid abound. What we present here is a consensus of facts drawn from various sources that more or less agree on general biographical details.

Butch Cassidy was born Robert Leroy Parker to Mormon parents in 1866 in Utah and spent most of his young life there. He began working as a laborer at an early age but eventually met up with rustler Mike Cassidy. Cattle and horse theft being a more lucrative and exciting life, Parker joined Cassidy's gang and took his last name. Some claim his name "Butch" came from one of his early jobs as a butcher; others have said it was a joke nickname from a friend who called his rifle "Butch" and teased Cassidy about being such a bad shot. In Wyoming he was caught and sentenced to eighteen months for stealing horses; upon his release, he hooked up with other outlaws, including one known as the Sundance Kid. They held up trains and banks with much success and Butch and Sundance became popular legends in their own lifetimes. They were perhaps the only Western outlaws to achieve this distinction, besides Jesse James. Known for his flair and daring but not for violence, Butch prided himself on never shooting or killing anyone until forced to do so in self-defense later in his career. He was also known to be a very affable person, liked by all. It has been said that he could walk up to a stranger's house and ask to be hidden from the law, and people were so taken with him and his legend that they gladly agreed.

The Sundance Kid was born Harry Alonzo Longabaugh in Pennsylvania (some say New Jersey) in 1867. He joined Butch Cassidy's gang around 1899, possibly taking his name from Sundance, Wyoming, where he served time in jail. He had a reputation as a fearsome gunman, although that is sometimes disputed.

Butch and Sundance's gang has been known by a couple of names, although some Western history experts say there was no firmly constituted or named gang, just a loose collection of outlaws who joined up in varying groups and were known collectively as the Hole in the Wall Gang, after their supposed hide-out in the mountains. It has even been said that neither Butch nor Sundance were the true leaders on many of the jobs ascribed to them. The Wild Bunch was a name believed to have been given them by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, more or less as a publicity measure to make them seem more threatening than they actually were.

On the run from the law, Butch and Sundance, along with the Kid's reputed lover, a woman named Etta Place, fled the country around 1901, traveling first to New York, then to Argentina and Bolivia where, according to many accounts, they became respectable ranchers for a time. They later became miners, before returning to robbing banks, which they were allegedly forced to do upon the eventual arrival of the Pinkerton detective forces who pursued them to South America.

They were said to have been killed by Bolivian authorities around 1908. Certain stories have them ambushed inside a building, and when their bodies were discovered, Sundance had been shot dead, some claim by Butch, who put his badly wounded partner out of his misery before turning his gun on himself. However, many people, including Cassidy's youngest sister Lula Parker Betenson (who was alive at the time that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was released), say the deaths were faked and that Butch, at least, returned to the U.S., married and became a businessman, dying in Spokane, Washington, in 1937. William A. Pinkerton himself said the accounts of their death were false and, in 1921, stated that the last he had heard Sundance was in jail in Peru and Cassidy had escaped. At any rate, the agency never officially closed the books on the case.

Details about Etta Place are the sketchiest of all. She is alleged to have been either a prostitute or a schoolteacher (about the only two professions available to women in the Old West), but beyond that, no one knows or is in agreement on the biographical facts, except that Etta was quite attractive (evidenced by an existing photo of her and Sundance). Compounding the mystery, Etta was known to have signed her name "Ethel" on several occasions, and reportedly five other women connected with Cassidy's gang may have gone by the same name at various times. Some say she died with Butch and Sundance in South America, where she was their accomplice in a number of robberies, but most agree she returned to the U.S. before their deaths (possibly to treat some illness), and that she lived on for many years, dying anywhere between 1924 (a reputed suicide) and 1966 (natural causes). However, a woman named Bettie, who claimed to be Etta's daughter from the marriage she abandoned to run off with Sundance, said on her death bed in 1971, "Mother may still be living. She remarried and may have had other children." None of these stories have been verified, and the real Etta Place remains a mystery.

In 1965, William Goldman was a novelist and creative writing teacher at Princeton who had just broken into the film business with co-credit on a crime comedy, Masquerade (1965), and sole credit for the screenplay of a private eye movie starring Paul Newman, Harper (1966). Both were adaptations of novels, not original stories. But eight years earlier Goldman had become taken with the legend of then nearly forgotten outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and spent that time thinking about and researching their life stories before finally sitting down to write the first draft of the screenplay during his holiday break in December 1965 and January 1966.

Several elements of the outlaws' story fascinated Goldman: Butch had become a Western legend in his own lifetime; he was known to be a very likable fellow who was not particularly good with a gun. He was so likable that, according to his myth, he refused to swear off a life of crime in exchange for parole from jail but was granted it anyway when he promised the governor never to commit a robbery in his state again. What especially appealed to the writer was the fact that the two fled the law for South America and re-emerged as legends a second time. Goldman said he was very moved by these people who died "in a foreign place not speaking the language." In truth, they probably did eventually speak at least passable Spanish because they lived in South America for several years and worked as ranchers during that time.

While writing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Goldman said he had in mind the notion of "stupid courage," a trait that had moved him since childhood and stuck in his head after viewing such films as Gunga Din (1939). That notion emerged in his screenplay in the famous jump off the cliff into the rapids and the final dialogue scene in which Butch and Sundance, trapped and badly wounded, tend to their injuries and talk blithely about their next move before charging into the open with guns blazing for what is quite likely their fatal last stand. Goldman later commented on these two scenes. "The jump off the cliff...has turned out to be the most important scene of my life. I can argue that everything good that has come out of my relationship with Hollywood was because of that scene." And of the finale: "It's the best ending I've ever been involved with."

Several years later, Goldman noted some problems he had when writing the script of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. One was that there was a lot less action––e.g., shoot-outs, barroom brawls, stampedes––than in the standard Western. But he felt this was acceptable in realizing the true nature of the story, the relationship of these two men and their connection to the Etta character. He also knew he was writing something that had an abundance of humor, but he felt it wasn't funny enough to be strictly a comedy. He didn't want to add more humor to it, however, because "if the movie was too funny, the ending wouldn't work, the audience wouldn't have cared enough if they died." Goldman said he ended up taking his cue from a comic genius, Jack Benny, whom he had seen in performance years before. Benny, he noted, didn't have a string of killer jokes or the sustained hilarity of other comedians of his day, but people genuinely liked him, were taken with his quirks and mannerisms, and willing to "follow him anywhere." This convinced Goldman he was right in building the story around the relationship of Butch and Sundance, making the characters "as inviting, and at the same time as unusual" as he could.

The other issue Goldman encountered was the fact that Butch and Sundance ran away which was not a typical trait for Western heroes and legends. Yet he wanted to stay true to the historical facts, and he was intrigued by solving the problem. His solution was to bend the true details slightly. Although there was, in fact, a "superposse" composed of the top law enforcers of the day (put together by railroad magnate E.H. Harriman to get the outlaws), they never actually chased the real Butch and Sundance; the duo simply left the country when they heard about the trackers. So Goldman invented the lengthy chase and the famous "Who are those guys?" sequence that culminates in the cliff jump. Goldman felt this would make Butch and Sundance immensely appealing to audiences who would end up rooting for their eventual escape.

Goldman tried to stay true to most of the "facts" about the duo that had come down through the years, but not everything made it into the finished film. He originally called the gang the "Wild Bunch," but Sam Peckinpah's film of that name (released a few months earlier) forced a title change to "Hole in the Wall Gang." A scene written to show Sundance returning to his boyhood home in the East was replaced with the New York montage. In the South America segment, he originally had the characters age to reflect the number of years they spent there, but that was also dropped. "My movie script was darker than the film because of these elements," he said. The dynamiting of the train cars with the same loyal railroad employee, Woodcock, inside, was also true and made it into the final film. There are even photos in existence of the damaged shells of the original trains blown up by Butch and Sundance.

Goldman decided to make Etta a teacher because he had seen a photo of the real-life woman and decided she was too young and pretty to be a prostitute. In fact, most women of that profession in the old West looked haggard, unhealthy and coarse in the photos he had seen of them.

The script was originally titled "The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy."

The finished script of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was shopped around to several studios. One executive famously rejected it because of the flight to South America. He wanted the outlaws to stay in the U.S. and fight the superposse to the death. When Goldman argued it really happened the way he wrote it, the executive insisted he didn't care because "John Wayne don't run away."

The Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid screenplay was quickly snatched up by Richard Zanuck, then head of 20th Century Fox, for $400,000, the most that had been paid for a screenplay up to that time and twice as much as Zanuck was contracted by his board to spend on a single script. Paul Monash was assigned as producer. (He was bumped up to executive producer when Paul Newman signed on and his business partner John Foreman became producer.)

Goldman had written the script with Jack Lemmon in mind for Butch and Paul Newman for Sundance. Some reports claim Newman initially passed on the script, but the actor later said, "From the second I read it, I knew it was going to be a movie that everybody connected with it could look back on with some sense of pride."

Steve McQueen became interested in playing Butch and wanted Newman to consider doing Sundance. At this point, George Roy Hill signed on as director, but he said he would only do it if the roles were reversed. Newman didn't want to play Butch, pleading with Hill to watch what Newman considered one of his worst performances in the comedy Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! (1958). "I'm a terrible comic actor," Newman insisted, but became more convinced when Hill told him he didn't have to go for the jokes, but to just play it straight.

McQueen reportedly dropped out over billing issues. He and Newman were the biggest stars in the business at the time so various plans were suggested for the billing - putting the second name on a higher level graphically than the first billed; having one star's name first for half the world distribution and the second star's for the other half). Unfortunately, an agreement couldn't be reached so McQueen walked.

After McQueen's departure, Hill decided he wanted to cast the less known and less established Robert Redford. The studio refused and began courting Marlon Brando and Warren Beatty. Zanuck thought Redford was no more than a bland pretty boy, and Newman at first considered him too much of a "Wall Street lawyer" type. Eventually he sided with Hill (partially convinced of Redford's rightness by Newman's wife, Joanne Woodward), and the two pressured Zanuck until he relented.

Redford's later recollection of his assessment of the script was a bit more qualified than Newman's: "There was probably a little fear that it was maybe either a little too clever or too much fun and games, but it was still a very attractive script. Very well written."

by Rob Nixon

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