skip navigation
Remind Me

The Big Idea Behind THE STING

Wednesday May, 29 2019 at 08:00 PM

Films in BOLD will Air on TCM *  |   VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

In the early 1970s Paul Newman and Robert Redford were Hollywood's top box office stars and the leading male sex symbols of their time. Their first pairing together in George Roy Hill's 1969 western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had been a smash hit. Audiences had loved the chemistry between Newman and Redford and held out hope that they would get the chance to see the two work together again in the near future. That chance came when a young writer, David S. Ward, got the idea to write The Sting.

Ward, who had previously written the 1973 drama Steelyard Blues, first got the idea for The Sting while he was doing research on pickpockets. "I was researching pickpockets, and I had a bunch of books on pickpockets and grifters in general," said Ward in a 2005 interview, "and all the books had chapters and information on confidence men. And the more I read about confidence men, I thought, 'God, this is an incredible subculture. I'd love to do a movie about this. I've never seen a movie about confidence men-at least not about this kind of confidence man.' And since it was something I'd never seen a movie about before, I just said, 'I gotta do this.' The thing that sort of attracted me about confidence men were they seemed to be in some ways almost moral...because they didn't use violence, they didn't even steal - they used the mark's own greed against him...In some ways they were exposing the hypocrisy and the greed of supposedly respectable people." Out of that idea came the complex story of a naïve young grifter teaming up with an older seasoned con man to outsmart a dangerous mob boss and avenge the death of a friend.

Ward gave the script to producer Tony Bill, who loved the idea. Bill, in turn, shared it with Julia Phillips, a colleague who was looking to become a producer along with husband Michael Phillips. Both Julia and Michael Phillips were impressed. The pair decided to team up with Tony Bill and go into business together. They optioned both Steelyard Blues and The Sting from Ward. Ward signed on with the understanding that he would be allowed to direct The Sting when the time came, making his feature film directorial debut.

The producing team next approached Robert Redford to star in the leading role of Johnny Hooker in The Sting. Redford was interested, but did not like the idea of David Ward directing. "It seemed fun, it seemed different and kind of quirky," said Redford in 2005, "but because of its structure I thought it would take a real master director to pull it off, and I didn't want to insult or not support a newcomer." Redford told the producers that he wanted to make The Sting, but only with an experienced director behind the camera.

Not long afterwards, Robert Redford got a call from his friend, director George Roy Hill. Hill told him that he had come across the screenplay for The Sting and thought it was great. The screenplay was at Universal Studios, where the producing team had partnered with Richard Zanuck and David Brown to make the film. Hill was in the middle of making Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) at Universal, but when he was finished, he said, he wanted to direct The Sting.

As soon as Hill signed on to direct, he knew that he wanted to lighten the tone of The Sting. Originally, David Ward had written the story as a much darker tale of con men on the take. Hill, however, envisioned The Sting as a playful homage to old Hollywood gangster films of the 1930s.

Originally the part of boozy worn-out con man Henry Gondorff was much smaller. It was meant as a supporting role behind Robert Redford's character of Johnny Hooker. George Roy Hill first described the part of Gondorff as "a burly, oafish slob of a man," and actor Peter Boyle was one of the first names tossed around to play him. However, one day Hill called up Paul Newman in order to rent a house that Newman owned in Beverly Hills. According to Sting co-star Ray Walston, Hill had rented the same house from Newman while they had worked together on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. When Newman asked why Hill would be needing the house again, Hill said that he would be shooting The Sting with Robert Redford. Newman reportedly said, "Oh? Anything in it for me?" Hill, according to Walston, "saw the dollar signs turning in his head," but told Newman that Gondorff was the second part to Redford's. Newman told Hill to send him a script anyway.

While Newman loved the script, he told Hill that he would be all wrong for the "burly, oafish" Gondorff. Someone older, a bit longer in the tooth, he thought, would be more appropriate in the role. Hill encouraged Newman to take the part anyway, and had the screenplay tweaked to beef up Gondorff's part and tailor it more to Newman's style. The actor had been advised before by people in his professional life not to do comedy because he couldn't pull it off. However, he was intrigued by the challenge of playing someone like Gondorff and agreed to sign on.

For the part of menacing racketeer Doyle Lonnegan, Paul Newman gave the script to English actor Robert Shaw. The day after he finished reading it, Shaw reportedly said to Newman, "Delicious. When do I start?"

Supporting actors Ray Walston, Charles Durning, Eileen Brennan and Dimitra Arliss were brought on board to round out the cast of The Sting. Dimitra Arliss, who played the small but important part of Johnny Hooker's love interest Loretta, was an unknown face to moviegoers when she made The Sting. It was unusual for an unknown to be cast next to heavy hitters like Newman and Redford, but Hill wanted a fresh face to play Loretta. It was important, he said, that the audience not project any preconceived notions onto the character, which people would surely do with a name actress.

For the music of The Sting Hill made a controversial stylistic choice: Ragtime. Ragtime had been popular in America at the turn of the century, not during the 1930s depicted in the film. However, this wasn't something that ever bothered Hill. "...I don't much care whether the music is in strict period or not," said Hill in the liner notes to The Sting's soundtrack album. "If I thought a jazz band would give me the feeling I wanted for a Roman Epic, I'd use it. It probably wouldn't, but I'd have no academic objection to trying it." When he heard both his son and his nephew playing some of Scott Joplin's rags on the piano while he was doing early preparations for The Sting, he fell in love with the music. "Although Joplin's 'rags' were written before our period around the turn of the century," he said, "I kept connecting in my mind the marvelous humor and high spirits of his 'rags' with the kind of spirit I wanted to get out of the film." Hill hired his old friend, composer Marvin Hamlisch, to adapt Joplin's music for the Ragtime score of The Sting. "The selection of the material was easy," said Hill, "because his favorites were also mine-'The Entertainer,' "Gladiolus Rag,' 'PineApple Rag,' 'Ragtime Dance,' and my favorite, I think, of all of them – the lyrical, haunting 'Solace.'"

by Andrea Passafiume



Also Playing on TCM

Also playing
Scorsese Screens for February
An exclusive monthly column

In partnership with The Film Foundation, Turner Classic Movies is proud to bring you this exclusive monthly column by iconic film...more