The Behind-The-Scenes Chaos Of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid's Casting Process

Buddy movies live and die on their stars' chemistry. By that metric, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" is the best buddy movie ever made. Paul Newman and Robert Redford are the perfect pair as the titular duo. Newman's killer smile and charisma are perfect for Cassidy, the grinning charmer, while Redford has a deadpan wit attuned to a stone-faced and laconic straight man like Sundance. William Goldman's script is one of the most quotable ever written, and the actors' comedic timing etched the lines into our memories. 

However, the film's casting went through different iterations before settling on the final pairing of Newman and Redford.

Finding the stars

"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" was the brainchild of screenwriter William Goldman. Goldman was drawn to the story of how the outlaw pair had escaped the U.S. and lived in Bolivia, saying, "Westerns are based on confrontation, and Butch's whole life, from everything we know about him, was avoiding confrontation." Director George Roy Hill was just one of many men who 20th Century Fox considered for the job. While Hill had never directed a Western before, he had made comedies like the Peter Sellers vehicle "The World of Henry Orient" or the Julie Andrews musical "Thoroughly Modern Millie." Hill's comedic touch, mixed with Goldman's anachronistically modern dialogue, separates "Butch Cassidy" from contemporary westerns.

Now that the film had its director, the filmmaker needed his stars; Andrew Horton details the casting process in his book "The Films of George Roy Hill." For starters, Paul Newman was involved with the film before Redford was. After being given the script, he handed it off to Steve McQueen. McQueen suggested that Newman play Sundance while he would star as Butch. Hill countered that the two should swap roles, convincing Newman that he could play the comedic side of Butch. It's safe to say that Hill's instincts about Newman's range were sound.

McQueen, however, wanted top billing and wouldn't agree to the switch. He even refused a compromise offered by producer Darryl Zanuck, wherein half of the movie prints would have Newman's name first on the titles, while the other half would have McQueen's name first. It's possible that the proposed switch conjured up McQueen's memories of "Somebody Up There Likes Me," a 1956 Paul Newman vehicle where he'd had an uncredited bit part. In any case, McQueen bowed out, leaving the film with a Butch Cassidy but no Sundance Kid.

Robert Redford becomes a movie star

Something lost for modern audiences is the power imbalance between the stars of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." In 2022, Newman and Redford are both Hollywood legends. In 1969, however, Newman was one of the biggest movie stars alive while Redford was a nobody; he had only eight minor films and a handful of TV guest appearances to his name. It is thanks to "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" that Redford became a movie star on Newman's level. Yet, he almost didn't get the part.

When the then-unknown Redford read Goldman's script he declared, "This is perfect for me." Redford met with Hill then Newman and hit it off with both; before long, the director and star were pushing for Redford to play Sundance. Producer Richard F. Zanuck (son of Darryl), however, was reluctant to cast Redford. He envisioned the film as one shared by two stars and attempted to get a bigger name as Newman's co-star. He failed; Warren Beatty turned down the role, feeling the project was too similar to his previous film, "Bonnie & Clyde." Zanuck also courted Marlon Brando, but in a pre-"The Godfather" world, Brando was persona non grata thanks to his support for the Black Panthers. Zanuck relented when Newman threatened to leave unless Redford played Sundance. Redford proved Zanuck's doubts wrong, not an easy task considering he was playing a subdued role opposite Newman's dynamite charisma.

Playing the Sundance Kid changed the trajectory of Robert Redford's life. For starters, it raised him into the Hollywood A-list, and he went on to become the leading man of the 1970s. Shooting the film also introduced him to Utah; in 1978, Redford co-founded the Sundance Film Festival in Utah state capital Salt Lake City, an event named for his star-making role.

Further adventures of Redford and Newman

In 1973, Newman, Redford, and Hill partnered once more for "The Sting." Newman and Redford again played a pair of affable criminals, though con-men rather than cowboys, and with the roles of comedian and straight man swapped. This time, they also had a worthy adversary in Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). 

Newman and Redford's friendship endured for many years after as well. Redford had planned for another collaboration between himself and Newman, "A Walk In The Woods." Alas, it was put on hold after Newman's death in 2008. It was released in 2015 with Nick Nolte understudying for Newman, but his absence casts a shadow over the film.

While Newman and Redford never got to do "A Walk In The Woods" together, their two legendary collaborations live on in the halls of Hollywood. The final freeze-frame of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," with the outlaw pair charging out to meet their doom, reflects the outlaws transcending into immortality through myth. Their actors have experienced the same transcendence; not bad for two performers who weren't originally supposed to be sharing the frame.