Casting Paul Newman In The Sting Wasn't As Obvious A Choice As It Seems

"The Sting" is a classic film that beat out both "American Graffiti" and "The Exorcist" at the Academy Awards for Best Picture of 1973. However, even though stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford had led another bona fide classic, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," for the same director (George Roy Hill), pairing them together again for "The Sting" wasn't necessarily a given from the outset.

"The Sting" is perhaps the ultimate con man movie: It taught moviegoers to swipe their nose as a signal to their partners when they're running a grift (or perhaps just eager to exit a bad party or some such awkward social situation where nonverbal cues from across the room are necessary). The film put an old ragtime melody, Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer," back on the Billboard charts as a No. 1 single when composer Marvin Hamlisch adapted it for the soundtrack. Yet over and above that, much of the film's rakish charm just hinges on Newman and Redford, who paved the way for George Clooney and Brad Pitt in "Ocean's Eleven," along with many other heist films full of twists and turns and sometimes double- and triple-crosses.

In "The Sting," Newman plays a grifter named Henry Gondorff, who masquerades as a Chicago bookie named Shaw. His character was originally envisioned as "an over-the-hill slob of a guy," a far cry from Newman's handsome screen image.

Can you imagine "The Sting" without Paul Newman?

Apparently, not everyone involved in the film's production could imagine it with him.

The producers envisioned Peter Boyle in Newman's part

In the book "Movie Moguls Speak," producer Michael Phillips addressed how Paul Newman came to win the Henry Gondorff role, though he and his co-producers first had "Young Frankenstein" star Peter Boyle in mind for it. He said that two studios were "heavily competing" for the script before Universal Pictures won and George Roy Hill got involved as director. As he explained it:

"Hill came in first and, then, Redford committed to playing the role of Johnny Hooker in 'The Sting.' George had been a very close friend of Paul Newman. Out of friendship, each would send the other the scripts they were working on. Newman read 'The Sting' and immediately called Hill. He said, 'I want to be in this.' Hill replied, 'No, because Redford is already playing the lead.' He answered, 'No, I want to play Gondorff.' Well, the part of Gondorff was really written for Peter Boyle, who was to portray it as an over-the-hill slob of a guy. For a few days, we wrestled with the idea of casting Newman, because you have to believe he will screw Redford over in the end or it doesn't work. Ultimately, Hill gave the nod and said, 'We can make this work with Newman.' I thought that you can't kick a gift horse in the mouth. These guys were great together."

As Phillips points out, the film's twist ending, whereby Gondorff appears to screw Shaw over as part of their con, required an actor who would fit the image of shooting his partner in the back. Newman made it work. He and Robert Redford do go together about as well as Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, so much so that it's a wonder they didn't collaborate on more films like the latter two actors did.

As it is, we still got a nice follow-up to "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" with "The Sting."

Peter Boyle, who passed away in 2006, two years before Newman, is certainly a talented actor who might have lent Gondorrf a more everyman quality. However, Newman made the role his own and gave "The Sting" an added kick and star power that has kept viewers coming back to it for decades.