As a duo, Paul Newman and Robert Redford are best known for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, at least in part because Redford really latched on to that whole “Sundance” thing. But the other movie they made together, The Sting, was a bigger hit and won more Oscars, including Best Picture. So where’s the love? (Admittedly, “Gondorff and Hooker” doesn’t have quite the same ring that “Butch and Sundance” does.)
For fans of old-timey con men and even older-timey music, nothing beats The Sting. Here are some details about the film that may have escaped your attention when you were being misdirected.
1. PAUL NEWMAN’S ROLE WAS WRITTEN FOR AN OVERWEIGHT, OVER-THE-HILL SLOB, AND WAS A MINOR CHARACTER.
Henry Gondorff was only in about half of David S. Ward’s original screenplay, and was intended to be an older, paunchier fellow—a sort of gruff mentor to Johnny Hooker (who was written as a 19-year-old). The producers were thinking of someone like Peter Boyle to play the role, but Newman loved the screenplay and wanted to play Gondorff no matter what. So Ward slimmed down the character and beefed up the role to fit Newman.
2. REUNITING BUTCH AND SUNDANCE WASN’T THE NO-BRAINER YOU’D EXPECT.
Separately, Robert Redford and Paul Newman were two of the biggest movie stars in the world in the early 1970s. As a duo, they were perhaps even more popular, with mega-hit Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) fresh in people’s memories. When the director of that film, George Roy Hill, signed on for The Sting, Redford soon followed. Then came Newman, as described above. But while a Butch and Sundance reunion sounded tempting (and lucrative), the studio had a concern: In the movie, the two con men’s partnership hinges on the possibility that one (or both) will try to double-cross the other. With Redford and Newman so famously chummy, Universal was concerned that audiences wouldn’t believe such a betrayal was possible, and the film would thus lose some of its suspense. Hill assuaged their fears.
3. THE PRODUCER WAS SURE IT WOULD WIN OSCARS BASED ON THE SCREENPLAY ALONE.
Michael Phillips, who produced the film with his wife, Julia, and Tony Bill, later told an interviewer, “Believe it or not, I rehearsed my Oscar speech before we rolled our first shot. It was naive, even though it worked out that I won.” Of course, none of what he had rehearsed made it into his Oscar acceptance speech: “When I got up there, I just babbled.” The screenplay that had given him such confidence won an Oscar, too.
4. THE RAGTIME SCORE WAS TERRIBLY ANACHRONISTIC, YET ALSO CONTEMPORARY IN A WAY.
The Sting is set in 1936, by which time the Scott Joplin piano tunes that serve as its soundtrack—all written between 1902 and 1908—were no longer popular. But there was revived interest in Joplin’s work in the early ’70s, including a new recording of his catalog by pianist Joshua Rifkin that became a million-seller (quite rare for an album of “classical” music). A high-profile analysis of Joplin’s work in The New York Times soon followed, and in 1976 the composer was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his “contributions to American music.” Meanwhile, in the midst of this Joplin-mania, George Roy Hill heard his son playing a Joplin rag on the piano (or, according to other sources, heard Rifkin’s Joplin album) and thought the happy-go-lucky attitude of ragtime would set the perfect tone for The Sting.
5. IT MADE 70-YEAR-OLD MUSIC A BILLBOARD HIT.
The Sting soundtrack topped the Billboard chart for five weeks in May and June of 1974. If you need proof of the dire state of rock music in the mid-70s, look no further than that fact.
6. ROBERT SHAW’S LIMP WAS REAL.
Shaw, who played crime boss Doyle Lonnegan in the film, hurt his leg playing racquetball two days before shooting began. Director Hill decided to work with it and had Shaw turn his injury into a character trait.
7. SHAW WAS A LAST-MINUTE REPLACEMENT.
The part of merciless gangster Doyle Lonnegan was supposed to be played by Richard Boone, who had starred in TV’s Have Gun - Will Travel (1957-1963) and a handful of movies, including several Westerns. Boone signed on for The Sting but dropped out without explanation, refusing to even return producers’ and agents’ phone calls.
8. THE DIRECTOR ISN’T AS FAMOUS AS YOU’D THINK, CONSIDERING HE MADE TWO OF THE HIGHEST-GROSSING FILMS OF ALL TIME.
George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made $102 million in 1969, or about $575 million at today’s ticket prices. When Hill reunited with his Butch and Sundance for The Sting, the result took in $156 million ($723 million adjusted for inflation). The Sting was the fourth highest-grossing film in history at the time, behind The Exorcist (which was released the same week), Gone with the Wind, and The Sound of Music, and ahead of The Godfather. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was number eight, making Hill the only director to have two movies in the top 10. But Hill was reclusive compared to most Hollywood directors, disliking publicity tours and talk show interviews. As a result, despite his successes (he also made Slap Shot and The World According to Garp), he never quite became a household name.
9. THE DIRECTOR RESHOT THE FIRST WEEK’S WORTH OF FOOTAGE.
Production got off to a rather rocky start. Screenwriter Ward said the only time he felt any doubt about the film’s potential was when shooting began. He said director George Roy Hill “didn’t like what he did the first week of shooting, and thought it could be better, so he reshot it.” (It was the first sequence in the movie, the one where Hooker and Luther Coleman fleece a mobster in the alley.) Things went smoothly after that, and people praised Hill for running an efficient, happy, and well-organized set.
10. THE SCREENWRITER ORIGINALLY WANTED TO DIRECT THE MOVIE HIMSELF.
When the producers first optioned Ward’s screenplay—before it was finished, based only on his telling them the story—the deal had been for him to direct it, too. That was nixed when Redford, sniffing around the project, said he wouldn’t do such a complicated movie with a first-timer at the helm, no offense. Once Ward saw the caliber of talent his screenplay was attracting, he came to agree with the producers that it deserved a more experienced director. Ward did eventually direct a few of his own screenplays, including Major League, King Ralph, and The Program.
11. REDFORD AND NEWMAN WERE EACH PAID $500,000.
That was the top rate for an actor in those days. In 2015 dollars, that’s about $2.7 million, well below the $10 to $20 million big stars get paid nowadays. In other words, actors’ salaries have gone way up since 1973.
12. IT PROMPTED AT LEAST FOUR LAWSUITS.
David W. Maurer sued for plagiarism, claiming the screenplay was based too heavily on his 1940 book The Big Con, about real-life tricksters Fred and Charley Gondorff (note the Newman character’s last name). Universal quickly settled out of court for $300,000, irking screenwriter David S. Ward, who had used many nonfiction books as research material and hadn’t really plagiarized any of them. (It didn’t help that Universal had quoted excerpts from Maurer’s book—properly attributed, of course—in the souvenir booklet they produced as part of the film’s publicity materials.)
Another lawsuit followed when a company called Followay Productions claimed that since they’d bought exclusive adaptation rights to The Big Con back in 1952, any movie ripped off of that book was ripped off from them, too. (The case was thrown out because Followay failed to get the author to join it.) Paul Newman sued for a refund on California state income taxes that he paid on the money he earned on The Sting, saying he should have been charged the out-of-state rate, not the resident’s rate. (He won.) And Newman and director Hill later sued Universal for lost revenue from VHS sales on The Sting and Slap Shot. How fitting that a movie about money should have inspired so much real-life bickering about it.
13. IT’S GOING TO BE A BROADWAY MUSICAL.
Every movie seems to end up on The Great White Way sooner or later. Last year, it was announced that The Sting will be adapted by Bob Martin (writer of Broadway’s The Drowsy Chaperone and Elf) and the team of Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann (who wrote Urinetown). There’s no word yet on whether Joplin’s rags (adapted for the movie by Marvin Hamlisch) will be incorporated, but surely a stage version of The Sting will need to have at least a little ragtime. Right?
14. IT INSPIRED A SEQUEL THAT JUST ABOUT EVERYONE DISAVOWED.
Ward wrote The Sting II for Redford and Newman again, and he says George Roy Hill wanted to come back as director. Redford was willing to consider the project, but Newman wanted to leave well enough alone. Universal made the sequel anyway, with Mac Davis and Jackie Gleason in the Redford and Newman roles, respectively (more or less: the characters’ names were altered, and some story details were retroactively changed). Ward wanted to take his name off as writer (or says he did), to no avail. The Sting II was released in 1983, made $6 million, and was never heard from again.
Movie Moguls Speak, by Steven Priggé
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, by Peter Biskind