12 Wild Facts About Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Paul Newman and Robert Redford star in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
Paul Newman and Robert Redford star in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
20th Century Fox

Lovable outlaws, buddy comedies, and Westerns have always been a part of the cinematic landscape. But it was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that first combined those elements into a box office smash, setting the tone for the dozens (hundreds?) of action comedies that have followed. It also put Robert Redford on the A-list (Paul Newman was already there), and introduced audiences to the bizarrely anachronistic pop song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” Here are a dirty dozen facts about one of our favorite movies about bad guys, which was released 40 years ago.

1. “Most of what follows is true” isn’t true.

That disclaimer at the beginning of the film, a variation of the familiar “based on a true story,” is tongue-in-cheek. The reality is that much of the lore surrounding Butch and Sundance was difficult or impossible to confirm or debunk, so screenwriter William Goldman (who’d primarily been a novelist before this) just went with it. In fact, that’s why he wrote a movie instead of a book: he was interested in the story, but he didn’t want to do the laborious research into day-to-day turn-of-the-century frontier life that a novel would require.

2. Paul Newman was in from the beginning, but finding his co-star took some work.

Paul Newman and Robert Redford star in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
20th Century Fox

When he wrote it, Goldman had in mind Newman—then perhaps the biggest movie star in the world—and Jack Lemmon, who’d done a 1958 Western called Cowboy and seemed like a good fit. Lemmon turned out not to be interested, and numerous other candidates were approached, including Steve McQueen (see below), Warren Beatty, and Marlon Brando. Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, suggested Robert Redford—then a stage actor who’d been in a few films but was considered something of a lightweight. Woodward, Newman, and director George Roy Hill all pestered the reluctant 20th Century Fox bosses until they conceded to casting Redford.

3. The president of 20th Century Fox could have lost his job for buying the screenplay.

Not because he bought it, but because he paid $400,000 for it. Richard Zanuck, son of Fox co-founder Darryl F. Zanuck, was authorized to spend $200,000, and later had to justify to the board of directors his decision to spend twice that much, especially since $400,000 was more than anyone had ever paid for a screenplay before. (That’s about $2.8 million in 2019 dollars, a figure that has been paid plenty of times.) The price turned out to be worth it, as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the top-grossing film of 1969. But despite that and a few other hits, Fox was hemorrhaging money due to expensive flops like Dr. Dolittle, and Zanuck was fired in 1970.

4. Steve Mcqueen dropped out over billing.

If Newman was the biggest movie star in the world at the time, Steve McQueen was right up there with him. The idea of casting not one but two mega-stars as Butch and Sundance made perfect sense, but there was a problem: whose name would go first in the credits? Fox president Darryl F. Zanuck later said that he proposed an unusual arrangement where half the prints of the film would list Newman first, the other half McQueen, but McQueen (or his representatives) wouldn’t accept anything other than top billing across the board. And that was that.

5. It was titled “The Sundance Kid And Butch Cassidy” until the casting was settled.

Once they’d settled on Redford as Newman’s costar, a new (minor) issue arose. Newman thought he was playing Sundance in what had heretofore been known as The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy. It turned out Hill, the director, actually wanted him to play Butch, and Redford to play Sundance. No problem; Newman was fine with the switch. But now they had a situation where the character being played by the less-famous actor came first in the title. The obvious Hollywood solution: reverse the title. “The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy” sounds weird to us now (as does the notion of Redford being significantly less famous than Newman), but there you go.

6. They had to change the name of Butch and Sundance’s gang to steer clear of Sam Peckinpah.

In real life, Butch and Sundance’s crew of bandits were collectively known as the Wild Bunch, and were so named in Goldman’s script. But as the film was going into production, Fox execs became aware of a Warner Bros. property called The Wild Bunch, written and directed by Sam Peckinpah. It wasn’t about the same guys, but it was a Western, and the story bore some coincidental similarities. What’s more, WB was rushing to get it into theaters before Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. So calling anybody “the Wild Bunch” in the Butch and Sundance movie was out of the question. Fox’s solution was to rename them the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, after a place in Wyoming that Butch (and other bad guys) sometimes used as home base.

7. Newman did his own bicycling stunts—because the stuntman couldn’t.

The studio sent a guy who practiced Butch’s showing-off moments for days ahead of time, but when it came time to shoot it, he couldn’t stay upright. Newman ended up doing most of it himself, which looked better on camera anyway. (The one shot he didn’t perform—the one at the end where the bike crashes through a fence—was done by cinematographer Conrad Hall.) Director Hill was duly annoyed by the waste of money on the bike stuntman.

8. Newman got mad at Redford for doing his own stunts.

To be fair, Redford’s stunts were a lot more dangerous. It was the scene where Sundance leaps onto the top of a moving train and runs stealthily across the cars. It wasn’t that Newman was jealous of Redford’s derring-do—he was concerned for his safety. “I don’t want to lose a costar” is what Redford recalls Newman saying. Chastened (and touched), Redford agreed it was a selfish move on his part, and he refrained from risking his life after that.

9. Katharine Ross was banned from the set for being too helpful.

Katharine Ross and Paul Newman in 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' (2019)
20th Century Fox

The 29-year-old actress, an Oscar nominee for playing Elaine Robinson in The Graduate, played Sundance’s girlfriend, Etta Place. In real life, she was dating (and would soon marry) cinematographer Conrad Hall, and that’s how she got into trouble. Ross was interested in photography, and while observing a scene that she wasn’t in, she asked Hall if she could operate one of the cameras. There were several cameras in use for this particular scene, so it didn’t matter (to Hall, anyway) if one of the less important ones was operated by an amateur, just for fun. Many crew members felt otherwise, and director Hill was furious when he found out. He sent word to Ross back at her hotel that she was no longer allowed on the set except when she was working. “It became a very difficult shoot for me,” she later said. “In fact, it took me a long time before I even wanted to see the film.”

Ross and Hall were married in 1969, the same years as the film's release, and divorced in 1974. Ten years later, Ross married fellow actor Sam Elliott; the couple is celebrating their 35th anniversary this year.

10. The film had to endure additional editing because it was too funny.

One of the complaints some critics had about the movie was that the glib, humorous tone felt anachronistic. They should have seen the earlier cut, which was even more uproarious. Zanuck later recalled that test-screening audiences found it too funny, funnier than the studio had in mind. They wanted it to be an amusing Western, but not an all-out comedy Western (a genre that tended to do poorly). The film was sent back for re-editing to take a few laughs out and make the whole thing feel a little more respectable.

11. There was a super-posse in real life, but with a very different outcome.

The film depicts several of the best lawmen teaming up to hunt Butch and Sundance as a group (which could actually make for a very interesting movie on its own). For a 30-minute chunk of the film, our heroes are on the run, barely staying a step ahead, ultimately escaping by leaping into a river and then moving to Bolivia. That’s all an embellishment of the truth. There was a super-posse, but they didn’t engage Butch and Sundance in much of a chase: as soon as Butch and Sundance heard who was in the group, they fled, knowing they’d never be able to beat them. The hunt was over before it started.

12. They wanted to shoot some of it on the set of Hello, Dolly!

The script called for a sequence where Butch, Sundance, and Etta go to New York before heading for South America. Recreating turn-of-the-century New York would be prohibitively expensive—but as it happened, 20th Century Fox had another movie in production for which just such a set had been built: Hello, Dolly!, the movie version of the hit Broadway musical. Maybe the Butch Cassidy team could borrow it for a few days? But Fox’s Zanuck nixed it for general cost-cutting reasons (and possibly because the Hello, Dolly! team objected). Instead, Hill created a montage of period photographs with the actors pasted in.

Additional Sources: DVD interviews and features Paul Newman: A Life, by Shawn Levy American Film Institute

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

The 11 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Wilson Webb/Netflix

With thousands of titles available, browsing your Netflix menu can feel like a full-time job. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, take a look at our picks for the 11 best movies on Netflix right now.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man may be in the middle of a Disney and Sony power struggle, but that didn't stop this ambitious animated film from winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Using a variety of visual style choices, the film tracks the adventures of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who discovers he's not the only Spider-Man in town.

2. Hell or High Water (2016)

Taylor Sheridan's Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water follows two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who take to bank robberies in an effort to save their family ranch from foreclosure; Jeff Bridges is the drawling, laconic lawman on their tail.

3. Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro takes on the life of pugilist Jake LaMotta in a landmark and Oscar-winning film from Martin Scorsese that frames LaMotta's violent career in stark black and white. Joe Pesci co-stars.

4. Marriage Story (2019)

Director Noah Bambauch drew raves for this deeply emotional drama about a couple (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) whose uncoupling takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll on their family.

5. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy ended a brief sabbatical from filmmaking following a mixed reception to 2016's Mr. Church with this winning biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, a flailing comedian who finds success when he reinvents himself as Dolemite, a wisecracking pimp. When the character takes off, Moore produces a big-screen feature with a crew of inept collaborators.

6. The Lobster (2015)

Colin Farrell stars in this black comedy that feels reminiscent of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work: A slump-shouldered loner (Farrell) has just 45 days to find a life partner before he's turned into an animal. Can he make it work with Rachel Weisz, or is he doomed to a life on all fours? By turns absurd and provocative, The Lobster isn't a conventional date movie, but it might have more to say about relationships than a pile of Nicholas Sparks paperbacks.

7. Flash of Genius (2008)

Greg Kinnear stars in this drama based on a true story about inventor Robert Kearns, who revolutionized automobiles with his intermittent windshield wiper. Instead of getting rich, Kearns is ripped off by the automotive industry and engages in a years-long battle for recognition.

8. Locke (2013)

The camera rarely wavers from Tom Hardy in this existential thriller, which takes place entirely in Hardy's vehicle. A construction foreman trying to make sure an important job is executed well, Hardy's Ivan Locke grapples with some surprising news from a mistress and the demands of his family. It's a one-act, one-man play, with Hardy making the repeated act of conversing on his cell phone as tense and compelling as if he were driving with a bomb in the trunk.

9. Cop Car (2015)

When two kids decide to take a police cruiser for a joyride, the driver (Kevin Bacon) begins a dogged pursuit. No good cop, he's got plenty to hide.

10. Taxi Driver (1976)

Another De Niro and Scorsese collaboration hits the mark, as Taxi Driver is regularly cited as one of the greatest American films ever made. De Niro is a potently single-minded Travis Bickle, a cabbie in a seedy '70s New York who wants to be an avenging angel for victims of crime. The mercurial Bickle, however, is just as unhinged as those he targets.

11. Sweet Virginia (2017)

Jon Bernthal lumbers through this thriller as a former rodeo star whose career has left him physically broken. Now managing a hotel in small-town Alaska, he stumbles onto a plot involving a murderer-for-hire (Christopher Abbott), upending his quiet existence and forcing him to take action.

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