There hadn’t been a Western like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” before it, and there really hasn’t been another since.
The repartee between title stars (and close friends from then on) Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the 1969 Oscar winner, currently streaming on Hulu, made whimsy a viable element to be added to the genre … at least in the script that earned Hollywood legend William Goldman an Academy Award. The opening on-screen text advises that the truth of the outlaw duo’s story might be toyed with, and the result is fun if only somewhat factual.
Newman was by far the bigger star at the time he played Butch Cassidy, and though an actor of equal stature initially was sought for the part of the Sundance Kid — Jack Lemmon, Steve McQueen and Warren Beatty were among those discussed — Redford’s career received an enormous boost from his being cast opposite Newman, and from his holding his own against his well-established performing partner.
Maybe the single best piece of evidence is the scene typically excerpted whenever the film is referenced, showing Butch and Sundance cornered on a cliff, with the pair ultimately deciding to take a dangerous leap into a river far below. There’s plenty of debate between them about whether to do so beforehand, with Sundance eventually and reluctantly admitting that he can’t swim. An incredulous Butch then convinces him not to worry about that, since “the fall will probably kill you.”
Katharine Ross also is essential to the story as Etta Place, the schoolteacher both men love … though Butch gets arguably the most charming sequence with her, riding a bicycle to B.J. Thomas’ crooning of the Oscar-honored “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” (composed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, with Bacharach picking up another of the statues for the picture’s overall score).
While the supporting cast directed by George Roy Hill (who would reunite with Newman and Redford four years later on “The Sting”) includes such screen staples as Strother Martin, Cloris Leachman and Henry Jones, another notable player is Ted Cassidy — Lurch on TV’s The Addams Family” — as a tall and fearsome opponent of Butch early in the film. Also present as “Card Player #2” is Sam Elliott, who was destined to marry lead actress Ross about 15 years later.
The legacy of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is very evident for Redford; where do you think the name of his Sundance Film Institute came from? However, the movie also has a much bigger legacy, as a unique and enduring piece of entertainment that still holds up nicely more than 50 years later.