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Butch, Sundance, and Katharine Ross

Above: Katharine Ross on set of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.

By Stephen B. Strong

The 1960s saw the release of several westerns that stand out today as some of the finest motion pictures ever made, among them John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country. What makes these films so special is their readiness to address the ethical complexities of human existence as they provide audiences with compelling action scenes, moments of comedy and sometimes even romance.

This tendency to blend serious themes and entertaining content also distinguishes George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, a “buddy picture” starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford as a pair of charismatic outlaws. When the movie was released in the fall of 1969, it generally drew favorable reviews and performed well at the box office. It also won a spate of Academy Awards, including Best Original Song for the Burt Bacharach-Hal David composition “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”

Katharine Ross played the female lead in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, a school teacher named Etta Place, who pairs up romantically with Redford’s Sundance character. One of the movie’s most famous moments, however, features Ms. Ross with Paul Newman’s Butch Cassidy riding a bicycle together as the “Raindrops” song accompanies them on the soundtrack. The scene was filmed in October 1968 in Grafton, Utah, a ghost town that sits between Zion National Park and the city of St. George.

In advance of the fiftieth anniversary of the film’s release, Ms. Ross—whose credits also include Shenandoah, The Graduate, Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, The Stepford Wives and Donnie Darko—chatted with me about her career and her experience working on a cinematic classic in southern Utah.

Stephen B. Armstrong: How did you get the part of Etta Place, and what about the part appealed to you?

Katharine Ross: I don’t really know how I got the part. I didn’t audition. Maybe the producers wanted me at that moment. I don’t really know. When I first read the script, it was called The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy. I believe this was before either Paul or Redford had agreed to be in it. The next time I got the script, the name had been changed to Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, which sort of flows better. It was a very readable, clever script, and it was fun, with a kind of modern humor, too. It was just good. That’s always what it boils down to, a good script. And all of us actors in some ways fantasize about doing a western.

SA: By the end of the 1960s, you’d already appeared in many western-themed films and TV shows. But you’d started out in theatre, right?

KR: I had been part of an acting company called the Actor’s Workshop, one of several regional groups that were committed to the idea that New York was not the only place where good plays could be staged. There was the Guthrie in Minneapolis…the Arena in Washington…the Alley in Houston…the Actor’s Workshop in San Francisco…. I was an understudy. I did everything except getting on stage much. I got to do walk-ons, say a line once in a while. But I was also doing props or costumes for lighting or building sets. All that kind of stuff. I fell in love with it.

In the very early ’60s, there was a television series that was not long-lived called Sam Benedict, a legal show. Edmond O’Brien was the star. The plan was to shoot some scenes in San Francisco for an episode. The producers didn’t want to fly an actor up from Los Angeles and pay for a hotel, so they went to the various acting groups that were in San Francisco at that time to look for someone. I read and got the part, which provided me with my first piece of film. You have to understand that this was before video. If you had a piece of film that someone could look at as you were trying to get a start in the movie industry, it was invaluable.

The biggest shows on television at the time basically were westerns, shows like The Virginian, Wagon Train, Rawhide, Bonanza. You naturally got cast in one sooner or later. Gunsmoke was huge, too. The first Gunsmoke that I was in was directed by Andy McLaglen, and my first movie was Shenandoah, which Andy also directed. I got that part because I’d worked with him on the Gunsmoke. My father was sort of a closet historian of California, as well, and western lore was in my ear all my life, so I loved doing westerns. I also had started horseback riding when I was young, so I could ride a horse. If I could be in a western, that was perfect. It was just sort of being in the right place at the right time, not a divine plan or anything.

SA: In 1968 when you came out to Utah from urban, sophisticated California to shoot Butch Cassidy, this area was still fairly remote. What was your impression?

KR: Well, Utah is gorgeous, and it’s also very unique—the type of terrain there. Bryce Canyon…Zion…the red earth…the rocks…Monument Valley…. It’s totally a unique look, and it’s beautiful. (Laughs) You know, I may be from California, but we’re not all urbanites. I’ve been riding since I was seven. I’ve always liked the outdoors—I’ve always been outdoorsy. So that wasn’t a new thing for me.

SA: You stayed at night in a cabin in Padre Canyon [in Ivins, Utah]?

KR: It was a house, actually. I’m not sure of its history. But it seems to me someone I don’t know, a Utah politician, maybe, had built this house. I came to St. George a year-and-a-half ago to visit [Santa Clara resident] Wilford Brimley and went out there and saw the Tuacahn amphitheater that they’d built in the canyon. The house is long gone.

SA: So you stayed in the house and the producers would send out a car to get you in the morning?

KR: Yep. They would pick you up, or you drove in, to whatever the location was. Saint George was pretty small then.

SA: Tell me about shooting in Grafton.

KR: They’d built the exterior of the house where Etta lived, but there were also these abandoned houses in the remnants of some orchards that had been flooded out many years before. Where we start on the bicycle, there’s a two-story building you see that had originally been there. Everything was interesting and beautiful.

SA: I understand that William Goldman’s script was not particularly specific about the scene you and Paul Newman filmed.

KR: There was just a little paragraph about riding the bicycle and that this was going to be a “musical interlude.” The director [George Roy Hill] and the cinematographer [Conrad Hall] found some scenic places to have us ride through on the bicycle. Having Paul ride this bicycle—oh, dear God! [Laughing] It was an old-style bicycle. No gears. And we’re riding through the orchard. We were given a lot of freedom because a lot of the scene was shot with a 500mm lens. We started to joke: “Are we riding right to left or going left to right?” They left us to our own devices. There were cattle nearby, and I think Paul ended up throwing apples to them—this wasn’t anything that was written down [in the script]. Some of that footage of the apples and the cattle made it into the film. It was all a lot of fun. Sort of improvisational. The crew was quite a distance away because they were shooting with the long lens, so we were free to do whatever we wanted.

SA: Did you have any sense of the song that was going to be used for the scene?

KR: Absolutely none. We had no idea of what the musical interlude was going to be. I don’t even know if Burt Bacharach had been set to do the music yet.

SA: Any sense you were making what would turn out to be one of the most famous scenes in Hollywood history?

KR: [Laughing] You know, if we had a sense about what we were doing, we’d only do great stuff. We had no idea! You read something, and you do the best you can. You have no idea how people are going to receive it or how it’s going to turn out. You can read a script and go: “This is good, and people would really like this.” But that’s about as far as it goes. You can’t predict longevity.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Stephen B. Armstrong is a Professor of English at Dixie State University. 

For any press and media inquiries, contact the Utah Film Commission at cmmartin@utah.gov.

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