'Butch Cassidy' director George Roy Hill dies at 81

Simon O'Hagan
Sunday 29 December 2002 01:00 GMT

The film director George Roy Hill, who has died aged 81, is remembered largely for two films: the comedy adventures Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. They were released within four years of each other, and their popularity helped to define an era of cinema-going in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Period films with a contemporary wit and beguiling soundtracks, they owed much of their success to the inimitable pairing of lovable rogues Paul Newman and Robert Redford, who, if they had chosen to, could have gone on to turn their double act into a franchise to rival that of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. But Newman was already a star in his own right, and thanks to Butch Cassidy, Redford became one. After The Sting, their futures lay apart.

Hill's achievement was to spot the chemistry between the two, and then harness script, cinematography and music to create a hugely entertaining whole. Nostalgic and wistful, both Butch Cassidy and The Sting offered high-class escapism at a time when darker forces were exerting their grip on mainstream cinema in films such as Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, Last Tango in Paris, and Mean Streets.

Born into a well-off Minneapolis newspaper family in 1921, Hill did not direct his first film until he was 40. He had studied music at Yale University and headed a drama group. On graduating in 1943 he enlisted in the marines and served as a transport pilot in the South Pacific. After a stint as a Texas newspaper reporter, he went to Trinity College in Dublin before working as an actor. A role in a radio soap opera was interrupted by the Korean War, when Hill was recalled to marine duty.

Hill became a leading figure in live television and then worked on Broadway before making his film debut in 1962 with Tennessee Williams's A Period of Adjustment, which gave Jane Fonda her first major role.

Hill's 1967 film version of the flapper musical Thoroughly Modern Millie employed the voice and charm of Julie Andrews to less effect than The Sound of Music had, before Butch Cassidy came along in 1969. The tale of a pair of nonchalant bank robbers who finally get their comeuppance reinvented the Western for a new generation and won four Oscars, including one for the song for ever associated with it, Burt Bacharach's "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head".

Four years later, The Sting, set in the racketeering 1930s, used music to similar effect. In Marvin Hamlisch's adaptations, Scott Joplin's piano rags, notably "The Entertainer", enjoyed a revival. The film won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Hill directed 14 films altogether, including Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, John Irving's The World According to Garp, and John Le Carré's The Little Drummer Girl. He went back to Redford for 1975's The Great Waldo Pepper, the story of a barnstorming pilot, and to Newman for 1977's Slap Shot, about a minor-league ice hockey team.

"He was the best friend that anyone could have: friend, mentor, enemy," Newman said on Friday after Hill died at his Manhattan home from complications brought on by Parkinson's disease. "He gave everyone a hell of a ride. Himself included." Hill, who was divorced, is survived by two sons, two daughters and 12 grandchildren.

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