No Wild West legend ever had a better, more enduring big-screen canonization than Butch Cassidy.
Paul Newman as Butch? Robert Redford as his sidekick? Plus, as if we could forget, one of the most iconic film endings in cinematic history? "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," released in 1969, still holds up as the buddy picture that all buddy pictures are measured against. It instantly made Butch Cassidy immortal.
That's a pretty impressive fate for someone who, in real life, was an outright outlaw/womanizer/all-around scalawag.
"My wife, when she read the book, said, 'These were bad people. But, you know, you kinda like them,'" says Thom Hatch, author of the two-for-one true-life biography "The Last Outlaws: The Lives and Legends of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," written in 2013.
Here are five bits you might not know about Robert LeRoy Parker, aka Butch Cassidy.
1. He Was Raised a Mormon
At one time, young Bob Parker (born 1866) was a religious dude. His British parents were among the first wave of Mormon pioneers to settle in Utah. His mother, Ann, was especially devout.
But sometime early in his childhood, Bob's father, Max — evidently not all that devout — came up on the short end of a legal dispute that was settled by the local Mormon bishop. His subsequent falling out with the church, Hatch says, may have pushed soon-to-be Butch away.
Though he ended up robbing banks and trains throughout the West, and into South America — and he liked to drink and gamble and hang out with prostitutes — some of those Mormon teachings may have stuck with young Bob.
"His mother continued to read the Bible weekly to [the Parker children]. Some of it might have gotten through to him, as far as his treatment of other people," Hatch says. "It was one of those deals where he did have a conscience, but he wasn't a moral person whatsoever."
2. Butch Was a Born Leader
Robert (or Bob, the future Butch) was the first of 12 kids born to Ann and Max, and displayed a knack for being a boss early on. "He was the big kid, a surrogate father. He spent a lot of time with his siblings and the neighbor kids," Hatch says. "He was the kingpin. He organized games. They had grasshopper races, things like that, that he would get them all to do. Swimming out in the pond and all that."
Organizing was a trait that he'd carry into adulthood as the mastermind behind the Wild Bunch, his ever-changing gang of train-robbing, bank-busting outlaws that on occasion included Harry Longabaugh, aka the Sundance Kid.
Butch's attention to planning — stationing fresh horses a few miles from the site of a crime, for example, to distance the gang from the tiring horses of their pursuers — and his insistence on doing a clean job, without any shootings, endeared him to hard-hearted lawbreakers and the public alike.
"In a criminal operation, the appearance of ruthlessness was key to a smooth, safe operation, he knew," writes Charles Leerhsen in "Butch Cassidy: The True Story of an American Outlaw," released in 2020, "just as being freshly bathed and well-dressed sent a signal that he and his cohorts were serious professionals not to be trifled with."
3. A Minor Crime as a Youth May Have Set Him on His Path
When he was about 14, the story goes, Bob rode into his Utah town to buy a fresh pair of jeans. Upon arriving and seeing the store closed, Bob finagled his way through the back door (he evidently wasn't coming all that way for nothing), grabbed a pair of jeans that fit, snagged a piece of pie for good measure and, on his way out, left a note for the proprietor that he'd pay up when next the two saw each other.
The shopkeeper was having none of that. So the law was called, and a trial was held. Bob was acquitted. Didn't matter. "That forever left a bad taste in his mouth," Hatch says, "and a dislike of authority."
4. The Movie Pretty Much Nailed Him
The Newman-Redford film, which also starred young Katharine Ross as love interest Etta Place, was a huge commercial success (a box office of $102 million, or about $720 million today). It picks up when Bob — now Butch Cassidy, the outlaw, with a last name borrowed from an old friend who pushed him to the wrong side of the law — is 35 years old. He's already partnered with the Sundance Kid.
"I'll tell you, the movie, amazingly enough, is one of the few that does kind of parallel and does portray their lives pretty closely," Hatch says. "They were attractive, wise-cracking outlaws. They robbed banks with their gang. Always got away with the loot. And that was pretty much true to life."
As to be expected, the movie featured some Hollywood embellishment. But the famous scene where Butch and Sundance use a little too much dynamite to blow open a train car loaded with money? "That happened. I have a picture of the express car in my book," Hatch says.
And the goofy scene with Butch showing off for Etta on a bicycle? Butch, it turns out, was a trick rider.
In real life, Butch stole only from big businesses — banks, trains — and never from individuals. He was careful not to engage in gunplay either on or off the job. Sure, he liked to party. But, as portrayed by Newman in the movie, he was friendly and gregarious and as generally harmless a Wild West outlaw as anyone would ever want to run up against. Until South America.
5. Butch Never Killed Anyone... Until 'The End'
After years of stealing, Butch and Sundance (along with Etta) took a steamer to Argentina to avoid capture by a relentless group of Pinkerton agents. They settled on a big ranch there in 1901.
They still pulled off robberies, and had to flee to various parts of South America on occasion to keep ahead of the authorities. But it wasn't until 1908, finally surrounded by the law in Bolivia that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their end.
In the movie, they bolt out of the house guns blazing, a cadre of Bolivian soldiers aiming and at the ready, into a classic movie freeze frame. In real life, Hatch says, it was more graphic and less romantic. Pinned down and injured, knowing he was in trouble after killing a soldier closing in on them — the first time he ever killed anyone — Butch shot his badly wounded partner in the forehead and then put a gun to his temple and took his life.
Butch was 42. Sundance was about 41.
As it is with legends, many still wonder what really happened in Bolivia, partly due to the slightly ambiguous movie ending and the fact that the bodies of Butch and Sundance were placed in unmarked graves, never to be found. But most historians, and Hatch, are convinced the two outlaws died, wounded and out of choices, by Butch's own hand.
"You know," says Hatch, who has a whole chapter in his book on various theories about how Butch and Sundance died, or if they did in Bolivia, "Old West icons are not buried deep enough to die. Ever. To stay buried. They crawl out of that grave all the time."