News Column

Award-winning cinematographer returns to Mount Pleasant

June 1, 2014

By Andy Hoffman, The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa

June 01--MOUNT PLEASANT -- Hollywood came to Mount Pleasant Saturday when award-winning, world-renowned cinematographer Bill Butler returned to his hometown for a reception honoring his career as one of the most influential people in the film industry.

Butler, who graduated from Mount Pleasant High School in 1940, attended a reception at the Henry County Heritage Center where he was surrounded by mementos of his decadeslong career in film and television.

Vibrant, engaging and articulate at 93 years of age, Butler was thoughtful, but coy, as he reminisced about his career while several people perused the display established by his family to honor his return to Mount Pleasant from his Montana home.

'A lot of fun'

"I could never, ever, pick one director, actor or film as my favorite," Butler said, when asked about his career highlights. "You can't imagine the ride I've had. I've been around the world many, many times. And have done many wonderful things in my life.

"How can I put one above the other? Every one of my experiences have been rewarding and unique in its own way. I can tell you this. It's been a hell of a lot of fun."

He was particularly proud of a letter he had received from Steven Spielberg, who he worked with on numerous films, including "Jaws," one of the most popular movies in film history.

"Steven is a good friend and great director," Butler said, adding he recently had been contacted to be a part of a documentary being made about Spielberg's career. "They asked me to reminisce about my good friend for the documentary. I'm scheduled to do it sometime in the next few weeks."

A letter written by Spielberg to Butler in 2003 acknowledging his Lifetime Achievement Award that same year at the American Cinematographers Awards ceremony indicated Spielberg's mutual respect for Butler and his work behind the camera.

"You were the calm before, during and after every storm on the set of 'Jaws,' " Spielberg wrote in the letter that was part of the display at the Heritage Center. "Without your Zen-like confidence and wonderful sense of humor, I would have gone the way of the rest of the 'Jaws' crew -- totally out of my friggin' mind. Congratulations on this well-deserved career achievement award from your peers. All my best, Steven."

While Jaws became one of the most successful movies of all time -- Butler had eight movies that grossed more than $100 million -- he received his highest acclaim when he was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Milos Foreman's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

'Find out what you are good at'

As directory of photography on a movie set, Butler said it was his job to be the director's right-hand man. Instead of bothering the director, actors and crew members regularly sought him out to resolve issues on the set.

"That was a main part of my job -- to answer their questions whether I knew the answer or not," he laughed.

When asked to name an actress or actor that personified the beauty of a film star, Butler said that would be impossible.

"I didn't see their beauty from the outside," he said of the dozens of famous actors and actresses he has worked with during his career. "When I was looking through the lens, I was searching for the beauty that was coming from inside, not outside. It was that special inner quality I enjoyed discovering through my camera."

When asked his secret to his successful career, the talkative Butler simply replied:

"Find out what you are good at and don't do anything else," he said, with a chuckle that often peppered his conversation. "I haven't worked one day in my entire life. I really don't know what work is, because what I do is nothing but fun. It's definitely not been work.

"Is there anything better than getting behind a camera every day and watching highly talented people create something wonderful? I don't think there is. I think that says a lot about my career."

One of the best

Butler is recognized as one of the top 10 all-time cinematographers and as an innovator in motion pictures and television, with movies including "Jaws," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Grease," "The Conversation," "Rocky II," "Rocky III," "Rocky IV" and a long list of other films that have lasted generations.

He has won two Emmy Awards for his work behind the camera on television movies "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Raid on Entebbe."

Butler also received that Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003 in Los Angeles, for which Spielberg personally congratulated him.

Making it big

Born in Cripple Creek, Colo., in 1921, he moved with his parents to Henry County when he was 5 years old. After graduating from Mount Pleasant High School, he studied at Iowa Wesleyan College and the State University of Iowa before beginning his career in television and movies.

Butler served a typically long Hollywood apprenticeship before being promoted to cinematographer on the independently produced "Fearless Frank."

He said he had a successful television career before being asked by William Friedkin -- the Academy Award-winning director of "The French Connection" -- to be his cinematographer on a documentary Friedkin was making, "The People vs. Paul Crump."

"I was very successful in television, so I had no reason to go into film," he said. "But I knew Bill Friedkin was interested in making a film documentary, and he needed a cinematographer. He asked me to assist him. And I did."

From that moment on, Butler began to utilize his unique view behind the lens in film and television.

'I've had a great life'

When asked Saturday what he is doing with his life today, he wistfully responded:

"I'm waiting on my next film assignment. I've never actually retired. I never told anybody I retired. If they call me, I'm ready to go to work today. But the problem is, I'm 93 years old, and the people making movies can't afford the insurance they would have to take out on me. All key people involved in film today must have insurance on them before they are hired."

After talking with Butler for a while, it's obvious his life has been filled with joy and wonderment.

"The best part of my life today is the memories I have of all the years I spent making movies," he said, as he looked around the display of movie posters, congratulatory letters from colleagues and photographs of him on the set of numerous movies.

"I've had a great life. And I'm very grateful for the opportunities to do what I've always loved to do."


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Source: Hawk Eye, The (Burlington, IA)

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