Bill Butler, cinematographer on Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Child’s Play, and many more, has passed away at age 101
We’ve lost another Hollywood legend. The Hollywood Reporter has broken the news that cinematographer Bill Butler, best known for his work on the 1975 Steven Spielberg classic jaws, has passed away at the age of 101. Butler died on Wednesday evening, according to the American Society of Cinematographers. He would have turned 102 on Friday – today.
Born on April 7, 1921 in Cripple Creek, Colorado, Butler earned his first entertainment industry credit by working as a camera operator on the 1959 film 1001 Arabian Nights. His first cinematographer credit came when his friend, director William Friedkin, hired him to shoot the 1962 TV movie The People vs. Paul Crump. He never attended film school, he just taught himself cinematography by watching movies and referring to the ASC manual. That approach definitely worked out for him. Over the next fifty-four years, he served as the cinematographer on eighty-four more projects, including Jack Nicholson’s Drive, He Said; The Bold Men, Good Times, The Return of Count Yorga, Hickey & Boggs, Running Wild, Demon Seed, Grease, Capricorn One, Damien: Omen II, Ice Castles, The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, Stripes, The Sting II, tea Bates Motel tv movie, Biloxi Blues, Child’s Play, Graffiti Bridge, Hot Shots!, Sniper, Anaconda, and Frailty. He was the cinematographer on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain Peopleand shot second unit on The Godfather. When cinematographer Haskell Wexler dropped out of Coppola’s The Conversation due to creative differences, Butler was his replacement.
Butler also replaced Wexler when he was fired from Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest midway through production. Butler and Wexler shared an Academy Award nomination for that film, the one time Butler was up for an Oscar.
Surprisingly, Butler was not nominated for his work on jaws. Before making that “movie about a fish” together, Butler and Spielberg also collaborated on the TV movies something evil and savage. The Hollywood Reporter points out that for jaws, Butler said his intention was for the early scenes on Amity Island to reflect the style of Andrew Wyeth paintings — regional and realistic — and later contrast them with darker, violent imagery. His iconic shots included the early dawn attack of the first victim (Susan Backlinie) that opens the film, the Vertigo-inspired dolly zoom that accompanies Chief Brody’s (Roy Scheider) shock at witnessing a shark attack from the beach and the extreme close-ups of panicking swimmers. “I brought a lot of new things to the picture, such as hand-holding the camera,” Butler noted in Patrick Jankiewicz’s 2015 book, Just When You Thought It Was Safe: A Jaws Companion. “In the old days of making sea pictures, they used a giant gimbal, which weighs roughly 400 pounds and is slow and hard to set up but does keep the camera level. I found, just by experimenting, that I could hand-hold the camera on an oceangoing boat and keep it level simply by using my knees. I told Steven that I had this idea about shooting the picture hand-held, and he just faked.”
Butler worked in the second unit department on John Boorman’s deliverance, and used some of the tactics he learned while filming on a river for that movie when he had to shoot on the ocean in jaws.
Butler brought us some of the greatest and most memorable images in cinema history, so it is very sad to know he’s no longer with us. He is survived by five daughters and his wife, Iris. Our sincere condolences go out to his family, friends, and fans.