By Maureen Lee Lenker
April 15, 2019 at 05:49 PM EDT
20th Century-Fox/Getty Images; Inset: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images

As movies of the 1960s go, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ranks as one of the most iconic, responsible for establishing the immortal onscreen pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

One of the qualities that make it a classic is the unique score, composed by Burt Bacharach with inimitable 1960s pop flair, in stark contrast to the more traditional strains of the Western genre. Nowhere are the idiosyncrasies of the score more evident than in the film’s Oscar-winning song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” which features in a sequence where Butch (Newman) playfully wheels Etta (Katherine Ross) around on a bicycle. But the song almost didn’t make the final cut.

At the 10th annual TCM Classic Film Festival on Saturday, Bacharach revealed that many at 20th Century Fox, which produced and released the film, were not fans of the song and its place in a Western. Even Redford didn’t really get it at first.

“I heard he said after the picture was made and done, Robert Redford said, ‘What the hell is that song doing in this film?’” Bacharach recounted to a crowd of festivalgoers. After the film was released, studio head Richard D. Zanuck ran into him in a restaurant and told him the song almost was left on the cutting room floor. “He said, ‘Let me tell you something Burt, half of the board of 20th Century voted to not have that song in the picture.’ So he stood up for it and said, ‘I stand by that song.’ It wasn’t hard to stand by; it was already number one.”

Bacharach was referring to the fact that the song, as recorded by B.J. Thomas, had already been gaining traction on the Billboard charts, and the film catapulted it to further success, including an Oscar for Best Original Song.

When asked if he intended for the song to become a hit, Bacharach said that’s not ever how he approaches writing for a film. “When you’re scoring a film, you have to service the film,” he said. “You have to make the film the most important thing, not whether the song’s going to be a hit. It’s a byproduct if it turns out to be a hit.”

Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was only the second film he scored (What’s New Pussycat? was the first), and he praised director George Roy Hill for being musically minded and giving Bacharach and lyricist Hal David free reign in many ways. Indeed, when Bacharach first met Hill in his office at Fox, the director was playing Bach on a grand piano, making it evident to Bacharach that Hill knew music in a way many directors do not.

“He said, ‘What I want to do with the film, with this music, I want it to be very important. There’s just going to be sections of this film where the music has got to stand out — in four or five different places,’” Bacharach said. “It was amazing that he let me do what I was hearing or I was feeling, and when we scored the film on the lot at 20th, I don’t recall him coming out and saying, ‘Cut four bars out here.’ He was just okay with everything that I came up with.”

Bacharach also pointed to passages like the “South American Getaway” musical sequence, which he called one of his favorite things he’s ever written, as further evidence of how experimental Hill was willing to allow him to be in scoring the picture. The gamble paid off, earning Bacharach two Oscars that year (Best Original Song and Best Original Score). “Raindrops” is also No. 23 on AFI’s list of the top 100 songs in American cinema.

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