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Why Robert Redford Was “Chronically Late” to ‘The Sting’ Set

Screen legends Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s second and final screen pairing, in 1973’s The Sting, proved even more popular at the box office than their first, 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The film — about a syndicate of confidence men planning cons in the Great Depression — was a dream shoot on the Universal backlot set, save for one persistent annoyance: Redford was always late.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of its seven Oscar wins, the team behind The Sting — producers Michael Phillips and Tony Bill (the third producer, Julia Phillips, ex-wife of Michael and author of You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, died in 2002) and screenwriter David S. Ward — joined The Hollywood Reporter‘s It Happened in Hollywood podcast for a rollicking conversation about getting the film made.

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“He always felt inadequate, and that he was hired for his blue eyes,” says Phillips of working with his hero, Newman, who was 48 during the shoot. “He was just a very humble, very humble man. The first day he showed up on the set. And he was a giant, you know, hero to me. And I was totally starstruck. And he came over and he said, ‘Hi, I’m Paul. Great script you got here. I hope I don’t fuck it up.'”

Phillips continued, “He was a happy presence on the set. He would bring popcorn, always make jokes, always professional, on time, mock his own mistakes. So it was a privilege.”

Redford, 37 at the time, was a joy to work with on set as well — that is, once he got to the set. “Redford was chronically late,” Phillips reveals. “That was the thing — and it never ended, either.” The star would typically arrive 40 minutes late every day. Eventually, the perpetual tardiness led to a confrontation with his co-star.

“One day, Newman tore him apart for it,” Phillips recalls. “Paul was the bigger star. And he said something like, ‘What are you — a movie star?’ Redford shrunk from it.” The dressing down led to a slight improvement — Redford began showing up just 20 minutes late instead of 40. Bill calls the lateness “a psychological flaw … a compulsion to not be on time. It comes with the mantle of being a star. I did a film with Steve McQueen. Same thing.”

The lateness did not improve with age. Ward worked again with Redford on 1988’s The Milagro Beanfield War, which Redford starred in and directed. “You’re supposed to start shooting at 7:00 a.m.,” says Ward. “And it got to be 9:30. And we still hadn’t seen him — and then all of a sudden, we see this rider and horse riding across a mesa in the distance. The AD had some binoculars: ‘Yeah, there’s Redford.’ … Then he came to set and didn’t say anything about being late. The rest of it was all normal and professional and he didn’t play God. He wasn’t abusive to anybody.

“I don’t know what it was,” Ward continues. “He had a maybe some kind of superstition about being on time. He had Cheech Marin waiting two days up in Sundance for his audition [for Milagro]. He brought him up to audition him on a Tuesday and he didn’t get to him till Thursday. He put him up at Sundance in a nice cabin and everything — but Cheech was losing his mind.”

Sting grossed $156 million (the equivalent of $1.1 billion in 2023), while Butch earned $102 million ($889 million today). Both films were stylishly directed by George Roy Hill and proved enormously popular with the Academy: Butch was nominated for seven Oscars and won four (including best original screenplay), but Sting won seven of its 10 nominations, including best picture, original screenplay and director for Hill.

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