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Bill Butler

Wilmer Cable Butler

(1921-04-07)April 7, 1921
Died April 5, 2023(2023-04-05) (aged 101)
Alma mater University of Iowa
Occupation Cinematographer
Years active 1967–2009
  • Alma H. Smith
    (m. 1943⁠–⁠1983)
  • Iris Butler
    (m. 1984)
Children 5
Awards American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award

Wilmer Cable Butler (April 7, 1921 – April 5, 2023) was an American cinematographer who was known for his work on The Conversation (1974), Jaws (1975), and three Rocky sequels. Butler also completed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) after Haskell Wexler was fired from the production, and was subsequently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

Early life and education

Wilmer Cable Butler was born on April 7, 1921, in Cripple Creek, Colorado. Butler spent the first five years of his life living in a log cabin on a homestead in Colorado, where his parents were farmers. He moved with his parents to Henry County when he was 5 years old and raised in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, a small college town. He graduated from Mount Pleasant High School in 1940.

Butler graduated with a degree in engineering from the University of Iowa.

Early career

Butler began his career as an engineer at a radio station in Gary, Indiana. He subsequently moved to Chicago, where he helped design and build the first television stations at the ABC affiliate and later at WGN-TV. When WGN went on the air, Butler operated a live video camera for commercials and for locally produced programs. At his tenure with WGN, Butler met William Friedkin.

Friedkin asked Butler to be his cinematographer on The People vs. Paul Crump, a documentary that focused on a prisoner who was slated for execution in Illinois. It was a docudrama that resulted in the governor of Illinois commuting the prisoner's death sentence. "I was very successful in television, so I had no reason to go into film," Butler 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." As a result, Butler's interest shifted from live television to film documentaries. In a 2005 interview, Butler credited Friedkin with giving him his first actual job in the film industry.


Butler earned his first narrative credit in Chicago in 1967 for Fearless Frank, a low-budget feature directed by Philip Kaufman. Two years later, Butler shot The Rain People (1969) for Francis Ford Coppola, who was introduced to him by Friedkin. Butler moved to Los Angeles in 1970.

"I did some work with director Phil Kaufman on the Universal Studios lot as a writer while I was still trying to get into the Los Angeles camera guild," Butler recalled. "That's when I met Steven Spielberg." Butler would then take charge of cinematography for two of Spielberg's earliest films, Something Evil (1972) and Savage (1973).

Other films which Butler served as the director of photography include The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976), Grease (1978) and installments two, three, and four of Rocky. Butler was also the cinematographer for Demon Seed (1977), as well as Capricorn One (1978), Stripes (1981), Biloxi Blues (1988), Child's Play (1988), Graffiti Bridge (1990), Flipper (1996), Anaconda (1997) and Deceiver (1997). His television credits include The Execution of Private Slovik (1974) and The Thorn Birds (1983).

Butler was scheduled to have made his directorial debut in January 1979 with Adrift & Beyond, but it never came to fruition. Butler turned down Coppola's offer to direct the photography for Apocalypse Now (1979). Butler has worked in films during the 2000s, such as Frailty (2002) and Funny Money (2006). Bill Paxton, the director of the former film, said, "I was excited when Bill Butler who was the cinematographer on such classic films as Jaws and The Conversation came aboard as my director of photography for Frailty. And I really picked his brain, always asking 'how did you do this shot?' and 'how did you figure that out?'" Bill Butler recounted his initial conversations with Paxton about the script: "I liked the direction he wanted to take, and he inspired me to share his vision. It was a great collaboration."

Butler is also notable for being a replacement to Haskell Wexler on two occasions: The Conversation (1974; also directed by Coppola) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975).


Butler had heard that Spielberg was preparing to shoot Jaws (1975), mainly on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. "I said, 'I hear you're making a movie about a fish,'" Butler recalled. After they joked for a few minutes, Spielberg asked Butler if he was interested.

Butler's crew included Michael Chapman as camera operator. When they arrived on Martha's Vineyard, Butler showed Spielberg how he could brace a handheld Panaflex camera and take the roll out of the boat rocking on the waves with his knees instead of using a 400-lb gimbal. Spielberg embraced the idea. "About 90% of the shots on the boat were handheld," Butler says. "Michael was intrigued by the idea and was very good at it. We did things that we probably wouldn't have tried without the lightweight camera. Michael even climbed the mast and shot from the top straight down. We also put him in a small boat."

During the production of Jaws, Butler spent most of his time on the picture in the water with Spielberg. Butler created a special camera platform that worked with the water to accommodate both "below the water line" and "surface" shots quickly. To handle the longer surface shots the film required, Butler reconfigured the standard "water box" casing used to hold a camera in the water. He also is acknowledged for saving footage from a camera that sank into the ocean, having claimed sea water is similar to saline-based developing solutions. "We got on an airplane with the film in a bucket of water, took it to New York and developed it. We didn't lose a foot," said Butler.

Butler also created a pontoon camera raft with a waterproof housing that achieved those trademark water level shots that gave a point of view from the shark fin. To stop water drops hitting the lens, Butler used the Panavision Spray Deflector that saw an optical glass spin at high speed to deflect the drops except for the 4th of July beach stampede where the water-lens interface adds to the panic.

Butler originally envisioned the look of Jaws to start in bright, summer sunshine and then become more ominous as the shark hunt goes on. The first half remains a riot of vibrant primary colors. In filming Amity, Butler was inspired by the work of painters such as Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth in their view of the United States untainted by urban life.

Awards, nominations, and honors

Butler was nominated for an Academy Award (which he shared with Wexler) and a BAFTA Film Award for his work in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). He won Primetime Emmy Awards for Raid on Entebbe (1977) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1984).

On February 16, 2003, Butler received the American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award. His memorable and influential work on Jaws is one of the many reasons the ASC honored him with the award, and Spielberg wrote a letter to Butler acknowledging his award which indicated the director'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. "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."

Butler also was named KODAK Cinematographer in Residence at the University of Arizona (Department of Media Arts) in 2006.

On April 28, 2013, the Charleston International Film Festival presented Butler with the festival's inaugural lifetime achievement award.

Personal life and death

Butler resided in Montana. On June 1, 2014, Butler returned to his hometown of Mount Pleasant for a reception honoring his career.

Butler had five daughters, three from his first marriage to Alma H. Smith, and two, Genevieve and Chelsea, who are both actresses, from his second marriage to Iris Butler.

Butler turned 100 on April 7, 2021, and died in Los Angeles on April 5, 2023, two days before his 102nd birthday.



Year Title Director Notes
1967 Fearless Frank Philip Kaufman
1969 The Rain People Francis Ford Coppola
1970 Adam's Woman Philip Leacock
1971 Drive, He Said Jack Nicholson
The Return of Count Yorga Bob Kelljan
1972 Melinda Hugh A. Robertson
Deliverance John Boorman 2nd Unit Photography (uncredited)
Hickey & Boggs Robert Culp
1973 The Godfather Francis Ford Coppola 2nd Unit Photography (uncredited)
1974 The Conversation
1975 Jaws Steven Spielberg
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Miloš Forman With Haskell Wexler and William A. Fraker
Nominated- Academy Award for Best Cinematography
Nominated- BAFTA Award for Best Cinematography
1976 Lipstick Lamont Johnson
The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings John Badham
Alex & the Gypsy John Korty
1977 Demon Seed Donald Cammell
Capricorn One Peter Hyams
1978 Damien: Omen II Don Taylor
Mike Hodges
Grease Randal Kleiser
Uncle Joe Shannon Joseph Hanwright
Ice Castles Donald Wrye
1979 Rocky II Sylvester Stallone
1980 Can't Stop the Music Nancy Walker
It's My Turn Claudia Weill
1981 Stripes Ivan Reitman
1982 Rocky III Sylvester Stallone
The Secret of NIMH Don Bluth Animated visual consultant
1983 The Sting II Jeremy Kagan
1985 Rocky IV Sylvester Stallone
1986 Big Trouble John Cassavetes
An American Tail Don Bluth Animated visual consultant
1988 Wildfire Zalman King
Biloxi Blues Mike Nichols
Child's Play Tom Holland
1990 Graffiti Bridge Prince
1991 Hot Shots! Jim Abrahams
1993 Cop and a Half Henry Winkler
Sniper Luis Llosa
Beethoven's 2nd Rod Daniel
1996 Flipper Alan Shapiro
1997 Anaconda Luis Llosa
Deceiver Jonas Pate
Josh Pate
2000 Ropewalk Matthew Brown
2001 Frailty Bill Paxton
2006 Funny Money Leslie Greif
The Plague Hal Masonberg
2007 Redline Andy Cheng
2008 The Chauffeur Jérôme Dassier
2009 Evil Angel Richard Dutcher


Year Title Director Notes
1962 The People vs. Paul Crump William Friedkin Documentary
1965 The Bold Men
1970 A Clear and Present Danger James Goldstone TV movie
1972-1973 Ghost Story Richard Donner
Paul Stanley
Don McDougall
Leo Penn
David Lowell Rich
5 episodes
1972 Something Evil Steven Spielberg TV movie
1973 Savage
Deliver Us from Evil Boris Sagal
Sunshine Joseph Sargent
I Heard the Owl Call My Name Daryl Duke
1974 The Execution of Private Slovik Lamont Johnson
1975 Hustling Joseph Sargent
Target Risk Robert Scheerer
The Big Rip-Off Dean Hargrove
1977 Raid on Entebbe Irvin Kershner
Mary White Jud Taylor
1981 Death Ray 2000 Lee H. Katzin
Killing At Hell's Gate Jerry Jameson
1983 The Thorn Birds Daryl Duke Miniseries (4 episodes)
1984 A Streetcar Named Desire John Erman TV movie
1987 Bates Motel Richard Rothstein
1989 When We Were Young Daryl Duke
1995 A Walton Wedding Robert Ellis Miller
1996 Dark Skies Tobe Hooper 1 episode
1997 Don King: Only in America John Herzfeld TV movie
1999 Passing Glory Steve James
G vs E Jonas Pate 1 episode
2000 Hendrix Leon Ichaso TV movie
2002 Joe and Max Steve James
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