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Bill Butler, Cinematographer Behind Jaws and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dies at 101

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Emmy-winning cinematographer Bill Butler, who served as the D.P. on Jaws and earned an Oscar nomination for shooting One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, died on Wednesday, according to the American Society of Cinematographers. He was 101.

Born Wilmer C. Butler in Cripple Creek, Colorado, he attended Ohio Wesleyan University, Iowa Wesleyan College, and the University of Iowa, from which he graduated with a degree in engineering. Butler got his start in the entertainment industry as an engineer at a radio station in Gary, Indiana, and helped design and build the first TV stations at ABC’s Chicago affiliate and later at WGN-TV, where he eventually operated a live camera for local programs and commercials.

It was at WGN that Butler met a young William Friedkin, who asked him to serve as cinematographer on a documentary titled The People vs. Paul Crump, about a prisoner on death row in Illinois. The 1962 film resulted in the governor commuting Crump’s death sentence, and Butler refocusing his interests from television to feature documentaries.

Eventually, Butler shifted to narrative features with Philip Kaufman‘s 1967 film Fearless Frank starring Jon Voight. His other credits include Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Rain People (1969), the Jack Nicholson-directed Drive, He Said (1971), and Coppola’s acclaimed thriller The Conversation (1974).

His career soared to new heights in 1975 with the one-two punch of Steven Spielberg‘s Jaws and Milos Forman‘s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which won the Oscar for Best Picture. He went on to lens Grease, Stripes, Rocky II, III, and IV, Child’s Play, Anaconda, and Bill Paxton’s Frailty, in addition to serving as Second Unit D.P. on both The Godfather and Deliverance.

Butler won Emmys for shooting the 1977 TV movie Raid on Entebbe and a 1984 adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Ann-Margret and Treat Williams. Among his extensive list of TV credits is the ABC miniseries The Thorn Birds, for which he was also Emmy-nominated in 1983.

Butler landed the gig working alongside Spielberg on Jaws after meeting the young director on the Universal lot and serving as his D.P. on his early TV movies Something Evil and Savage. His work with Spielberg ultimately brought him to Coppola’s attention, which is why he was brought in to replace Haskell Wexler on The Conversation, the success of which eventually led right back to Jaws. Butler would later replace Wexler once again on Cuckoo’s Nest, as noted by Variety.

Butler was honored with the American Society of Cinematographers’ lifetime achievement award in 2003. He is survived by his wife, Iris, and five daughters.

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