“In the late 60’s my agent (as an actor) was a wonderful guy — Bill Robinson. He didn’t represent producers (nobody then did, actually) or directors. I was successfully acting in movies, but I wasn’t interested in being a movie star. I, and many of my young friends, hoped we could make our way as filmmakers. Around 1970 Robinson hired Mike Medavoy to work for him. It was his first job as an agent, and I introduced Mike to many of my aspiring friends. (Not that it matters, but they included Spielberg, Malick, Coppola, Donald Sutherland and others.)
“One of my best friends [at the time] was Terry Malick — a young AFI student. Another was John Calley, a producer who then became head of Warner Brothers. I had an idea for a movie about big-rig truckdrivers, loosely based on a bunch of country & western songs about life on the road. Calley backed my idea of hiring Terry to write it, and the script, Deadhead Miles (his first), ended up being made in 1971/72 by Paramount. It was disastrous, because I made the two biggest mistakes a producer can make: (1) I hired the wrong director, and (2) I didn’t fire him.
“While licking my wounds from that project, I read a script by another young, unknown writer who was just out of UCLA — David Ward. It was called Steelyard Blues. I thought it was a fresh, original but difficult film to get made, and I asked David what he wanted to do next. He gave me a 2 or 3-minute pitch about a young con man whose best friend is killed by a guy who he decides to con out of every cent he’s got, with the help of an experienced con man. He told me the ending would be ‘his surprise’.
“That was it: I was hooked. I told him to tell it again on tape, then set out to find enough money to option Steelyard Blues and commission The Sting.
“After several months, I met Julia and Michael Phillips and we pooled our meager resources. We made Mike our agent, and got Steelyard Blues made at Warner Brothers in 1972/73. Richard Zanuck and David Brown were our executives there. When the script for The Sting was finished, we set about to get it financed. It took over a year to finish; we never saw a word of it…or knew the ending…until Ward handed it in.
“We gave it first to Redford. It was fairly easy to do as I knew him from developing a script that we’d had many discussions about, and Julia knew him from working at First Artists in NYC. We wanted to try to get Ward approved to direct it, but Redford resisted that concept. I also sent it early on to my pal John Calley, but he didn’t want David, and didn’t like the script very much. He thought it was ‘a shaggy dog story.’ He made fun of himself for years about that. Frankly, no one ‘packaged’ our project. Our package was us, Redford, and the script: take it or leave it.
“So, in gratitude to Zanuck/Brown for having treated us well on Steelyard Blues, Julia, Michael and I then gave them The Sting to present to Universal, where they had moved their company. (That’s why it’s a ‘Zanuck/Brown presentation.’ They were not producers or executive producers — a misperception they hastened to allow and refused to correct in perpetuity.) They slipped it to George Roy Hill, who told Newman about it. He read it and asked to do it.
“By the way, Robert Shaw wasn’t the first person offered the part of Lonnegan: Richard Boone was. He turned it down.
“Along the way Dan Melnick, newly installed at MGM, heard about the script and asked to read it. I think Mike may have been the one who sent it to him. But it was too late, and we continued our negotiations with Universal. Melnick was pissed: it was the first time I had heard the phrase, ‘Don’t get mad…get even.’ I guess he decided to take it out on Mike. He evidently forgave me, since he financed my next production, Hearts of The West, at MGM. I never met Jim Aubrey.
“Rob Cohen? The story I’ve always heard from him is that he went to work as a reader at ICM, where Mike Medavoy had moved after working for Bill Robinson. Rob had done coverage for the script, and Mike had then read it. I’ve read his coverage and it was enthusiastic, prescient and compelling.
“After this Julia, Michael and I optioned another script by a first-time writer, Paul Schrader. It was called Taxi Driver. But that’s another story.
“A good example of the vagaries of casting: The original Sting script was written for a kid and a geezer. Perfect casting in those days would have been Jeff Bridges and Lee Marvin. That residual relationship is why Newman calls Redford ‘kid’ in the movie, despite their barely-discernable 10-year difference in age.”