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'It's been a great life' for Mt. Pleasant native Bill Butler

Jun 02, 2014
Photo by: Brooks Taylor Mt. Pleasant native Wilmer “Bill” Butler relaxes in his director’s chair Saturday during a reception at the Henry County Heritage Center.


Mt. Pleasant News

His hair may have thinned since the days of “Jaws,” and his gait may have slowed, but Wilmer “Bill” Butler is still looking for movies to shoot.

But he isn’t expecting to be inundated with requests.

Returning “home” to see the grandchildren and great-grandchildren last weekend, Butler, 93, said he has lived a charmed life.

“It’s been a great life, in fact, make that one step above great,” he said Saturday as he toured a display set at the Henry County Heritage Center set up by his daughter, Judy Rawson of Winfield.

Butler is one of the “names” in the motion picture industry, having been the cinematographer for many of Hollywood’s hits such as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Grease,” “Jaws,” and “Rocky II, III and IV.” In all, he has well over 100 motion pictures and television shows (including the series “The Thorn Birds,” to his credit.

He won the American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award and won Emmy awards for his work on “A Streetcar Named Desire” and a television special for the “Raid on Entebbe.” Additionally, he was nominated for many other Emmy awards.

Butler, however, never considered his job work. “I never worked a day in my life,” he gushed. “I don’t think I could have had a life that made me happier.”

Eight of the motion pictures he shot grossed over $100 million and he said he has a special gift “of being able to pick out scripts.”

Once a photographer always a photographer, that is Butler’s philosophy and he is itching to get back on the set, although he knows that opportunity at his age may not arise.

“I haven’t retired,” he says rather emphatically. “If somebody came up and asked me (to shoot their movie), I would go tomorrow.”

Age is just a number, he maintains, noting that he shot over 100 movies after he turned 40.

One of his proudest moments, though, is that he helped build the first television station ever to exist in the Midwest.

Butler, although born in Colorado, spent most of his youth in Mt. Pleasant, graduating from Mt. Pleasant High School in 1940 and also earning a degree from Iowa Wesleyan College.

He was drafted during World War II but freely admits, “I didn’t want to kill anybody.” So be became a signal caller in the Army. His military stint was short. The Army gave him permission to return to school at the University of Iowa where he earned a degree in engineering. He also developed a hernia and received a medical discharge from the service.

Following his education, he worked in a radio station and because he had an electronics degree, was sought out by investors who wanted to build a television station in Chicago. He eagerly accepted the invitation and helped build WBKB in Chicago.

That was the pad that launched him eventually to Hollywaood.

“After we finished (building WBKB), Elmer Kathorn, the man who had hired me, was asked to build a television station for WGN (radio) in Chicago,” Butler said in an interview several years ago. “He invited me to come along with him. When the television station was ready to go on the air, they made me part of the engineering staff.

“I also operated a live television camera. It got boring after a while, because it all looked like plays, but I was always trying to do something different.”

During his time at WGN, a co-worker (Billy Friedkin) invited Butler to shoot some film one day. “I thought that that sounded like a great idea. Understand, neither he nor I had ever shot a foot of motion picture film.”

The pair shot some film of a group of religious organizations that got together monthly with the purpose of aiding troubled teenagers. The movie became a documentary and subsequently won first place in the San Francisco Film Festival.

Butler was on his way to a career he never anticipated.

He later began working for ABC Television and developed connections there that launched his career in movies.

Butler, who now lives in Montana, said it is impossible to describe his duties as a cinematographer. “I get a lot of questions and have to answer them. I cannot describe in one sentence all my responsibilities as a cinematographer.”

But he is quick to describe the perks of the job. “You can’t imagine the ride I have had,” he began. “What I do isn’t work. It is nothing but fun. Is there anything I would rather do than get behind a camera on a movie set? No. What could be better than working on a movie set with a bunch of beautiful people?”



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