HOLLYWOOD - When he was asked to play the Sundance Kid in "Butch and Sundance: The Early Days," William Katt knew there was one thing he did not want to do. He did not want to see "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." He hadn't seen it when it came out in 1969, and he wasn't going to see it now: "I must have been doing something else in 1969. And now if I wanted to play Sundance, I wanted to be free to go at it without preconceptions, without the Robert Redford performance in my head."
There is a certain logic there. Actors in sequels might reasonably want to see the first picture, to match their performances to a style already established. But what do you do about a 'prequel' - Hollywood's word for a new genre of movies about what happened before the original movie began? In some complex metaphysical way, it is now up to the Redford performance to flow naturally out of "Butch and Sundance: The Early Days."
Katt is a very serious young man, 28 years old, complaining that he looks younger: "Most of the important leading ladies are in their 30s. I look too young to play opposite them. I can play younger roles, college or high school, but for how much longer? I'll just have to hold on." His famous high school role - "the first role I began to make a name with" - was as the curly-haired kid in "Carrie," the one who asked Sissy Spacek out for a date and was one of the many victims of Carrie's telekinetic rage. Their real-life relationship has turned out better; Spacek is his next-door neighbor.
Sitting in an office at 20th Century-Fox, sipping coffee, Katt analyzes his career like a professional athlete: "I like to spend as much time on the stage as possible. I don't do a regular TV series because I don't want to be overexposed. I try to cover myself, to have another movie under way before the last one comes out. I've been able to just scrape by, holding out for good parts instead of taking anything. I'm thinking about a career that should mean something 30 years from now. But I'm not too upset about a picture that flops; the important thing is to also do pictures that don't flop. Even Bogart was in a lot of crap everyone has forgotten by now."
Sometimes, though, the flops hurt. He remembers with regret a 1978 movie called "Big Wednesday," directed by John ("The Wind and the Lion") Milius and dealing with the relationships between three surfers. "It was a movie about the passage of time, and how each of the characters grew, or didn't grow," Katt says. "And it was about the feeling of the seasons and their relationship with the sea...a really sensitive, intelligent movie. But the studio didn't know how to sell it. So they decided to punch up the fight scenes, make them more violent, exploit the surfing angle - take the cheap approach. The result was that hardly anyone saw the movie."
His realism about the acting profession runs in the family. His mother is Barbara Hale, who played Della Street for 10 years on the Perry Mason series. And his father is Bill Williams (real name also William Katt) who was a star of the 1940s, went into real estate, and still turns up regularly on Police Woman. "Mom was a bobby soxer," their son explains, Dad was in B Westerns, and they were the ones who told me to think in terms of the long run - not just about next month. To try to age gracefully."
He ages hardly at all in "Butch and Sundance: The Early Days," which opens here in June at the Chicago. Aided by a mustache, he does look something like Robert Redford - not like a brother, perhaps, but like a cousin. His co-star, a former Chicagoan named Tom Berenger, looks more like Paul Newman, the original Butch (that was one of the qualities that made Berenger appealing to the luckless heroine of his last big film, "Looking for Mr. Goodbar").
The movie tells the story of the original meeting between Butch and the Kid, their attempts at domesticity and the respectable life, and their inexorable development into superstar outlaws.
"When I first read the screenplay," Katt remembers, "I turned it down. Richard Lester, the director, laid it on the line: 'It all boils down to whether you think you're good enough.' That got me in the ego. I thought I was. Maybe I was doubtful about stepping into a role created by Redford, or maybe I was just doubtful about doing the picture. Audiences can be leery of sequels; the studios make a hit, they see dollar signs, and they make a cheap rip-off. But this one wasn't cheap. It cost $8.5 million, and it looks like it does."
A lot of that is due to director Lester, an American who, left for England in the early 1960s, was part of the now long-ago "Swinging London" scene, directed "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help" with the Beatles, was for a time the hottest filmmaker in Great Britain.
The movie was co-produced by William Goldman, whose screenplay for the original "Butch" was purchased for $450,000 - a record sale up to that time, but more than worth it for 20th Century-Fox. Consider. The film won four Academy Awards, launched "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head" as a standard, grossed something like $75 million, and made a superstar of Robert Redford.
William Katt no doubt hopes he will be struck by similar lightning. Most of his experience so far has been on the stage; for three weeks in May he starred at LA's Mark Taper Forum in "Ormer Locklan," a play by Marc Norman about a star aerial daredevil of the 1920s who was killed during a nighttime wingwalking stunt in his second movie. And now he's starring in the new film by French director Louis Malle, whose credits include "Murmur of the Heart" and last year's controversial "Pretty Baby."
That means Katt won't be in the country when "Butch and Sundance" opens; he'll be up in Canada, living with wolves. The new film is "Never Cry Wolf," based on a book by Farley Mowat about a biologist who goes north to study the family patterns of wolves and ends up involved in a political and ecological crisis. "It's a step up," Katt said. "In 'Butch and Sundance,' the only animals we worked with were horses and skunks. Anyone who's worked with skunks looks forward to wolves."