When Robert Redford (born 1937) appeared in the 1969 hit motion picture Butch Cassidy and the Sun-dance Kid, he was already well on his way to becoming an American motion picture icon. Known for his good looks, intelligence and commercial success, Redford's successes in writing, directing and producing motion pictures, as well as his establishment of the Sundance Institute, has made him a household name throughout the world.
Charles Robert Redford, Jr. was born on August 18, 1937 in Santa Monica, California to Charles, Sr. and Martha (Hart) Redford. His father was a milkman who worked long hours in Redford's early years. After World War II, Redford's father got a job at the Standard Oil Company as an accountant and the family moved to nearby Van Nuys, California where Redford attended high school along with his brother, William. Redford was not happy in Van Nuys, which he called "a cultural mud sea, " and was soon engaging in activities designed to break the unending boredom and conformist attitudes he felt closing in around him. He climbed high buildings in the Hollywood area and stole hub caps off of automobiles.
Fortunately for Redford, he also excelled in athletics, and upon his graduation in the spring of 1955, he accepted a baseball scholarship from the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. Although Redford seemed to have the world by the tail and a bright future, 1955 was also the year that his mother died suddenly. This shocked and stunned Redford deeply and it would take him years to come to terms with her death.
Early Academic Failure
Redford commenced his studies at the University of Colorado in late 1955, but he soon became disillusioned with college life. Although Redford joined a fraternity and tried to become interested in college curriculum he was uninterested by most of his courses with the exception of some art classes. He started skipping classes and practices and took up drinking as way to ease his unhappiness. It was for his drinking that he was kicked off of the team, losing his scholarship.
While Redford was at the University of Colorado, a friend suggested that he should travel to Europe. He moved to Los Angeles, California and began working in the nearby oil fields to pay his bills and save enough money to travel to France so that he could study painting. Once there, he hitchhiked from country to country and stayed in youth hostels. Redford eventually found a sympathetic teacher in Florence, Italy, but later when that teacher criticized him for his slow progress, he decided to return home.
Redford hitchhiked from the east coast of the United States back to Los Angeles where he became increasingly discouraged and began drinking heavily again. In 1958, Redford met Lola Jean Van Wagenen who was living in the same apartment building where he rented. A Mormon from Utah, Van Wagenen encouraged Redford to resume his study of the arts. Van Wagenen's effect on Redford was so profound that they were married on September 12, 1958 and she left college to travel with him to New York.
With a new outlook and encouragement from his wife, Redford moved to Brooklyn, New York to study painting at the Prat Institute late in 1958. Redford was aware that he might need a sideline career to fall back on in case painting did not pay the bills. He decided to study theatrical set design at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York as a sideline.
Redford received complimentary reports on his designs and came to the attention of Mike Thoma, the stage manager for the Broadway comedy Tall Story which had opened on January 2, 1959. Thoma was responsible for recruiting replacements when actors left the cast. Thoma invited Redford to audition for a small part in the production. Redford auditioned and was hired on the spot. When Tall Story ended its run on May 2, 1959, the agent who had signed Redford recommended him for a role in The Highest Tree. The production opened on November 4, 1959 at the Longacre Theatre in New York City but ran only a few weeks. The experience was not a total loss for Redford, as he had found an occupation in which he was capable and enjoyed.
With the prospect of not being able to find another acting job until the next season opened in early 1960, Redford returned to Los Angeles to try his hand at television. Los Angeles was overflowing with acting jobs and Redford played half a dozen roles within six months. The most notable of these parts was as a Nazi lieutenant in In the Presence of Mine Enemies in 1960. In the autumn of 1960, Redford returned to New York to take part in a production of The Iceman Cometh. His first child, Shauna, was born shortly thereafter. Redford was then cast in a production of Little Moon of Alban which opened on December 1, 1960 but had only twenty performances.
Redford had his first leading role in a production of Sunday in New York on Broadway. It ran until May of 1962, but during breaks in the production Redford would appear with small parts on such television shows as Route 66, The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Naked City. He also made his motion picture debut in the 1962 film War Hunt, which was hailed by critics despite its low budget. Redford also became a father for the second time when his son, David James, was born.
Redford returned to California following the close of Sunday in New York to work in television. He was noticed by actor and comedian Mike Nichols who was to direct a production of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park. Nichols demanded that Redford be cast in the production and when it opened in New York on October 23, 1963, it was an overnight success. The tediousness of doing the same performance eight times a week soon bored Redford and he withdrew from the cast on September 5, 1964, never returning to the stage.
Instead of stage, Redford concentrated on motion pictures. His first four motion pictures were not very successful and a less determined actor might have given up. Redford stuck it out through 1965 with Situation Hopeless -But Not Serious, and Inside Daisy Clover, opposite Natalie Wood. Inside Daisy Clover earned him a Golden Globe award for the most promising male newcomer. The 1966 films The Chase and This Property Is Condemned were not received much better by critics or the public, so Redford decided to vacation with his family in Spain and Crete until the right role came along.
Redford returned to Hollywood to do a film version of Barefoot in the Park. His performance was widely hailed and earned him a spot in what was to become one of his greatest successes, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
After negotiations with three other well-known actors failed, Redford was offered the part of the Sundance Kid opposite Paul Newman in 1969. Initially rejected by the head of Twentieth Century-Fox for the role, Redford worked and made it his own. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid became one of the most successful westerns of all time and made Redford a household name. The movie is widely regarded as one of the pinnacle motion pictures about the American west and the men who lived in and through it. It won four Academy Awards and made Redford a bankable movie star.
Hoping to cash in on Redford's success in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Paramount hurried Downhill Racer into theaters in November 1969. Redford starred in and co-produced the motion picture and, although it was hailed by critics, the public did not react as strongly as the had to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The same fate awaited Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, which had been rushed into theaters in December 1969. Redford's role as a good samaritan cowboy earned him the British Film Academy's 1970 award for best actor and in May of that year his daughter, Amy Hart, was born.
Redford made The Hot Rock and The Candidate in 1972, but it was the last of the films he made that year, Jeremiah Johnson, that remains his favorite of his own films. The film, the story of a trapper trying to survive in the Utah wilderness of the nineteenth century, was initiated by Redford in his search for good roles. The Way We Were, a story concerning the Hollywood witch-hunts of the 1950s, followed in 1973. That year also saw his reunion with Newman in The Sting. The story of two gangsters out for revenge in the 1930s in Chicago earned the motion picture seven Academy Award nominations and Redford his first nomination for best actor.
Redford followed up with The Great Gatsby, the motion picture adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, in 1974. He acted in The Great Waldo Pepper and Three Days of the Condor in 1975 before making one of his most acclaimed motion pictures, All the President's Men, in 1976. Redford took an active part in the movie by convincing Watergate reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward to write a motion picture script relating their experiences during the last days of Richard Nixon's presidency instead of a book. All the President's Men was awarded four Academy Awards and was second on the list of top ten money-makers for that year.
Redford had only a small role in the 1977 film A Bridge Too Far, opting to spend more time with his family. It was not until The Electric Horseman (1979) that he returned to play a leading role in a motion picture. His ever-growing social conscience was evident in Brubaker (1980). This motion picture was seen by many critics as more of a lecture on social politics than as entertainment, but Redford rebounded with one of his greatest accomplishments on film, Ordinary People.
Released in 1980, Ordinary People, was the story of a suburban family whose life unravels following the death of a child. Redford had made the transition from actor to director, and would be rewarded highly for his efforts. He received the Director's Guild of America Award for the outstanding motion picture director of 1980, an Academy Award for the best director of 1980, the National Board of Review Award for best director of 1981 and a Golden Globe Award for the best director of 1981 for his direction in Ordinary People.
Founded Sundance Institute
In 1981, Redford founded the Sundance Institute near his summer home in Utah to help promote the art of motion picture making and to provide financial funding for artists developing unique visions of their own. The Institute, named after the role that made Redford famous, has since expanded to incorporate a yearly film festival and a theater company that produces original works.
Redford returned to motion pictures in 1984 with his role as an aging baseball player in The Natural. He acted in the 1985 Academy Award winner for best picture, Out of Africa, but told New York that this experience ranked among the least satisfying of his career. After that, with a divorce from his wife later that year, his movie roles became less frequent. He appeared in only six motion pictures, Legal Eagles (1986), Havana (1991), Sneakers (1992), Indecent Proposal (1993), Up Close And Personal (1996), and The Horse Whisperer (1998), over the next twelve years.
Instead, he concentrated his efforts more on creating and directing quality motion pictures for other actors. He directed The Milagro Beanfield War in 1988, A River Runs Through It, in 1992, and Quiz Show, (1994), which won him the Cecil B. DeMille Award for best picture and established the Sundance Institute as a creative force in the motion picture industry. For all of his efforts in promoting the art of movie making and for his achievements in film, he was awarded the 1995 Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award.
Further Reading on Robert Redford
Authors & Artists for Young Adults, volume 15, Gale Research, 1995.
Contemporary Authors, volume 107, Gale Research, 1983.
Entertainment Weekly, Fall 1996; September 5, 1997.
Interview, September 1994; January 1997.
McCall's, April 1996.
New York, December 10, 1990.
Premiere, February 1998.
Rolling Stone, October 6, 1994.
"Celebsite: Robert Redford, " CelebSite, http: //www.celebsite.com (March 18, 1998).
"E! Online -Fact Sheet -Robert Redford, " E! Online, http://eonline.com (March 18, 1998).
"Robert Redford, " The Network for Entertainment Fans—fansites.com—Index, http: //www.fansites.com (March 18, 1998).
Sundance Institute, http: //www.sundance.net/institute/ (March 18, 1998).