Reeling in Redford
A reluctant star, Robert Redford is as disdainful about Hollywood as he is devoted to his liberal causes. So how much can his official biographer reveal?
Jeff Dawson Published: 5 June 2011
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tardom is accidental, the screenwriter William Goldman has argued. If Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen or Warren Beatty had played The Sundance Kid (all were in the frame for the role), Robert Redford might have remained, as one studio exec dismissed him, “just another California blond. Throw a stick at Malibu, you’ll hit six of him”. Though his role as the bank-robbing gunslinger shot him through the filmic stratosphere, Redford has maintained a career-long nonchalance towards fame. He spurned lead roles in
Serpico, The Day of the Jackal, Barry Lyndon, Apocalypse Now and Superman. He was the original choice for Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Even as “Sundance”, Redford frustrated his put-upon agent by showing up on set with a deliberately disfiguring bandito moustache.
Among the nuggets in the new, officially sanctioned Robert Redford: The Biography, few of his refusals match this one: on September 11, 2001, Redford forwent his reservation on United 93. “Bob puts an awful lot of emphasis on serendipity,” says the biography’s author, Michael Feeney Callan. “He considers the extraordinary moments in his life, and that they happened for a very signal reason. Missing that flight would be one of them.”
Callan’s book is one of the most thoroughly researched ever conducted into the life of a popular entertainer
As Callan is at pains to remind readers, Redford’s reign as a box-office-smasher was actually rather brief: from 1969 to 1976, a run that included Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, Downhill Racer, The Candidate, Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were, The Sting, The Great Gatsby, Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men.
For the cerebral artist screaming to be liberated from the matinée idol’s body, the mountain man with the Tinseltown bubblegum stuck to his cowboy boot, emancipation came only with Ordinary People (1980), his directorial debut. Like his contemporary Clint Eastwood, Redford shifted from heart-throb to Oscar-winning film-maker, going on to direct slices of Americana such as The Milagro Beanfield War, Quiz Show and The Horse Whisperer.
It’s the whiff of beefcake that lingers, though. Callan recounts a story in which Redford’s then-teenage son, Jamie, gets hot and heavy with a girlfriend, only to glance up and see a poster of his old man leering down from her bedroom wall — “the greatest passion killer he ever encountered”. Written over 16 years, with unprecedented access to the reclusive (notoriously unpunctual) star, as well as to his personal diaries, Callan’s book is one of the most thoroughly researched, analytic examinations ever conducted into the life of a popular entertainer — surely the first Hollywood biography to trace its subject back to medieval Saxons.
The loquacious writer, creator of the Irish TV cop drama The Burke Enigma, whose subjects in prior biographies include Richard Harris, Anthony Hopkins and Sean Connery, could easily have kicked off with “It’s a boy, Mrs Redford...” Yet Callan, by his own admission, is in — and in deep. Wishing to write about “an American who had had a globalising influence”, he had initially wanted to do something on the painter Whistler, he explains. “But I was interested in Redford as a cultural phenomenon. I felt, in his films, there was a kind of unity of artistic expression that hadn’t been reported in the popular media. I felt the combination of his directorial films and the creation of Sundance gave this fairly subversive voice to his career.”
“Sundance” here is the Sundance Institute, Redford’s greatest legacy. (Callan has mirrored it in the online musical forum, Bobcom, that he has set up.) Redford had purchased two acres of alpine property near Park City, Utah, in 1961. By 1980, the year of his reinvention, it had been expanded into an arts colony for young film-makers. “Hollywood in the 1970s was only interested in blockbusters,” Redford complained. Via the famous annual festival that he established, he has since become a virtual godfather of American independent cinema. And very wealthy. He pocketed $30m with the sale of the Sundance TV channel three years ago.
In an amusing vignette, embellished by Callan when I met him recently in person, Redford’s disdain for the infantilisation of Hollywood was cemented by a visit to the home of Steven Spielberg to discuss starring in Always. He was appalled by the screening-room “den”, lined with arcade machines and popcorn dispensers, and with Spielberg’s mother sitting in — the film became another addition to Redford’s lengthy list of turndowns.
Callan was among the many to have been rebuffed over the years, gaining Redford’s trust eventually through a shared love of poetry. (“That’s where the juice is with Redford, it’s literary.”) It didn’t hurt, either, that Redford, despite his mixed Anglo-Celtic heritage — including a relation to the 1402 Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Henry Redford — identifies himself as a fellow Irishman. Thus began an epic journey.
The author tells of the times that Redford stayed with him in Dublin, his kids looking up from their video game, oblivious to the legend in their living room. He recalls the day Redford picked Callan’s then eight-year-old daughter up from school. “It was like A Hard Day’s Night, the yummy mummies going, ‘F***, it can’t be. Oh my God.’”
One incident, when the pair hit the pub for a Guinness, is re-enacted with full theatrical gusto as Callan recounts a run-in with a local heavy. “A huge guy, 6ft 7in, comes straight up to him and towers over him. The guy’s standing there with his pint, glazed eyes and very belligerent. And it went on for ever, just this stare.” Until the flicker of recognition shot across the interloper’s face. “Paul Newman!”
In the States, meanwhile, Callan would stay with Redford at Sundance, or at his bases in New York, Marin County and LA. Following an invitation for Callan’s family to go skiing one January, the whole clan ended up trailing Redford through the postproduction of The Horse Whisperer, not packing their bags until May. “The thing I was most proud of was that I got to meet people like George Roy Hill, Sydney Pollack, Alan Pakula, Paul Newman. And they’re dead,” he sighs. “Some of them had become friends, like Pakula. I was on my way back to New York to meet Alan when he was killed in that weird car accident.”
Born into a working-class family in Santa Monica in 1936, Charles Robert Redford Jr may have been indifferent to showbiz, but he was surrounded by it. As a teen, he was given lifts to school by his girlfriend’s father, the (secretly bisexual) actor Zachary Scott. At their house, he watched through the banisters as Scott’s wife enjoyed adulterous sex with John Steinbeck.
Redford’s youth could have been scripted by Jackie Collins: juvenile delinquent; starving artist in Paris; hanging out with the beat poets in San Francisco. At 21, he eloped to Vegas with his Mormon girlfriend. In 1954, he went to the University of Colorado in Boulder, excelling at baseball (a passion manifest in 1984’s The Natural), then traded the jockstrap for the doublet and hose. He was earmarked as a leading man from the start, and it was a short hop to New York theatre, then to the cash cow of television, appearing in series such as The Virginian.
After two romantic films with Natalie Wood (with whom he was “very close”, Callan says, aping the parlance of the gossip columns), Redford remained unconvinced about the path being laid out for him, going Awol to Spain before shooting Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park. “He would see someone who was of his ilk, like George Peppard,” Callan muses. “He’d just say, ‘I don’t want to do that.’”
Redford's biggest tragedy, as the book tells it, was falling out with Sydney Pollack, who comes across in print like a tutting ex-wife
Later, when Oscar-nominated as best director for Ordinary People, he would go missing again, reluctantly showing up for the Academy Awards with no acceptance speech prepared. (The film won four Oscars.) “There are only so many times you want to be told, ‘This is the best thing since Gone with the Wind’, ‘You are the best leading man since Moses’,” Redford groaned. “I thought, screw this, and disappeared.”
By then, he had become a liberal activist, campaigning on behalf of the environment or Native Americans, yearning to attach some import to his work. “It had been brewing since 1950,” Callan says. “He was always heading towards something that was some kind of intellectual reportage on the condition of America.”
There is a danger with all this mythologising. Redford is no curer of cancer (“I know this puts me open to all kinds of accusations of being portentous,” Callan acknowledges).
This is also the director of Lions for Lambs and the star of Indecent Proposal, in which he pimped his image for a $1m romp with Demi Moore. And not exactly a barrel of laughs — a man shoehorned into Legal Eagles, which he made with Ivan (Ghostbusters) Reitman, despite an avowed contempt for the Saturday Night Live school of comedy.
Indeed, Redford seems rather haunted. His favourite uncle, David, was killed by a German sniper in 1945. He lost his first child, Scott, to cot death. In 1983, his daughter Shauna’s boyfriend was murdered. His son Jamie has endured chronic ill health, requiring two liver transplants. There was the eerie moment, while making Inside Daisy Clover, when Redford and a panicked Natalie Wood were lost at sea in a small boat near the spot where Wood would later perish.
In professional terms, as the book tells it, the biggest tragedy was falling out with Sydney Pollack, who comes across in print like a tutting ex-wife. In a relationship stretching back to 1966’s This Property Is Condemned, they had made seven films together — the quirky, bookish Pollack behind the lens, the square-jawed Redford in front of it. “It was Newman who said to me that Sydney wanted to be Bob, and Bob wanted to be Sydney,” Callan says. They remained incompletely reconciled on Pollack’s death in 2008.
Redford had grown tired with his fussiness, especially over screen intimacy, Callan alleges, citing Pollack’s overdirection of his sex scenes with Meryl Streep in Out of Africa. (“Sydney can’t do sex,” Redford told Callan.) Later, when a 62-year-old Redford invited ridicule by casting himself as the restrained paramour of the 38-year-old Kristin Scott Thomas in The Horse Whisperer, Pollack got his revenge. In Random Hearts, released a year later, Pollack had Harrison Ford demonstrably (in Callan’s words) “ride the arse” off the selfsame actress.
“He took a while to embrace old age, which I think was a mistake,” Callan says of the now 74-year-old, twice-married grandfather. By the time of 2001’s Spy Game, his co-star, Brad Pitt, who had practically bitten Redford’s hand off to get cast in A River Runs Through It, was calling the shots.
As lyrical as Callan’s book is and as engaging a raconteur as he is in the flesh, the curse for this authorised biographer is that he has been unable to relate many of the more colourful anecdotes, including some of the above. “It’s painful not to be able to reveal some of the things you know,” he shrugs. “That’s the devil’s bargain I made with Uncle Bob.” To which end, he promises a racier follow-up.
The book’s front cover shows not the seasoned man in a parka, hunched over a Panaflex, but the Colgate-grinning golden boy of yore — the hunk you could throw a stick at in Malibu and hit six of. As Pollack told Callan: “He will always be 30, blond, perfection.”