When Robert Redford was a little-known actor in the early 1960s, he turned down a $10,000-per-week offer to star in a TV series. A short time later, he accepted a $110 weekly salary for a role in a new Neil Simon play that would soon be renamed “Barefoot in the Park.”
According to Michael Feeney Callan’s “Robert Redford: The Biography,” underneath the blond surfer look has always been an iconoclast, less interested in money and fame than integrity and artistic expression.
Redford could have settled for a cushy life as a leading man in Hollywood movies. Instead, he helped launch the indie movement with the Sundance Film Festival, created a nonprofit institute that supports aspiring filmmakers and other artists, became an outspoken environmentalist and directed literary adaptations like “A River Runs Through It” and “The Milagro Beanfield War.”
Redford wasn’t a good businessman, trusted people too much and spread himself too thin with his myriad interests, Callan writes. He also neglected his family -- wife Lola and their three surviving kids (their first child died of sudden infant death syndrome) -- while building his career and burnishing his Sundance legacy in Utah.
But Callan, an Irishman who has written bios of Sean Connery and Anthony Hopkins, makes a strong case that Redford is one of the most influential movie figures of the past 50 years. Who else has had so much impact as an actor, director (he won an Oscar for “Ordinary People”), producer, social activist and head of a self-made creative empire?
Callan writes fluidly and tells plenty of interesting stories, though he gets carried away with blow-by-blow descriptions of how almost all of Redford’s movies were made.
The son of a milkman-turned-accountant, Redford grew up in pre-boom Southern California and attended the University of Colorado, where he played baseball and drank heavily before dropping out to tour Europe.
He studied painting in Paris, where he struggled to meet French women and was beaten while demonstrating against the Soviet crackdown in Hungary. After returning to the U.S., he settled in New York and became a stage and TV actor.
His big break came in 1969, when he co-starred with Paul Newman in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Suddenly Redford was plastered on magazine covers and followed by squealing female fans who invaded his coveted privacy.
Redford went on to make other box-office and critical hits like “The Way We Were” with Barbra Streisand, “The Sting” with Newman, “All the President’s Men” with Dustin Hoffman and “Out of Africa” with Meryl Streep.
Yet he also played more offbeat roles in “Downhill Racer” (an egotistic Olympic skier), “The Candidate” (an idealistic lawyer who turns into a slick politician) and “Jeremiah Johnson” (a 19th-century mountain man).
Redford’s workaholic ways hastened the demise of his 27-year marriage to Lola, Callan writes, though today he has a good relationship with her and his grown kids, including a son who received two liver transplants.
Redford got remarried in 2009 to German painter Sibylle Szaggars and recently directed “The Conspirator,” a drama about the Lincoln assassination. He’s 74 now and, while he remains trim and fit, the years are evident on his craggy face. The painter in him wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Robert Redford” is published by Knopf (468 pages, $28.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own.)