Robert Redford was staying with the writer Michael Feeney Callan in Dublin when he requested a night on the town sampling Guinness in a busy pub.
Callan knew his famous friend would attract crowds of onlookers. To avoid any disturbance, the Irishman usually booked quiet tables in discreet restaurants, often causing disbelief when he said who was coming.
“This time, Bob insisted on a night out,” he says.
Dublin drinkers stared as Redford entered a packed bar. After a while, one tall man, reeking of booze, came and stood swaying over Redford, silent and threatening. The tension mounted. Finally, the man barked “Paul Newman!” and turned on his heels. Redford smiled: Newman was his co-star in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting.”
That was a nervous moment in the 16-year friendship that has led Callan, 56, to write a biography of the actor that was published in May.
It also has led to Callan setting up Bobcom, a philanthropic organization to nurture music and be an antidote to traditional television talent shows. The inspiration comes from the Sundance Festival, founded by Redford in 1981 to promote independent moviemakers and challenge Hollywood.
Callan describes Redford, with his now weathered surfer looks, as a political poet.
“This goes over people’s heads,” he says. “What they want to see about Bob Redford is a Beatle haircut, an Olympian body and good teeth. It’s not exactly all he is.”
When they first met in New York in 1995 to discuss a biography, Redford said no, even though he liked Callan’s book on Anthony Hopkins. “We talked about poetry,” recalls Callan, “the dynamics of ‘The Waste Land,’ Ted Hughes, Henry Miller and Edgar Allen Poe. That’s where we started.”
The endlessly articulate Callan describes Redford, 74, as an iconoclast more than an icon. He could have had a cushy life as a leading man. Instead he became a producer and director, winning an Oscar for “Ordinary People” (1980). Caring more about integrity than fame or fortune, he made literary films.
As “a Renaissance man who wants America to report back to itself,” Callan says, Redford set up an international conference on global warming as long ago as 1989.
During their chats “late at night over the cabernet sauvignon,” he says, Redford often spoke of his stewardship at Sundance.
This led to Bobcom, Callan’s website, which he describes as a musical social network. Musicians can upload and sell their work: The site pays almost three times what iTunes does. They also can interact with fans, find fellow music makers and take part in free Fasttrack competitions that involve no judges or juries, only their peers among the Bobcom community.
“It’s a reaction to what’s happening to ‘American Idol,’” Callan, wearing a jacket and open-necked shirt, says. “That sort of stuff has become so plastic and so homogenized. We are going back to Tim Berners-Lee’s definition of the Internet, which is democracy.”
Winners have garnered a week’s recording at London’s Abbey Road Studios, and appearances on Bobcom’s U.K. Channel 4 series “Sounds From the Cities.” The next two victors will get to perform at Liverpool’s Cavern Club on July 13, marking 50 years since the Beatles played there. The plan is for a swift rollout of Bobcom beyond the U.K. and Ireland.
The Bobcom name is “an obvious nod to Bob, that’s almost a private joke,” Callan says. It was meant tongue-in-cheek as “the birth of brilliance community,” and also stands for another planned TV series “Birth of a Band.”
Much as Sundance initially was funded by benefactors such as the Rockefeller Foundation, Bobcom is privately financed -- by Callan, with money from the Redford book, and by his Swiss partner Olivier Capt. He’s not interested in big record companies joining the project.
Nobody would be more pleased than Redford if all those late-night drinking sessions lead to finding a true star, says Callan. “We’re not looking for juggling monkeys in high heels, we’d love to find the new Bob Dylan.”
“Robert Redford: The Biography” is published in the U.S. by Knopf (468 pages, $28.95). To buy this book in North America, click here. The U.K. edition is from Simon & Schuster Ltd. priced 20 pounds.
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)