28 Facts About Robert Redford's Stunning Life in Movies and Activism
Robert Redford is Hollywood royalty. The celebrated actor, director, producer, prominent environmentalist and philanthropist founded the Sundance Film Festival, the largest independent film festival in the country, and the Sundance Film Institute to foster new film talent.
With his tousled blond hair, lanky good looks and soft-spoken voice, Redford became a 1970s sex symbol for films such as “The Way We Were,” “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Electric Horseman.” Wanting to move away from his leading-man image and act in more serious films, Redford went on to star in some of the most iconic movies of the 1970s, such as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Jeremiah Johnson,” “The Candidate,” “The Great Gatsby” and “All the President’s Men.”
He has won two Oscars: one for directing "Ordinary People" and a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, which he received in 2002.
Redford has been a prominent environmentalist activist since the 1960s, seeing how development changed Los Angeles, where he grew up, and was changing the West, where he settled with his family.
He started the discussion around climate change 25 years ago with his “Greenhouse Glasnost,” bringing together scientists from both the U.S. and the Soviet Union to tackle the issue.
In 2014, Time Magazine named Redford as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
With a large private estate at Sundance in Utah, and a house in Napa Valley wine country that Redford recently sold, Forbes estimates the actor’s net worth at $170 million.
(Charles) Robert Redford, Jr, was born on Aug. 18, 1936 in Santa Monica, California and named after his father.
His parents, Martha and George Robert Redford, were of English, Scottish and Irish descent.
His family moved to Van Nuys, where Redford went to Van Nuys High School.
He Had Polio as a Child
While polio outbreaks are a distant memory, they were still a very real threat while Redford was growing up in the 1930s and 1940s. Redford caught the disease when he was 11 but luckily had only a mild case. His personal experience inspired him to direct a short documentary about the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California, an organization named after Jonas Salk, who first developed a vaccine against polio.
He Had Several Run-Ins With the Law
Redford got into trouble as a teen for stealing hubcaps and trespassing on private property to swim in private pools in his neighborhood while the owners were away.
He Couldn’t Keep a Job or a Scholarship
Redford said in an interview with Success Magazine in 1980 that he was a failure at everything he tried when he was young. He worked in a supermarket as a box boy, and was fired. Next, his father, an accountant at Standard Oil, got Redford a job with the oil company, but again, he was fired. Redford attended the University of Colorado on a baseball scholarship, but lost the scholarship when he began drinking heavily.
Trained as a Painter
After leaving college, Redford traveled to Europe to study art, living briefly in France, Spain and Italy.
He returned to New York City, where he studied painting at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
He Had a Political Awakening in Europe
Redford credits his time hanging out with Parisian art students with raising his political consciousness, he said in a 2007 New Statesman article.
At the time, he knew little about American politics and felt embarrassed that he couldn’t talk to his fellow students about his own country. Upon returning to the U.S., Redford was determined to learn more about American culture and politics, and has since become a high-profile environmental activist.
The Switch to Acting
In New York, Redford also studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
He turned to acting as a profession when he realized he might not be good enough as a painter.
His Theater Career
Redford was performing in "The Sea Gull" when he was spotted by a Broadway agent. He had a few small roles afterwards, and then found success starring in Neil Simon’s play, "Barefoot in the Park."
Redford would go on to play the same role in the film version, with Jane Fonda playing his on-screen wife.
His TV Career
Redford said in a The New Yorker interview that he actually had a substantial TV career in the early-to-mid 1960s before moving to movies. He was a guest on such TV series as “The Untouchables,” “Perry Mason,” “The Twilight Zone” and many others.
Redford told Esquire his TV roles doing character work allowed him to develop his craft as an actor. Redford was nominated for an Emmy as Best Supporting Actor for his role in the “The Voice of Charlie Pont” in 1962.
His Movie Career
Redford is best known as a movie actor. He made his film debut in 1960 with a small role in “Tall Story.” Since then, Redford has starred in over 60 films.
He is best known for films such as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Candidate,” “Jeremiah Johnson,” “Brubaker,” “The Great Gatsby,” The Way We Were,” “The Sting,” “Three Days of the Condor,” “All the President’s Men,” “The Horse Whisperer” and “The Natural.”
Redford starred in some of the most iconic movies from the 1970s.
He Nearly Wasn’t the Sundance Kid
Playing the Sundance Kid, in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” is what launched Redford (right) as a movie star. However, he wasn’t the first choice for the part. Only after Warren Beatty, Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Lemmon, Steve McQueen and Robert Wagner all turned down the role, and Paul Newman and director George Roy Hill insisted on hiring Redford, did he win his now-iconic role.
He Owned the Film Rights and Produced ‘All The President’s Men’
Redford was intrigued by the story of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two Washington Post reporters who broke the story of the Watergate scandal, so he bought the rights to their book. When Warner Bros. was reluctant to make the film, thinking the public was sick of the scandal, Redford jumped on board as producer and “All the President’s Men” went on to win four Oscars.
He’s a Member of the MCU Club
Redford played the role of Alexander Pierce, the head of S.H.I.E.L.D., in both “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Avengers: Endgame.” He said in a documentary that he wanted to be in a Marvel film because his grandchildren are fans of the superhero movies.
In 1980, at the height of his acting career, Redford began directing films. He continued to act as well. His first directing feature was “Ordinary People,” which won him an Oscar for Best Director in 1981.
He has directed 10 films, including “Ordinary People,” “The Milagro Beanfield War,” “A River Runs Through It” and “Quiz Show.”
His Partnership and Friendship With Paul Newman
According to Redford, Paul Newman changed his life in 1968 by making sure Redford got the role of the Sundance Kid in “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.”
The studio wanted a big-name actor for the part, someone like Steve McQueen. After the success of the film, “my name rose” Redford said in an Esquire interview. Working together on the film also created a strong personal friendship between Redford and Newman.
In 1973, Redford was given the script for “The Sting.” Redford wanted to partner with Newman for the film, but Newman’s films hadn’t been doing well at the box office so the studio was reluctant.
This time, Redford insisted that the studio hire Newman, and the film went on to become a commercial and critical success.
Redford actually started producing films early, including “Downhill Racer” in 1969, a story about a ‘hotshot’ skier on the United States ski team, in which he starred.
Redford owns the production company Wildwood Enterprises, Inc. (also called South Fork Pictures) with fellow producer Bill Holderman, and has produced a number of films he has directed. Redford is co-founder of Sundance Productions, which produces diverse films for distribution on television, digital and social media platforms.
He Likes to Play Outlaws
Redford told The New Yorker that he's drawn to play outlaw roles in movies.
“The Great Gatsby,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Sting,” “Jeremiah Johnson,” “Havana,” “The Company You Keep” and “The Old Man & The Gun” are all films in which he plays a character on the wrong side of the law.
He Lost His First Child
Redford has said that despite everything he has accomplished in his career, he views raising children as his greatest achievement. When Redford and first wife Lola lost their first son Scott, then 5-months-old, to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in 1959, Redford was devastated. He had been raised not to show strong negative emotions, so he channeled his grief into his acting.
He Believes in Mentoring
Inspired by how Newman had once lifted up Redford’s career, Redford picked a-then-almost-unknown Brad Pitt for his third film as a director: “A River Runs Through It,” helping launch Pitt’s career.
Redford set up his Sundance Institute to be an incubator for emerging film talent. Well-known filmmakers such as Steven Soderbergh, PT Anderson, Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson all got their start through the Sundance film program.
He's a Team Player
Perhaps it’s his baseball background and training, but Redford seems to enjoy working with the same teams in movies again and again. Director Sydney Pollack, who was a close friend of Redford’s, directed him in seven movies.
He worked with George Roy Hill, who directed “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” on three films; he worked with Michael Ritchie on two films, “The Downhill Racer” and “The Candidate.”
He worked with Paul Newman on two of the biggest films of their careers (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Sting.”) Redford tried to get Newman to act with him in a third film, “A Walk in the Woods,” but Newman’s poor health made it impossible.
Redford has also worked with Jane Fonda in five films, starting with “Tall Story” in 1960 and most recently “Our Souls at Night” in 2017.
He's Not Comfortable With Stardom
In 1961, Redford bought two acres of land in a remote part of Utah. After the popularity of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Redford used his Utah base as a retreat from his growing fame. He called the place Sundance, after the movie role that made him famous.
In 1969, Redford bought another 5,000 acres in Utah, including the Timp Haven Ski Resort, re-naming it Sundance Mountain Resort and running it as a an eco-resort. Most of the land was kept as a wilderness preserve.
In 1981, feeling that Hollywood was no longer producing creative filmmaking, Redford set up the Sundance Institute to “foster independence, risk-taking and new voices in American film,” according to the Sundance website. Established writers, directors and actors mentored the first class of 10 emerging filmmakers.
The Sundance Institute provides support for playwrights, documentary and non-fiction filmmaking, screenwriting, music, choreography, production, Native American filmmakers and telling stories through emerging media, as well as outreach programs in Latin America, Europe and China.
Started with a $25,000 grant and $50,000 in seed money from Redford, the Sundance Institute now has a staff of 180 employees, offices in Park City, Utah, Los Angeles and New York City, and in 2018, provided 25 residential labs, gave out grants over $3 million and offered mentorships to over 900 artists.
Sundance has launched hit films such as “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” “Reservoir Dogs” and “Clerks.”
The Sundance Film Festival
Redford set up the Sundance Film Festival in 1985 to bring together “original storytellers and audiences seeking new voices and fresh perspectives,” according to the Sundance website.
The film festival is held in the winter and hosted in Park City and Salt Lake City in Utah, as well as at the Sundance Institute. The event offers “daily filmmaker conversations, panel discussions and live music events.”
A Sundance Film Festival award given to a filmmaker can bring “recognition and acclaim” to lesser-known films, reach more audiences and raise the standing of the filmmakers. In recent years, the festival has sought to “help more women and people of color launch careers making movies.”
He's Won a Ton of Awards
Redford was awarded an Oscar for Best Director in 1980 for his directorial debut film, "Ordinary People." He was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar (2002) and a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Film Festival (2017). Redford has received the National Medal of the Arts (1996), the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (2008), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2016) and was appointed as a Knight of the French Legion d’Honneur (2010).
Redford has received honorary degrees from Bard College (Doctor of Human Letters), Brown University (Doctor of Fine Arts) and Colby College.
He Was Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Redford was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2016, together with Tom Hanks, Robert DeNiro, Cicely Tyson and others. The Medal of Freedom is given to people who have made significant contributions to “to individuals who have made exceptional contributions to the security or national interests of America, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
Redford credits a summer job at Yosemite National Park with starting his passion for protecting the natural environment. Redford helped set up the Institute for Resource Management, a non-profit that promotes and teaches resource management best practice, and the Redford Center, which supports environmental documentary filmmaking.
Redford is a vocal opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline, part of a system carrying oil from Canada across the United States, as well as a high-profile supporter of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016, in which Native America tribes organized to protest the building of a pipeline across Sioux lands. Redford is also a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy and lobbying group.
Redford famously hosted a ‘Greenhouse Glasnost’ at Sundance 25 years ago, bringing together Soviet and American scientists to start to discuss climate change.
Redford was awarded the National Audubon’s Society’s Audubon Medal in 1989, which honors leading conservationists worldwide.
He Doesn’t Believe in Retirement
In August 2018, Redford announced he was retiring after a 60 year career. Then in September 2018, after the launch of “The Old Man & The Gun,” Redford changed his mind.
Now, he told The New York Times, he is not so much interested in retiring as “just moving forward into new territory.”
He will play President Robert Redford in an alternate reality version of America in the upcoming HBO series “Watchmen.” In the series, Redford was elected to the White House in 1992 and is still in office in 2019.