The Conspirator is the first in a roster of historically based films to be produced by The American Film Company, launched by Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs. Redford insists that his first objective as an actor and filmmaker is to entertain. Yet his works have compelled audiences, sometimes uncomfortably, to examine the American experience — personally and politically. In films such as The Natural and The Horse Whisperer he explored the complexity of relationships; in The Milagro Beanfield War and Quiz Show he tackled inequality and injustice. The stories he tells have roots in his own experience.
Charles Robert Redford Jr., of English, Scottish, and Irish ancestry, grew up as an only child in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood in Santa Monica, where his father, Charles Sr., worked as a milkman. One of his earliest memories is from third grade, at the end of World War II. "This dark current started running through our school about Jews," Redford recalls. "I didn't know what a Jew was. But suddenly people were whispering about who was a Jew and who wasn't. One day, Lois Levinson — she was a pal, really smart — stands up in class and says, 'My name is Lois Levinson. I am a Jew, and I'm very proud of it.' The class gasped."
That night at dinner, Redford told his father about Lois and asked: "What am I? If she's a Jew, what am I?"
"You're a Jew — and be proud of it," Redford Sr. said.
"I was never a good student ... It was hard to sit and listen to somebody talk. I wanted to be out, educated by experience and adventure, and I didn't know how to express that." — Robert Redford
The boy ran to his room, bawling. "I thought, 'I'm screwed,' " Redford laughs. "I heard my mom say, 'Charlie, go explain.' My dad came in and gave me a lecture about how what happened was unfair. He said, 'We're all alike.' "
It was an early turning point. "Any time I saw people treated unfairly because of race, creed, whatever — it struck a nerve," Redford says. A natural athlete, he often captained his school football and baseball squads. "The look on the face of the kid who was uncoordinated broke my heart," he says. "I would choose him. " He was empathetic but also driven, sometimes to a fault. "Then I'd get angry when he couldn't perform," he ruefully admits.
Redford was guided as much by frustration as compassion. "I was never a good student," he says. "I had to be dragged into kindergarten. It was hard to sit and listen to somebody talk. I wanted to be out, educated by experience and adventure, and I didn't know how to express that."
He finished high school but flirted with trouble. "Messing around with friends, pushing the envelope, stealing Cadillac hubcaps for $16, was a release," Redford says. "I was seen in earlier years by family members and people of authority as somebody wasting his time. I had trouble with the restrictions of conformity. It made me edgy."
Redford won a baseball scholarship to the University of Colorado but soon lost it, reportedly due to drinking. "There was a lot of that," he concedes. After a year the school asked him not to return. About the same time, Redford's mother, Martha, died at age 40. "She had a hemorrhage tied to a blood disorder she got after losing twin girls at birth 10 years after I was born," he says quietly. His own birth was difficult, and doctors had advised his mother to stop having children. "She wanted a family so badly she got pregnant again," Redford says. Her death was a shock. "It seemed so unfair. But, in an odd way, it freed me to go off on my own, which I'd wanted to do for a long time."
By then Redford's father had landed a job in the accounting department at the Standard Oil refinery in El Segundo. Redford went to work there in the shipping yard, driving a forklift and cleaning tanks. The experience planted the seeds for his environmental activism years later. "I saw the oil seeping into the sand dunes. Now all that [oil] sits underneath the big buildings they've built there."