When he had saved enough money, Redford hitchhiked to New York and made his way to France. He had always enjoyed sketching, so he decided to be an artist. "In Europe he'd draw with chalk on the sidewalks, and people would give him money," says Duane Byrge, a Hollywood Reporter film critic who has followed Redford's career for decades. "He has an artist's eye." Byrge once met up with Redford at the unpretentious cabin he keeps as an office outside Park City, Utah, and found him shoving an old-style movie camera he had on display on the porch, like an artwork, into the rain and snow. "He wanted to weather it, so it wouldn't look so shiny," Byrge says. "That's the kind of thing he does."
Redford spent 18 months in Europe, where, he says, "I gained most of my maturity." He arrived in Paris in the mid-1950s, not knowing the language or culture, and lived among a group of politically active art and medical students. "They challenged me about my politics, which didn't exist. They were always running in the streets to protest, so I joined them. It broadened my view of country. When I went back, I questioned things, which led me into a certain amount of activism."
Barely 20, Redford returned briefly to Los Angeles, where he met a 17-year-old college student from Utah named Lola Van Wagenen. They married in 1958 and moved to New York City — he would never live in Los Angeles again, disillusioned by its conspicuous affluence and sprawl — where he enrolled in art school at the Pratt Institute. On the recommendation of a teacher, he transferred to The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. "I never imagined being an actor," he says. "I wanted to get a formal education in art so I could go back to Europe and paint." But at the Academy, where Redford played Konstantin Treplev in a production of Chekhov's The Seagull, the trajectory of his life shifted dramatically. "Something clicked," he says. "It was the beginning of everything coming into focus with me."
"Bob told me how important his family is to him — how it's chosen for you, not by you." — Robin Wright, who plays Mary Surratt in The Conspirator
He landed small stage and television roles, but soon he faced another personal hardship. He and Van Wagenen had a son in 1959 who, at five months, died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). "It was really hard," Redford says. "We were very young. I had my first theater job, which didn't pay much. We didn't know anything about SIDS, so the only thing you think is that you've done something wrong. As a parent, you tend to blame yourself. That creates a scar that probably never completely heals."
While Redford had explored orthodoxies ranging from Christian Science to Buddhism to his wife's Mormon faith, in the end he chose a sort of secular humanism: "I believe in the power, the energy, that nature puts in place," he says. It was in part that point of view that allowed him to carry on after the death of his firstborn.
He and Van Wagenen had two more children in quick succession: Shauna, now 50, an artist who is married to Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, and James, 48, a screenwriter and director. Eight years later, the couple had Amy, an actress. Now a grandfather to seven (his eldest is in college; his youngest are infant twins), Redford cites his family as among his greatest accomplishments. "I was considered irresponsible as a kid, so I developed a strong sense of proving I could be responsible," he says. "I had that old-fashioned sense of providing for your family."
Robin Wright, whose teenage son was recovering from a life-threatening skateboarding accident during production of The Conspirator, says, "Bob told me how important his family is to him — how it's chosen for you, not by you."
In 1966 a young Jane Fonda co starred with Redford in The Chase. They had first met at Paramount Studios; she remembers following behind him as they walked down a corridor in the administration building. As Redford passed offices, secretaries poked their heads out to catch a glimpse. "I thought, 'Oh gosh, he's going to be a big star,' " Fonda says.
Each time she worked with Redford, Fonda admits, she fell in love with him. " It was hard not to. It was his looks and his manner. There was always a mystery, because he didn't reveal everything. He's got an aura about him."