Redford's acting career lifted off in 1969, with the release of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He headlined some 15 films — including The Candidate, All the President's Men, and Out of Africa — between then and 1985, and critics attributed his success not only to his good looks but to his methods. The eminent acting coach Uta Hagen once observed that Redford's strength as an actor lay in his honesty. "With him the showy stuff is not necessary," says James McAvoy. "He finds the honest simplicity in the character."
Redford began directing and producing in 1980 because he yearned "to own" his movie projects. He says he seeks to "cut to the quick of the emotionality of something" in his films. Ordinary People, his Oscar-winning directorial debut, explored in stark terms the dynamics of a family coping with the death of a child.
Though he was comfortable with his pared-down philosophy of filmmaking, Redford was less at ease with the larger-than-life persona that people attached to him. "Bob was a huge movie star," says Patrick Markey, who first worked with Redford as a production assistant on Brubaker — and, thanks to Redford's mentoring, became a successful producer of films, including A River Runs Through It. "But that's a small part of who he is. There's a very smart, more complex person beneath that."
To encourage independent filmmaking and to nurture talent, Redford established the Sundance Institute in 1981; it has since expanded to include a world-famous film festival. "They called it Redford's Folly at first," says critic Byrge, " but the film industry has now embraced it." Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute, says, "Robert Redford created a platform for independent work that has literally launched a movement in America."
The success, though, has come at a cost: Utah is no longer Redford's refuge. Jane Fonda says she often imagines her friend sitting on horseback on a hill looking down at Sundance, thinking, "What have I done? This was supposed to be a getaway, and it's turned into work." But, she adds, "Bob is one of those unusual people who feel that service is the rent you pay for life. It's in his core ethics to give back."
These days Redford remains as involved in environmental issues as he is in filmmaking — he recently blogged about his opposition to a coal company that plans to open a mine near Bryce Canyon. He also still manages to escape from it all, sometimes to his Santa Fe home — a traditional adobe situated above a piñon-dotted valley, with an awe-inspiring view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
I ask Robert Redford how he thinks he has handled fame. "I dealt with it the way I wanted to," he answers. "I felt that if you were fortunate enough to have success, you should shadow box with it but never embrace it, because it has a demon side."
"People don't realize that Redford is really shy," Byrge explains. Each year at the Sundance Film Festival, filmmakers attend a luncheon with Redford. Afterward, says Byrge, he'll hit the ski slopes. "He does it to decompress. As extremely gracious as he is at the luncheon, it wears at him to be the center of attention."
Redford says he will always consider "artist" to be a part of his identity, and he shares that with his second wife, German-born painter Sibylle Szaggars, 53, whom he met at Sundance in the late '90s and married in 2009. "She's a very special person," he says, fingering the gold band on his left hand. "She's younger than I am, and European, which I like, so that's a whole new life.
"I ride horses, ski, play pretty hard tennis," Redford goes on. "I still have energy. When that starts to shut down, I might start to think about age." In the meantime, there's so much he still wants to do.
"There are movies I want to make," he begins, talking faster. "For a long time I've wanted to do a thriller. I like being scared, and I like scaring. And I want to keep acting, though I think the business has concluded that I don't want to act anymore."
On Oprah, Streisand reminded Redford of her longtime interest in making a sequel to The Way We Were — something he has resisted for years. She pointed out that their on-screen daughter would have grown up to be a radical. "She'd have gone to Berkeley and gotten in trouble, and we'd have to meet again to get her out of jail," Redford laughs. "You know, that's not a bad idea."
He nibbles a chocolate-chip cookie. "The other movie I want to make is about people who rediscover themselves in older love," he says. "They got together out of passion years earlier, but it flamed out and they went their separate ways. They get to be older and somehow come back into each other's lives and regain their relationship with a more mature love."
He smiles. "That's an interesting story — and I'm qualified to write it!"