En español | This year's winner of our Movies for Grownups Lifetime Achievement Award started visiting our living rooms on TV in the early 1960s, and before we knew it Robert Redford was firmly established as one of America’s true superstars. He has appeared in 36 movies. Some are classics, some are real stinkers. But almost always we can watch them and enumerate all the ways Redford makes each one better.
Here are my 10 favorite Redford roles. I know you’re going to say, "What, no The Way We Were? No All the President’s Men? And where’s Three Days of the Condor?" Yeah, they’re all pretty good. But to my mind, those are all Movie Star films — the no-brainers that we still might dig out of the DVD bin now and then, but halfway through, if we're honest, we’ll admit we’ve had just about enough of them. These 10, I think, get to the essence of Robert Redford the actor — a considerably better actor than many give him credit for.
Episode: “Nothing In the Dark” (1962)
Role: Harold Beldon
Freshly arrived from his New York theater roots, Robert Redford was the hardest working young man in Hollywood: He had already appeared in some 18 TV shows before he played a role on Rod Serling’s landmark series. Here he’s a wounded cop who may or may not be the Angel of Death, assigned to escort a reluctant woman (three-time Oscar nominee Gladys Cooper) to the Hereafter. You can see the episode on DVD — and marvel at the tousled-haired young man who reaches out his hand, flashes that smile and gives a little wink. Across America, smitten women screamed at their TVs: "What are you waiting for? GO WITH HIM!!"
This Property Is Condemned
Role: Owen Legate
It’s Natalie Wood’s movie, of course — at age 28 she’d already been making films for more than two decades — but Redford, in only his fourth big-screen role, commands the screen in this film adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play. At first he plays it cool as a railroad executive who has arrived in a small town to lay off a bunch of workers. As he falls for the irresistible wiles of Wood’s emotionally fragile Alva, he slowly sheds his resistance. And when she breaks his heart — not once, but twice — his pain is palpable.
Barefoot in the Park
Role: Paul Bratter
We knew he could play the hunk, but could Robert Redford do comedy? He spends the first half of this Neil Simon laffer as a glum paddle to Jane Fonda’s ping-pong ball of a character: he a stuffy young lawyer, she his high-spirited bride. But when Redford’s ice inevitably melts, and he gets to head off on a bender and end up dancing in Washington Square Park (yes, he’s the one who’s barefoot!), he shows a delightful sense of comic timing that, with few notable exceptions, he seldom displayed over the ensuing years.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Role: The Sundance Kid
All you need to know about this quintessential buddy flick is that for 40 years untold hundreds of films and TV shows have tried to emulate the easy, wisecracking, who-gives-a-hell interplay of Redford and Paul Newman. Only one has come close: The Sting, starring Redford and Paul Newman. The only reason neither one won an Oscar as Butch or Sundance is that it would have had to be a two-headed statuette. Their performances are that intertwined.
Role: Bill McKay
The great crime against Robert Redford is that he has been nominated for an acting Oscar only once — and it wasn’t for his astonishingly nuanced performance in this stinging political satire. He plays Bill McKay, a fledgling Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, who starts out as an idealistic outsider — but as his prospects for victory improve, he finds himself compromising at every turn. McKay’s metamorphosis is at the same time hilarious, tragic and chilling.
Role: Johnny Hooker
It’s one of those few movies you try to watch critically, but in the end you just have to throw up your arms and confess, “It’s perfect.” And much of the credit goes to Redford, who provides the necessary heart for a convoluted tale of double-cross, misdirection and flamboyantly passive-aggressive revenge. It’s Redford’s Hooker who sets the film’s exquisitely oiled machine in action, seeking retribution for the murder of his partner. Through all the hijinks, he never lets us forget the emotional center of the plot.
Role: Roy Hobbs
Barry Levinson’s sepia-toned vision and Randy Newman’s heart-stirring score try mightily to be the stars of this epic tale of heroism and its price. But standing astride home plate, pointing to the bleachers and ending the competition with a mighty swing, Redford is hands-down the most valuable player in what may be the greatest baseball movie of all time.
As Roy Hobbs, Redford is the picture of the mid-20th-century American sports star, and he has the attributes down pat: the false modesty, the insecurity of advancing age, the simmering humanness that fans secretly fear lies just below the surface. The ultimate tribute to Redford’s authenticity in this role: Pick up Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel and try, just try, to imagine anyone but Redford as Roy Hobbs.
Role: Jack Weil
Redford did much of his best work with director Sydney Pollack, who, as a frequent actor himself, seemed most adept at helping his star explore regions beyond the screen image the public had come to expect. Redford is particularly out of his comfort zone here as a rough-edged professional gambler who goes to 1958 Cuba to make a killing in the casinos, but finds himself entangled with a beautiful woman (Lena Olin) … and the Revolution. Redford can’t conceal his innate charm, but this is perhaps his most edgy acting job ever.
A River Runs Through It
Redford directed this sumptuous adaptation of Norman Maclean’s novel, and his love of the outdoors and affinity for exploring complex family relationships are all over it. But as the narrator, it is his voice — perhaps the most underrated of Redford’s formidable acting tools — that provides this film with its sense of timelessness. Like the movie’s titular river, Redford’s voice rolls through the film’s emotional landscape, cutting a winding, inevitable path.
Role: Nathan Muir
Even with director Tony Scott’s camera whirling distractingly around him, even with editing that seems to have been accomplished with a Cuisinart, Redford gives a first-class performance as a veteran CIA agent on one last mission. His movie job is to save from enemy captivity the young agent he recruited and trained, but because that fellow happens to be played by Brad Pitt, it becomes something much more: a master class in movie-starology, with the living legend teaching a thing or two to a leading light of the next generation.