THE BECK/SMITH VAULT: Robert Redford Finds Hope In Looking Back to Yesterday

Robert Redford in "The Sting"

Robert Redford in "The Sting"

March 10-11, 1973

Robert Redford Finds Hope

In Looking Back to Yesterday

By Marilyn Beck

Robert Redford was in a somber mood.

“I feel our future lies in the past,” he said.

“We’ve loused up our tomorrows with today’s greed, with the technological monster we created that has backfired on us.

“Our yesterdays are what it’s good to look back upon, to be reminded of the time when there was integrity about the people, while there was a pureness about the land.

“Remind yourself of things like that, and you’ll realize that as Americans we have much to be proud of.” He sat behind the desk of the Universal office suite reserved for use during production of the Redford-Paul Newman starrer, “The Sting.”

Dressed in pleated pants and stiff-collared white dress shirt for his role as a Chicago con man of the 30’s, he seemed somehow to fit in more properly as part of the earlier era when beautiful men made up the bulk of Hollywood’s top-actor stable.

Old-Fashioned Values

As he talked on, it became obvious that Robert Redford is a throwback to an earlier time in his attitudes and philosophies, too; a man who has learned to survive with the pressures of modern society by escaping from them as frequently as he is able.

Shoes propped upon the desk top, shoulders forcing his chair back to a precarious tilt, he flashed that 300-watt Redford smile that ignites a room and said, “Was there a ring of patriotism in my speech? I apologize for that. Because as God knows I’m as much as anarchist as anyone in terms of growing alarm about the direction this country is taking.”

The smile was gone suddenly, replaced by a pensive expression as he said, “We’ve become the victims of one deceit after another – and all we can do is look back at that point in time when America still had a clean, pure image, and Americans still had the work ethic of the pioneer.”

Usually Redford manages to keep his conversations breezy, using his smile as punctuation to lighten his conversation.

I’m not sure what set off his serious mood the day of our most recent chat. Perhaps it was the ominous clouds that darkened the sky outside the window. Perhaps it was being someplace – and knowing he’d have to be there for quite some time – when he would have preferred being somewhere else.

He persisted in the subject that preoccupied him, revealing, “That’s the reason I made ‘Jeremiah Johnson.’ It wasn’t just a film experience to me. It was a statement I wanted to make, a message I wanted to deliver to the American people.”

The film, which portrays a man who goes off into the mountains to survive among the elements and Indians in the year 184, is perhaps Bob’s strongest screen portrayal thus far. Certainly it’s one he seems proud of.

Utah’s His Home

Among other things, it gave him the opportunity to show filmgoers his beloved Utah, where he and his family reside part-time (they also own a New York City condominium) in a chalet high up in the Wasatch mountains.

At the food of the hill as the Sundance Lodge he owns, and some 15 miles away is the community of Provo, reachable only by snowmobile when the deep winter snows fall.

It’s a point of great pride to him that he constructed the eight-grabbled A-frame house himself, with only the help of a local resident, “A half-Indian who brought his son around to help out once in a while – but most of the time it was just the two of us.

“Later, we called in professionals to install the plumbing and electricity. But all the rough work – including hauling the 40 tons of rock we used – was done without outside help. Of course, my wife did an awful lot on the inside of the house.”

His wife is the former Lola Van Wangenen, whom he married when he was 21, she 17.

They have a son and two daughters ranging in age from 12 to 2. And life for the Redfords in Utah, as Bob describes it, represents “a time when we can just be together without the world crashing in.

“We have no household help to get between us. The kids take care of their own horses – and when they want to get down to the lodge to go skiing, they walk! I don’t believe in making life too easy for children.”

Surfing When Young

He had a comparatively easy time of it himself in his formative years. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Van Nuys High School in 1955 and remembers his youth as a time of surfing along California shores, hiking among Los Angeles orange groves – at a time when there were still orange groves in Los Angeles, and the air was still pure.

Then he left California to attend the University of Colorado, where he discovered mountain climbing and skiing – and an area of America still as unspoiled by development as it was when pioneers like “Jeremiah Johnson” roamed the land.

In this past year and a half he’s been working much more than he cares to, away from his Utah home more than he likes.

He’s gone from production of “Jeremiah” to “Hot Rock” to the “Candidate” to the still-to-be-released “The Way We Were” with Barbra Streisand. And now as soon as Universal’s “The Sting” filming is completed in April, he moves directly into production for “The Great Gatsby” with Mia Farrow.

After “Gatsby” is concluded, he hopes to make another retreat from acting, as he has in the past – as he once did almost permanently.

On the wall of his office is a framed cope of the papers he signed for his first film commitment. The year was 1961, the picture was ‘Warhunt,” and his salary was $500-per-week for a five-week minimum.

After that movie, “I decided I didn’t know if I really wanted to be an actor. If I shouldn’t devote my life to painting – which had been an earlier love.”

Scores On Stage

Later, realizing “I’m better at acting than anything else,” he moved back to Manhattan and achieved his first big score in the stage version of “Barefoot in the Park.”

Then a return to Hollywood for “Situation Hopeless – But Not Serious,” “Inside Daisy Clover” and “The Chase.”

And in between those films there were moments of doubt and dissatisfaction, periods when he pushed career aside and took time off to rediscover himself.

After one of his exiles, he returned to make “Blue,” balked at the much re-written project, and promptly picked up his family and left town again – this time with a law suit on his record.

“After that I didn’t work for two years,” he said as the day grew darker outside the Universal Office Window.

“I was disillusioned and hurt. I had been involved with people who hadn’t lived up to their promises. And I determined that after that I would only work when I wanted to. The respites from acting had become a way of life. I had discovered that I was happier with myself when I was away from the business.”

When he returned again, it was the star in “Tell Them Willie Boy Is here.”

Next came the film that hoisted him to real stardom, as Paul Newman’s co-star in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Since then it’s been harder for him to break away to lead the good life away from the cameras.

Box Office Appeal

For since then Robert Redford has become one of the few personalities considered hot by box office standards, in terms of audience appeal.

Suddenly he became the guy banks let money on, the film personality ho could take his choice of projects, who could indulge in making personal cinema statements.

“Jeremiah Johnson” was not his first of that league.

The Downhill Racer” was his project from the start. He picked the scriptwriter for the story about the pressures exerted on a man to be a winner, was involved in editing, location selection, and, of course, was the star.

“The Candidate” was all Redford, too, taking a year of his life as he developed the cinema statement about eh compromises of a political candidate, and rushing it out this past year in time to cash in on election interest – and to prove that Hollywood was wrong when they said political movies couldn’t make money.

It’s been 12 years since he signed on for his first movie commitment. And he is now undoubtedly one of Hollywood’s most powerful stars.

That’s a label, however, he detests, and he prays his position won’t trap him into becoming something he doesn’t care to become.

He wants to keep it all in perspective, to remember there’ a life out there to return to.

One gets the feeling he might be returning there soon for another of his periodic acting retreats when he says, “My advisors keep saying you’ve got to take advantage of the momentum when you’re hot. But I keep telling them that if I’m any good, people will remember me.

“If I’m not, I guess I don’t belong, anyway.”

One gets the impression Robert Redford wouldn’t be shattered if he discovered the latter situation were true.

2 thoughts on “THE BECK/SMITH VAULT: Robert Redford Finds Hope In Looking Back to Yesterday

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