Actor, director, producer, activist and founder of the Sundance Institute. Born Charles Robert Redford on August 18, 1937, in Santa Monica, California. Robert Redford has proved to be one of the great talents in American film. He is equally at home behind the scenes as he is in front of the cameras. In addition to his own career, Redford has helped advance others in his field through the Sundance Institute and the Sundance Film Festival.
The son of an oil company accountant, Redford excelled at sports. He played on the tennis and football teams at Van Nuys High School. On a personal level, however, Redford floundered as a teenager. After his mother died, he ran into some difficulties. “I was a failure at everything I tried. I worked as a box boy at a supermarket and got fired. Then my dad got me a job at Standard Oil—fired again,” he later explained to Success magazine. Redford also had a few run-ins with the law for stealing hubcaps and sneaking into other people’s yards to use their pools. In 1954, he graduated from Van Nuys High School.
Despite his misbehavior, Redford won a baseball scholarship to the University of Colorado, but he did not distinguish himself as an athlete there. Instead, “I became the campus drunk and blew out before I could ever get going,” he told People magazine. Some reports say he dropped out, while others say that Redford was expelled from the university. In either case, he soon decided to move to Europe and become an artist.
His time in Europe was an eye-opening experience for the young Redford. During his time there, he lived the life of a Bohemian and learned about art, politics, and culture. Redford’s interactions with students in Paris proved to be very significant. “We all lived in a kind of communal way and I was challenged politically. I didn’t have a clue…When I returned to America a year and a half later, I was much more focused on my country culturally and politically,” he told the New Statesman.
Back in the United States, Redford met Lola Van Wagenan. The couple married in 1958 and lived in New York City, and welcomed their first child soon after. Redford studied first at the Pratt Institute and then the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, switching from design to acting. Then in 1959, he and his wife experienced a terrible loss when the couple’s five-month-old son Scott died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Redford poured himself into his acting, and started out his career in the theater. He first appeared on Broadway in the 1959 comedy Tall Story. He had only a small role in the production, but he landed a more substantial part in the 1960 drama Little Moon of Alban with Julie Harris. Perhaps his biggest breakthrough came in 1963 with a leading role in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park directed by Mike Nichols. Redford played Paul, a newlywed lawyer, in the romantic comedy.
While he made his film debut in 1962’s War Hunt, Redford’s film career didn’t really take off until 1967. He reprised his stage role as Paul in the film adaptation of Barefoot in the Park starring opposite Jane Fonda. Redford gave another star-making turn in the 1969 western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In the film, he played an outlaw known as the Sundance Kid and his co-star Paul Newman played Butch Cassidy. The two proved to be a dynamic duo on screen, and the movie enjoyed both critical and commercial success.
Not one to be typecast as a “pretty boy,” Redford sought out more challenging projects and avoided trading on his sex appeal. He tackled the sports drama Downhill Racer and the Western Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, both released in 1969. Another important film for Redford was the 1972 political drama The Candidate, a dark, satirical look at campaigning.
As his career thrived, Redford sought refuge from the Hollywood scene. He had bought land in Utah in the 1960s with money from an inheritance, and he continued to add to his holdings there over the years. His love of land encouraged him to become active in environmental causes. In the 1970s, Redford even received death threats for his efforts to stop certain developments in Utah.
Redford had a banner year in 1973 with two major hit films—The Sting and The Way We Were. For The Sting, he again joined forces with Paul Newman to play con artists in 1930s Chicago. He received his first Academy Award nomination for the film. In The Way We Were, Redford starred opposite Barbra Streisand. The film charts the ups and downs of one couple’s relationship. Returning to political fare, Redford scored another success with 1976’s All the President’s Men. He and Dustin Hoffman played famed reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in this drama about the Watergate scandal.
With 1980’s Ordinary People, Redford showed that he was more than just a handsome movie star. The film provides a heartbreaking look at a family torn apart by loss and grief. It served as his directorial debut and starred Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, and Timothy Hutton. This drama brought Redford his first Academy Award—one for Best Director. Around this time, Redford helped establish the Sundance Institute. The Institute was created to help and support independent filmmakers through workshops and other means. He later launched the Sundance Film Festival, which has showcased independent films for more than 20 years.
As the 1980s progressed, Redford chose only a few acting roles. He starred in the 1984 baseball drama The Natural and the 1985 adventure tale Out of Africa, playing opposite Meryl Streep. Working behind the camera, Redford directed The Milagro Beanfield War (1988) starring Ruben Blades and Sonia Braga. A group of local farmers struggle against a major development project in their area in the film.
Redford earned great accolades for his rural family drama A River Runs Through It (1992), which starred Brad Pitt and Tom Skerritt. Two years later, he explored the real-life corruption of 1950s game shows in Quiz Show, again earning strong praise for his work. Redford became a triple threat in 2000’s The Horse Whisperer, serving as director, producer, and star of the project.
In recent years, Redford has been very selective about his film work. He directed and starred in 2007’s political drama Lions for Lambs with Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep, which proved to be a commercial and critical disappointment. His next directorial effort, The Conspirator, is expected to be released in 2011. The film looks at the trial of Mary Surratt, the only woman charged in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Now in his 70s, Redford has received numerous awards and honors for his work. He has earned his place in film history not only for his own artistic endeavors, but for the opportunities he has provided others to advance their work. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences recognized his contributions to the medium in 2001 with an honorary award for serving as an “inspiration to independent and innovative filmmakers everywhere.”
Redford is currently married to Sibylle Szaggars, a German painter. The couple wed in 2009 after being together since the mid-1990s. His first marriage to wife Lola ended in 1985, and they have three children together daughters Shuana and Amy and son Jamie.