A Look into the Life of Robert Redford, Hollywood’s Former Heartthrob

Most people who grew up watching movies in the 1960s and 1970s are familiar with Robert Redford. Arguably the most handsome actor of his time, Robert Redford has starred in hit films such as Barefoot in the Park, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Great Gatsby. The younger generation may know him for his cameo appearance as Alexander Pierce in Avengers: Endgame. Redford has two Oscars and a British Academy Film Award (BAFA) to his credit, but it is more significant that three of his movies have been included in the Library of Congress.

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Unlike many of his Hollywood colleagues, Redford has stayed away from the tabloids and therefore not much is known about his private life. He had to struggle hard to reach the pinnacle of stardom after working as a ball boy at the Los Angeles Tennis Club and later waiting tables at The Sink restaurant in Boulder, Colorado. We have a treasure trove of hitherto hidden stories for Robert Redford fans, so keep reading.

Troubled Times Growing Up

Robert Redford was born on August 18, 1936, in Santa Monica, California, to Martha Hart and Charles Robert Redford, who boasted English, Irish, and Scottish ancestry. During Robert’s formative years, his father struggled as a milkman and only later secured a job as an accountant and moved the family to Van Nuys, California.

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Robert’s happiest childhood memories were playing football with his Uncle David. Unfortunately, David was killed in 1945 in World War II, and double tragedy struck when Robert’s mother passed away in 1955. Charles remarried, and soon stepbrother William became part of the family.

Polio Leaves a Lasting Effect on His Mind

Redford was struck with polio in his childhood. He had just finished a strenuous swim in the ocean on a cold day when the symptoms hit him. Polio is a dreaded disease that can cause paralysis and even be fatal. Fortunately, Robert had a mild case of polio and recovered without any permanent physical disability. But the illness played on his mind.

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In 2014, when Redford directed a documentary on architectural wonders, he selected the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, designed by Louis Kahn. It was his way of paying tribute to scientist Jonas Salk who developed the world’s first polio vaccine.

The Classroom Held No Interest in Redford

The future Hollywood star did not enjoy his time in the classroom at Van Nuys High School. Robert didn’t shine academically and made all kinds of excuses to be out of class, even if for just a little while. In class, he stared out the window or doodled on his desk.

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The only two activities that interested Robert in school were art and sports. He spent a lot of time with classmate Don Drysdale who later became a famous baseball pitcher. Redford was resigned to not learn anything useful at school.

A Spate of Lost Jobs and Brushes with the Law

The classroom didn’t interest Robert Redford and neither did a job. He quickly lost his job as a supermarket box boy. Then he was fired by Standard Oil. Speaking to Success magazine, Redford later said, “I was a failure at everything I tried.”

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During a time in New York, Robert had several instances of juvenile delinquency that included “just stealing hubcaps and breaking into people’s backyards to use the pool when they were away,” Robert shared. He could not recall how many times he was arrested but said unhappiness was the reason for his irresponsible behavior.

In and Out of the University of Colorado

Wanting to get away from Los Angeles, Robert enrolled in the University of Colorado on a baseball scholarship. It helped that he had also played tennis and football in high school. At the University of Colorado, he joined the Kappa Sigma fraternity and tried out for the baseball team.

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Robert told People magazine that his mother’s demise while he was in college affected him a lot. He began drinking heavily and as a result lost his scholarship and was thrown out of the university. Later, in 1987, the University of Colorado would award its dropout student an honorary degree.

Redford Finds Love and Deliverance

Things were not looking too good for Robert Redford. While in Colorado, Robert met and fell in love with Lola Van Wagenen, who was from a Mormon family. Their love was so strong that when Robert had to leave college, Lola did the same. She also waited for Robert while he traveled to Europe to find his footing as an artist.

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In Europe, Redford lived in Spain and Italy and studied art in Paris. On his return, things began to fall in place for him and Lola.

The Lovebirds Get Married in Vegas

Lola’s parents were not happy with the match because their daughter had given up her education for Robert. So, Lola and Robert decided to elope, and on August 9, 1958, the couple got married in a quiet ceremony in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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Now that Robert and Lola were married, the Van Wagenen’s relented and reconciled with the fait accompli. A respectable public ceremony in Mormon style took place a few weeks later at Lola’s grandmother’s home in Provo, Utah. Friends, family, and loved ones attended and blessed the couple.

The Family Grows, but All Is Not Well

A year later, Robert and Lola’s first child, Scott, was born. When Scott was two and a half months old, tragedy struck. Redford had just gotten his first theater assignment when Scott was struck with sudden infant death syndrome and passed away.

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A year later, a daughter Shauna arrived, and then their second son, David James “Jamie” was born. He was seven weeks premature with a near-fatal respiratory illness and had to undergo several surgeries by the time he was 30. But then his health stabilized, and he lived until he was 58. Robert and Lola’s fourth child, Amy, was born in 1970.

Divorce and Remarriage for Robert

Scott’s death continued to drive a wedge between Robert and Lola. They began to blame each other for not being attentive enough. Robert had kissed Scott goodnight, and the child was found lifeless the next morning. After 28 years of marriage, the couple divorced in 1985.

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Robert Redford was a big star by now. He started dating Sibylle Szaggars and moved in with her. The two tied the knot in 2009 in a ceremony at the Louis C. Jacob Hotel in Hamburg, Germany. They are still together.

Meanwhile What Was Happening at Work?

Robert Redford began his acting career on Broadway in 1959. His first role was a modest one-liner in Tall Story, but it put bread on the table when needed. He went on to act in several Broadway shows and theater productions.

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About the time Shauna was born in 1960, Redford had shifted to acting for television, which was a more lucrative option. It proved to be the right choice because work kept pouring in. His memorable roles were in The Twilight Zone, Maverick, The Untouchables, and Perry Mason. Hollywood was beckoning.

An Interesting Story from His TV Days

One of Redford’s earliest appearances on television was for a game show. The actor was promised $75 for the gig, but the producers backed out of the commitment. The actor was offered an expensive fishing rod in lieu of payment, and he had no option but to accept it.

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Robert was not the person to brood on such incidents. For him, it became an interesting story to tell interviewers after he became rich and famous. He gained some fishing experience that came in handy for his movie A River Runs Through It.

Robert Redford’s First Home in Provo

In 1963, Redford somehow managed a $500 down payment on two acres of land in Provo Canyon, Utah. His first house on the property was an eco-friendly design powered by solar energy. Redford had a ski resort there, which he initially named Timp Haven and would eventually become Sundance.

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As wealth poured in, Redford expanded the property to 7,000 acres and added quarter horses, farmland, and a fishing pond. This was the venue of the first Sundance Film Festival in 1978, which would become a prestigious event for independent films.

A Modest Start on the Big Screen

Redford debuted in Hollywood in 1960 in the film version of Tall Story. Although he had a small role, his co-stars were Jane Fonda and Anthony Perkins, who were already famous. His first major role came in War Hunt (1962), where he played a lieutenant trapped behind enemy lines.

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A lead role in Situation Hopeless … But Not Serious starring Alec Guinness followed. Redford’s first major success was in the 1965 film Inside Daisy Clover, for which he received a Golden Globe for best new star.

Good Looks Are Not Always Good

Robert Redford is easily among the most handsome stars in Hollywood, but ironically, he lost the coveted role of Benjamin Braddock in the 1967 film The Graduate because of his good looks. Director Mike Nichols did not want an Adonis type to play a character who is a loser.

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When the rejected actor protested, Nichols explained that he could not envision Redford playing a gawky young college graduate who is a virgin struggling to score with a girl. The role ultimately went to debutant Dustin Hoffman, which launched his career.

The Problem of Being Stereotyped

Losing The Graduate role was one thing, but a bigger problem was that Redford was being typecast as a handsome, sexy, blonde guy. The actor complained, “This constant reference to me being the way I looked made me crazy, like I was being put into a cage.”

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Redford craved to be recognized for his acting skills and not his looks, but initially he had to take what he got. It was only as he grew older, and his youthful charm began to fade that he got the versatile, meaty roles he had always wanted.

Redford Loses the Michael Corleone Role in The Godfather

Redford’s portrayal of the Sundance Kid raised Redford’s value sky high. The producers of The Godfather wanted him to play Michael Corleone at any cost. However, director Francis Ford Coppola turned him down saying that a blonde can never play a Sicilian. The actor for the role had to look Italian.

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Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, and Martin Sheen were also tested for the role and rejected, so Redford was in famous company. Coppola finally picked Al Pacino but not before a fight with the producers who thought Al was too short.

When Redford Could Not Play a Rapist

In the thriller Three Days of the Condor, the spy played by Redford was supposed to rape a kidnap victim played by Faye Dunaway. The leading lady wrote in her memoirs that the idea of being violated by Robert Redford was not at all terrifying.

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Director Sydney Pollack requested that Redford sit out for the rape scene. Adjusting the camera angles so his face was not seen, Pollack stepped in and did the scene. “He scared the hell out of me,” Dunaway later recalled.

Almost Missed the Role of a Lifetime

Anyone who has seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid knows Redford fit the Kid’s role to a T. Fifty years later Redford told the Salt Lake Tribune that he always identified with the “outlaw sensibility,” which is easy to imagine given his teenage shenanigans.

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But the studio did not want Redford in what would become an Oscar-winning movie. Paul Newman came to the rescue by insisting that he would only do the film if Redford played the Sundance Kid. The grateful actor responded, “I never forgot that,” and the two remained lifelong close friends.

Robert Redford’s Magnum Opus

In the wake of Butch Cassidy, Paul Newman and Robert Redford just had to do something else together. And thus, they ended up in the 1974 top-grossing movie The Sting. It was Redford’s magnum opus.

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Redford was particularly unhappy about the way his role as a small-time hustler was shaping up in The Sting. In fact, he didn’t even see the movie until 2004 when his grandson wanted to watch it. The film ended up in the Library of Congress.

Sydney Pollack Directs Redford Again

Sydney Pollack and Robert Redford came together again in The Way We Were, a romantic drama revolving around the House Un-American Activities Committee. This time around, Redford played all the scenes himself and also showed the comical side of his acting.

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The highlight of the film was Barbara Streisand, Redford’s love interest in the movie. The chemistry between the diva and the charismatic hero led to the movie grossing $50 million, being nominated for six Academy Awards, and winning two, one for best original score and one for best song.

An Even Bigger Political Movie

All the President’s Men, based on the Watergate scandal, had Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman playing Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The movie was nominated for eight Oscars and won five, without Redford figuring in anywhere. Even the BAFA went to Hoffman.

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During the filming, Redford haunted the office of the Washington Post to study the way things worked. So his lack of success at the awards was not for want of trying. Ironically, Robert as a young boy had received an athletic award from then-Governor Richard Nixon, and he had a bad vibe about him even then.

Watergate Affects Redford on the Set

While the Watergate scandal was actually unfolding, Redford was working on The Great Gatsby based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s landmark novel. The actor was paying more attention to the daily news broadcasts aired live than his work on the set. The movie was panned by the critics.

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Mia Farrow starred as Daisy Buchanan opposite Redford’s Gatsby. She put the blame squarely on her co-star’s obsession with Watergate for their lack of chemistry in the love scenes. The New York Times review said it was “frivolous without being much fun.”

The Saga of A Bridge Too Far

A Bridge Too Far, a World War II movie, is considered Redford’s first flop. Even though the actor played a small role, his status by then was such that he was paid $2 million for two weeks of shooting. Fortunately, stars James Caan, Laurence Olivier, and Sean Connery were in the cast to share the blame.

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There were many reasons for the movie not doing well. The Academy refused to nominate it for anything because the movie exposed fatal inadequacies of the Allied Forces. The critics complained it was too slow and contained historical inaccuracies.

Redford in Yet Another Pollack Movie

In 1985, Sydney Pollack directed Redford and Meryl Streep in the epic movie Out of Africa. The love triangle story and the African bush setting allowed Redford to fully exploit his rough and rugged sexy side. Unfortunately, he missed out on an Oscar for this film as well.

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The movie was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won seven Oscars. Pollack got two for Best Picture and Best Director with the other awards being in the technical categories. Streep received a Best Actress nomination for her portrayal of Karen Blixen.

You Cannot Miss Indecent Proposal

The moral but sexual dilemma inherent in the title of the film Indecent Proposal was reason enough to make it a smashing blockbuster. When Demi Moore played the recipient of the indecent proposal made by the dashing Robert Redford, there was no holding back the crazed movie buffs.

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Even at 60, Redford was able to play the charming billionaire with élan. The movie received negative responses from the critics and seven Golden Raspberry nominations that are awarded for the worst performances. But the public loved the movie, and it grossed more than $250 million.

Actor Turns Producer with The Horse Whisperer

Redford had already turned director in 1980 with Ordinary People, which won him his first Oscar—not for acting but for best director. His first film as producer was The Horse Whisperer, which he also directed and played the lead role. The film grossed more than $185 million.

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In this movie, Redford introduced a young Scarlet Johansson to the silver screen. She played a girl who brings her horse for healing to the magical healer. Life came full circle when Redford and Johansson later reunited on the set of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

An Unusual Movie with Only Redford in the Cast

In 2014, the aging actor took up an unusual assignment—the movie All Is Lost. Redford plays a man stranded on a yacht in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and he is the only character in the film. He called it a “pure cinematic experience.”

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The film has very few sound bites, but it was one of the most demanding roles Redford has played. Every emotion had to be conveyed by gestures and body language. The actor received a Golden Globe nomination for his effort.

The Travails of Shooting All Is Lost

Robert Redford was 77 when the movie All Is Lost was shot. He still did his own stunts and worked in harsh conditions. It was his athleticism that enabled the elderly actor to withstand the wind, the waves, the sea, and the sun in their elemental fury.

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Redford lost 60% of his hearing in one of his ears while carrying out this physically demanding role. We have to appreciate his commitment to this kind of low-budget film when he could have been doing something cushy and glamorous for millions of dollars.

Redford Joins the Marvel Franchise

In 2014, Redford signed up to play Alexander Pierce in Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The $4 million paycheck was one reason, and the idea of stepping into new territory was another one. The film grossed almost $100 million in the first weekend, making it Redford’s most lucrative project.

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Redford explained what he meant by “new territory,” saying, “You have kind of cartoon characters brought to life through high technology.” It was completely different from All Is Lost that was made without any computer-generated imagery (CGI) or special effects.

Redford Gets His Second Academy Award

Redford has been acting since the age of 21 and has about 80 films to his credit in a period spanning 60 years. In 2002, the Academy sought fit to honor him with the Lifetime Achievement award and justifiably so, his fans would say. The Screen Actors Guild repeated the honor in 2016.

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Redford has also been recognized by the Directors Guild of America and the Légion d’Honneur of France. Perhaps more satisfying is the fact that three of his films were chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation.

Does Robert Redford Regret Not Getting an Oscar for Best Actor?

It is the dream of every Hollywood actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. In a very long career, Redford has not won that award. The closest he came was the nomination for best actor in The Sting.

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There was a lot of buzz about a possible Oscar for Best Actor for All Is Lost, and when there wasn’t even a nomination, the buzz decibel increased. Redford put the blame on the producers for not making a pitch, and the producers retaliated by saying that Redford refused to campaign.

Was Redford Better behind the Camera?

But Redford did win a prestigious Oscar. He won Best Director for his debut film Ordinary People. Only five others have won this award for their first film. Ordinary People won three other Oscars: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

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In 1994, Redford was nominated again for Best Director for Quiz Show, which also received a nomination for Best Picture. Since Redford was also the producer, he would have taken both Oscars, but neither nomination ended up in an Oscar.

Redford Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama meant more to Redford than his Oscars. After receiving this honor in 2016, the veteran actor was overwhelmed and said, “I wished my parents were alive.”

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President Obama bestowed this honor to 21 Americans in 2016. Robert de Niro and Tom Hanks, Redford’s colleagues in the Hollywood film industry, also received the award. The controversial Ellen DeGeneres was also on the list, as were Bill and Melinda Gates.

More about Redford the Director

They say directors come of age when stars line up for roles in their films. By this yardstick, Redford comes across as a great director. Actors such as Timothy Hutton, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, and Paul Scofield have acted in his films and been nominated for Oscars.

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Robert Redford the director is also appreciated for the conducive work environment he created on the sets of his films. Stuntmen on the sets were grateful because he paid them well, even if the actors chose to do their own stunts.

How Redford Helped Ed Burns

This is just one of the stories that show Redford’s bigheartedness. Ed Burns met the Hollywood actor in an elevator and spoke about his movie project that was stuck for want of funds. It was a comedy about three Irish brothers in New York City.

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Redford screened the film at his Sundance Festival. That yielded huge dividends for Burns, with a distribution deal and funding to complete the film. The Brothers McMullen raked in $10 million at the box office, which is above par for an independent film.

More Than Friendship with Paul Newman

It started when Paul Newman helped Redford get the role as the Kid in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The most popular story of the duo is known as the Porsche gag. For Newman’s 50th birthday, Redford gave him a Porsche with no engine or wheels.

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Newman crushed the car into a cube and sent it back to Redford. Then Redford melted the car down into a garden statue and returned it to Newman. Reminiscing about these times, Redford said, “We played these tricks on each other, and the idea was you would never acknowledge the trick played on you.”

Many Films with William Goldman

Redford and Newman appeared together in only two films, and there were other professionals Redford worked with more often. He is known for being loyal to filmmakers he is comfortable with and who have garnered success in the past.

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One of these was screenwriter William Goldman who was known for excellence in his craft and gelled with Redford. They worked on five films together, starting with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The others are A Bridge Too Far, All the President’s Men, The Great Waldo Pepper, and The Hot Rock.

The Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack Team

Redford first met Sydney Pollack in 1962 when they were cast together in the movie War Hunt. Pollack then moved to directing but did not forget their friendship. Redford was his first pick for many stellar roles. The Hollywood heartthrob did seven films for Pollack.

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An interviewer at the 2019 Marrakech International Film Festival asked Redford which director was his favorite, and the star said Sydney Pollack. Redford said they shared a “deep and lasting friendship.” By then the actor had already lost this friend to cancer. A few months later, he lost his friend Paul Newman.

Lending His Name to Save the Environment

Robert Redford was one of the first celebrities to use their status for the preservation of the environment. The star is a trustee of the National Resources Defense Council and was featured in a television ad that petitioned President Obama to reduce carbon pollution.

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In 2015, Redford addressed the UN General Assembly High-Level Climate Change event. In a hard-hitting speech he said, “Now climate change is in everybody’s backyard. The question is to make people aware of it, to make people aware not only of the dangers but what the positive move would be.”

Love for the Environment Began Early

Redford’s love of nature started at age 11. To help her son escape the urban nature of Los Angeles, Robert’s mother took him to the mountains and into the Sierras Nevadas. The young Robert worked at Yosemite National Park and fell in love with nature.

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This love of nature stayed with Redford for the rest of his life. It was one of the reasons he chose a college in Colorado. His first wife, Lola, was from Utah, another placed filled with natural beauty. One of Redford’s projects was to save old-growth redwood in California.

The Best of 50 Films

Redford starred in more than 50 films. His favorite is Jeremiah Johnson. The Western genre was always close to his heart, and after all, the movie was directed by Pollack. The movie, based on the legendary mountain man in the title, opened at Cannes Film Festival in 1972.

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According to Redford, his best performance was in The Sting. And the actor’s all-time favorite film (not one he acted in) was the 1948 film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre directed by John Huston. There are no prizes for guessing that it is a Western.

A Well-Deserved Retirement from Films

While shooting The Old Man & the Gun in September 2018, the then-82-year-old Redford announced his retirement. However, a year later he could not resist a cameo appearance in Avengers: Endgame as Alexander Pierce, a character he had played earlier.

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Among Redford’s several contributions to society is the Sundance Institute. The actor founded this non-profit organization in 1981 to support independent filmmakers. Today, it offers grants exceeding $3 million and mentors more than 900 artists each year. The Sundance Film Festival is still a much-awaited annual event.