Late-1960s and 1970s cinema was dominated by three all-American blond-haired, blue-eyed actors: Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and Robert Redford. To a man, they wore Rolex watches both on and off screen. However, when offered a yellow-gold Rolex Submariner, Redford declined saying: “I am not a gold kind of guy.”
Redford’s unassuming attitude sums up the laconic, understated screen presence that occasionally frustrated film critics such as The New Yorker’s David Denby, who wrote: “Robert Redford has always been a natural, intuitive, unemphatic movie actor who draws us close with his good looks and his sweet candor and then shuts us out by never revealing much of himself.” The “stillness” approach to screen acting – feeling instead of acting – was in part a natural progression from the great Method actors of the 1950s such as Marlon Brando, James Dean and Montgomery Clift.
Charles Robert Redford Jr’s path to Hollywood was circuitous and far from blessed with good fortune. He was born in California in 1936 and won a baseball scholarship to the University of Colorado. “I lost my scholarship pretty quickly after I discovered drinking,” he said without adding that, aged 18, he had lost his mother, who died at the age of 40 after giving birth to stillborn twins. Redford subsequently studied art in Paris and Florence before enrolling at the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York. As a struggling stage actor, he married Lola Van Wagenen in 1958. Their first child died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in 1959.
In 1963 Redford created the role of Paul in Neil Simon’s Broadway hit Barefoot in the Park, a part he would reprise on-screen with Jane Fonda in 1967. In 1965, he won the Golden Globe for Best New Star for his role in Inside Daisy Clover with Natalie Wood. The camera clearly worshipped Redford but the looks of an Adonis sometimes played against him. In 1967, he was considered for the part of bumbling virgin Benjamin in The Graduate. But, as he said when Dustin Hoffman won the role: “I never did look like a 21-year-old just out of college who’d never been laid.”
Despite being impossibly handsome, Redford fought against being cast in romantic comedies and overwrought love stories. His breakthrough movie, the 1969 Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid co-starring his mentor and friend Paul Newman, was in essence a buddy movie. His biggest box office success, The Sting (1973), was a 1920s prohibition caper – again co-starring Newman – that won the Best Picture Academy Award.
Redford was not the first choice for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando were all attached to the picture but Newman insisted on the young actor with whom he struck up one of Hollywood’s greatest friendships. Beatty was also first choice to co-star with Barbra Streisand in the 1973 film The Way We Were, which was ostensibly about the McCarthy witch hunts against alleged Communists in Hollywood but was edited into a love story. Both staunch Democrats, Streisand and Redford would become two of the most vocal Hollywood stars in favor of a liberal political agenda. As he said: “Political activism has been a part of my life and part of the films I try to make.”
Like Butch Cassidy, The Sting and The Way We Were, The Great Gatsby (1974) put Robert Redford in period costume in an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconoclastic novel about the dark side of the American Dream. The role of Jay Gatsby – a remote, mysterious and ultimately doomed character – was a near-perfect match for Redford’s subtle, still style of acting. It remains one of the greatest cinematic reference points in men’s fashion history aided, no doubt, by director Jack Clayton framing every shot like a still in a fashion magazine.
The 1976 film All the President’s Men, based on a book written by the Washington Post journalists who uncovered the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon, began a new chapter for Redford who produced the picture. Redford played Bob Woodward with Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein. It was rumored that Redford was lent Woodward’s Rolex Submariner for the film but, in fact, the watch — a ref. 1680 — was Redford’s own. He had worn it in the 1972 political comedy-thriller The Candidate and would sport it again in the 1979 film The Electric Horseman. On screen, Redford has often worn his own watches such as his Doxa SUB 300T Sharkhunter (in Three Days of the Condor in 1975) and Victorinox Swiss Army (in 2001’s Spy Game). Usually they were worn on his right wrist, giving away Redford’s own left-handedness.
Few actors have contributed as much to the craft of filmmaking as Robert Redford. As early as 1963, he had bought an estate in Utah christened Sundance. His film festival, officially named the Sundance Film Festival in 1991, helped launch the directorial careers of Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh and Jim Jarmusch. In 1981, he won his own Best Director Academy Award for Ordinary People and continues to produce films such as the 2017 movie, Our Souls at Night, for Netflix that reunited him with Jane Fonda.
Despite making zero effort to hold back the sands of time, Robert Redford has consistently co-starred with the most bankable actresses in Hollywood. In 1985, he was the love of Meryl Streep’s life in Out of Africa. In 1993, it was Redford who made the eponymous Indecent Proposal to Demi Moore. In 1996, he was Up Close and Personal with Michelle Pfeiffer and co-starred with Kristin Scott Thomas in the 1998 film The Horse Whisperer. But the enduring relationship in the second act of Redford’s career was with protégé Brad Pitt, who he directed in A River Runs Through It (1992) and co-starred with in the film Spy Game. Of his roles as actor/director, Redford said: “As a director I wouldn’t like me as an actor. As an actor, I wouldn’t like me as a director.”
The actor has continued to make brave choices in the latter part of his career such as the “lost at sea” drama, All is Lost (2013), in which the 77-year old Redford is the only actor in a film with just 13 pages of script that also required him to do his own stunts. His sole co-star in All is Lost is a Seiko SKX009 diver’s watch with a “Pepsi” red-and-blue bezel that is water-resistant down to 660 feet. It is a tribute to Redford that he continues to work into his ninth decade leading a cast including Elizabeth Moss, Casey Affleck and Sissy Spacek in the 2018 heist movie, Old Man and the Gun, a full 16 years after receiving an Honorary Academy Award for services to cinema in 2002.
Nor has Redford lost his commitment to the craft of cinema. When Paris Hilton made an unwelcome appearance at the Sundance Film Festival, he went on record saying: “What movie is she in? She and her hard-partying, swag grabbing cohorts have made the festival not as much fun. There are too many people who come to the festival to leverage their own self-interest.” The same could never be said of Robert Redford.