Sundance at Sunset: Iconic actor-director Robert Redford looks back on a six-decade career

Movies Features

So this is it? The Sundance Kid is riding into the sunset?

Robert Redford, that rare movie icon who for the best part of six decades has been both a respected actor and a Golden Boy sex symbol, is finally calling it quits and retiring?

His tanned face wrinkles into a smile at the question. "Well, never say never," he responds. "You have to be careful about being too final because sometimes you have to change your mind. But I feel this is the right time to go out as an actor, because I've been doing this since I was 21 and that’s a long time. I don’t believe in stopping, because when you stop something it’s the end of a road and I think the road is long. So it’s just a question of stopping acting and moving on to something else, which would be directing and producing.

"Will I miss it? I don't know. I'll have to wait and see."

He chose as his last acting job The Old Man & the Gun, in which he plays the real-life character Forrest Tucker, a career bank robber who escaped from prison 18 times and was still pulling off bank robberies well into his 70s.

"This feels like the right film to go out on as an actor, because the film I had done before that—Our Souls at Night—I was very proud of but it was very serious, kind of a heavy lift, a dramatic love story with Jane Fonda. It was a wonderful film to work on but it was very sad, so I wanted the last film I act in to be uplifting.  

"It's an incredible, bizarre story because it’s true. This guy really did exist, he really did rob banks, he really had a good time, he never hurt anybody, he was always smiling, enjoying it, getting put in prison, escaping from prison, getting put back in prison, escaping again. Back and forth, back and forth."

A longtime liberal activist and environmentalist who at one time was considered a perfect candidate for political office, Redford adds: "It's come at a very dark time in our cultural environment. It's sad, but we're living in dark times politically and the polarization that exists with the two parties not agreeing to cross the aisle to work together is sad and depressing and we, the public, are the losers. So I thought, 'Why not do something that’s very upbeat at a very dark time?'"

We are talking in a hotel suite in Toronto shortly before Redford was due to walk the gauntlet of fans and photographers along the red carpet at the premiere of The Old Man & the Gun.

Dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt with tousled blond hair turning grey at the sides, Redford, at 82, looks in great shape although he is slightly hard of hearing and sometimes needs questions repeated. Unlike many of his colleagues who tried to defy the aging process by going under the knife, he has never been tempted by plastic surgery, saying, “I'm happy to make the best of what I've got."

He is in a relaxed mood and happy to take a nostalgic trip down memory lane, remembering actors he worked with in the past, recounting anecdotes from his long career and giving an insight into his life today which he and his German wife Sibylle divide between his 5,500-acre Sundance ranch in Utah and a home he built outside Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Something of a philosopher, he has a quiet sense of humor and shows no signs of ego or self-importance. He has changed since the days when his old friend Paul Newman said of him: "He makes the Sphinx look like a blabbermouth." Now, if a subject interests him he talks at length, occasionally repeating himself, but what he has to say is unfailingly worth hearing.

Names from the past come easily to him: Neil Simon, who cast him in Barefoot in the Park, both onstage and in the movie, and Mike Nichols, who directed him. "They both took a chance on me and I owe them both," he says. Jane Fonda, of course, with whom he made four movies, the first one being The Chase in 1965. He was reminded of it in a strange way when, watching The Old Man & the Gun for the first time, he saw that director David Lowery had included a clip from The Chase.

"I was very surprised when I saw the film because I had totally forgotten about it. But looking back, the thing that I remember most was it was the first time that I worked with Jane Fonda. And then, of course, Marlon Brando. But the thing that stands out for me was working with Jane and how things just kind of fell into place. We didn't need to discuss or rehearse, and that quality maintained itself over many, many years as she and I worked together.

"That same quality exists with myself and Sissy Spacek [who plays a woman who befriends him in The Old Man & the Gun]. She’s an actress that I not only completely admire and like as a human being, but things just fell into place. And that’s a wonderful quality to have when you’re working with somebody."

Then there is his old friend Paul Newman, his cohort in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, both of which are the favorites of his 50 movies.

"It's kind of hard for me to pick favorites because I really enjoyed almost all of my movies. But I loved Butch Cassidy and I loved playing the Sundance Kid and working for the director George Roy Hill. That was the film where Paul Newman and I became close friends and went on to work together on The Sting.

"What’s interesting, if you look at Butch Cassidy and you look at The Sting, the roles that Paul and I played are reversed. On Butch Cassidy I played the serious, dark guy, quiet and lethal, and he played the happy-go-lucky, upbeat Butch Cassidy. In The Sting it’s reversed—I play the happy-go-lucky guy and he plays the cool guy. And I’m surprised that nobody’s ever really picked that up and made a point of it.

"But anyway, I enjoyed making both of them and I feel that if I were to step way back and be truly objective, I would say, as much as I love Butch Cassidy, I think The Sting is one of the finest-made films ever, and that belongs to George Roy Hill. He’s the guy who designed it, who came up with the music and did everything.

"I hadn't seen it for many, many years until recently when my daughter wanted me to see it again, and when I did I realized, 'God, this is a really good movie. Really well made.' So I hope that over time George is recognized as having made one of the finest-made films ever."

Redford and Newman were planning to team up again for A Walk in the Woods. But, he says, "Sadly, Paul died before we could do it together."

It would seem obvious that with his good looks and growing up as he did in Santa Monica, on the outskirts of Los Angeles and near the film studios, he was destined for a career in movies. But that was never his ambition. He had polio as a child and later had an alcohol-abuse problem and got involved with street gangs as a rebellious teenager. And, he says, his looks weren't that good either.

”When I was a kid, no one ever told me I was good-looking; I never heard that," he says with smile. "My hair was red and unmanageable and I had cowlicks going all over the place. I had freckles and my teeth were too big. So I didn’t have people coming up to me saying, 'Boy, you’re a really good-looking guy.' That came much later and when it did come I wasn't prepared for it. I was surprised by it.

"From the time I was 17 I wanted to be an artist and I was happy with that ambition. I was happy when I was drawing and painting; it gave me great pleasure." But his tall frame and physical appeal made him a natural for television, and after his first appearance in an episode of “Maverick,” he found himself working regularly both in television and on the stage.

"Art meant so much to me and still does," he says. "But when my acting career took hold beyond what I expected, I realized I would have to make the decision to accept that maybe acting was going to claim first place in my life and drawing would be second place."

Redford made his film debut in 1962's Korean War drama War Hunt and followed it with Inside Daisy Clover, The Chase and a string of starring roles that established him as the epitome of the all-American boy.

His 1976 role as Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in the multi-Oscar-winning All the President's Men, chronicling how Woodward's investigation with Carl Bernstein led to the toppling of President Nixon, resonates strongly with him today. When we spoke, he had not yet read Woodward's new book, Fear: Trump in the White House, but it was on his list of things to do. "I got to know Bob when we were making All the President's Men and I spent a lot of time with him and I was very impressed," he says. "We became friends over the years and have stayed friends.

"I've read all his other books and I think this book is coming at a very good time. And because Bob tapes everything, it’s going to be hard for people to deny they said what they did. So that takes care of that argument."

His retirement from acting gives him more time for other pursuits, although, he says, “Bucket list? No, I don’t think that way. I believe in living in the moment and not thinking too far ahead."

He does, however, have a movie in mind he intends to direct—he has directed nine features and won an Oscar for Ordinary People—but he is not yet ready to talk about it.

He will also have more time to relish his hikes in the wilderness of both Utah and New Mexico. Like the character Jeremiah Johnson, whom he played in the 1972 movie of the same name, he is a mountain man at heart. It is something he can talk about at length, and it is plain he would far rather be there than in a hotel room in a city far from home.

"I love the idea of mountains; I love being in them and I love the comfort of them," he declares. "So I have Sundance and I have Santa Fe and mountains exist in both those places, so I’m very happy in both. In Sundance there are so many activities that I get involved with that I love—riding horses, hiking and climbing. The other environment that I’m a part of is in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where you’re in an area that’s just wide-open skies and wide-open land, with no pollution because there’s no industry. So that’s a joy because you’re in a place where as far as you can look to the left, to the right, you just see sky and land. That’s pretty great.

"I think there's so much to learn from nature. If I go for a long walk and I take my time, I can hear things I don't normally hear. I can hear the stream running that I might not have heard before; I can see things that I haven't seen before: plants that have buds that you've ignored that suddenly you really see and you understand. And to me that has great value.

"I like to spend some of my time in nature without interruption from society. So to me it's a balancing act, because you have to live in society and in a social world. But on the other hand, if you just take time to take a walk in nature and recognize there's another language that nature has, and another sound, I think that's valuable."

Redford became the patron saint of sorts to independent filmmakers by establishing the Sundance Film Festival and Sundance Institute as well as other projects that support original moviemaking outside the Hollywood system. But since he founded it in 1981, the Sundance Film Festival has grown into a behemoth, far exceeding its humble origins and Redford's original intentions.

Now thousands of filmgoers mix with A-list talent, studio heads and high-powered agents and executives, there for two weeks of hard-core movie-watching and wheeling and dealing.

"It went out of bounds because initially the idea was simply to have a place where filmmakers could come and gather and look at each other’s work because that work was being ignored in the marketplace," he observes. "I was fortunate because I was given a chance, but there were so many who weren't, so I wanted to create somewhere that gave them an opportunity to have a place to tell their stories. 

"What I wasn’t prepared for was that when those filmmakers came together to look at each other’s work, it created such an energy and such an attraction that people from outside came to the festival to see it. So what was once a one-way street of opportunity for the filmmakers to look at each other’s work suddenly became a second street of opportunity for audiences to have a place to come and see them. So that’s when the thing kind of grew and the festival took off."

It seems the only cloud on Redford's sunny horizon is the political situation. "I don't think things can get any lower than they are at the moment," he says with a rueful laugh."I think we have a history of going to the last moment before we change something and I think we’re in that mode right now. I believe if we continue on the path we’re on there won’t be much world to live in, so I’m optimistic that we’ll get to a point where there’ll be a wakeup call and we’ll make an adjustment, even if it’s at the last minute. I think we’re heading in that direction right now, because things are moving so quickly and are getting so dangerous that we'd better start thinking about that before it’s too late."

With three grown children and five grandchildren he sees regularly, Robert Redford is a man who appreciates life and what it has to offer. He is not a man to dwell on regrets or past mistakes. "If you put too much emphasis on regrets, it’s a heavy load to carry. I’m sure we all have regrets if we look back, but I don’t believe that regrets should play too big a role, otherwise it could stop you from moving forward. We’ve all made mistakes and some of them have been really hard mistakes, some of them light mistakes, but we’ve all made them. That’s just part of living."

What would he like to be remembered for? He seems slightly embarrassed, thinks for a moment and says: "If I were to be remembered, I think I'd prefer it to be for the work I've done over the years—television, theatre, film." Then he pauses for a moment and adds: "And maybe my work on the environment. I think those two things."

It is not a subject he wants to dwell on. For now, it is the present and the future that intrigue him and occupy his thoughts. "As you get older, life becomes more exciting because you're aware of more possibilities if you're willing to go there," he reflects. "As life goes on, you have to retreat from certain things because you're getting too old to do them, but that time hasn't come for me yet. As long as I can ride a horse and as long as I can hike, I'll be happy."