Bob Woodward remembers well the Friday when the phone rang and the voice said, “We’ve got to talk. Tonight.” Woodward said, fine, come by at nine. A taxi dropped the man off at the curb. Wood-ward answered the door to greet the rumpled figure—broken, footsore and full of questions. “There it was,” Woodward recalled, “the exhausted reporter.” Robert Redford.
Woodward took him into the kitchen and fixed a plate of cold ham and frijoles. Redford said, boy, this is really good. Woodward stared uneasily at the frijoles. Redford was there to ask him how he and Carl Bernstein wrote that book, All the President’s Men. How do you break a case? Redford was going to portray Woodward in the movie.
Woodward wished he had some beer in the house. He relaxed. “You’re going to get a feeling,” he said, “about what it’s like to be exhausted and go for that nine o’clock interview and you don’t know whether it’s gonna pay off.”
They went upstairs to the library. “I got out a lot of Watergate notes,” Woodward said, much later, “and it was really the first time we had to sit down and talk for hours. And I could see that he was ready to go to sleep. But he just kept on going because his curiosity was going.
“There was something about seeing the exhaustion, that I realized a lot of information reporters get is because the people, the subjects see what the reporter is going through. The agony, the uncertainty: ‘What are all these names?’ ‘What does all this mean?’ People will look at the reporter over there and they’ll start getting things out they wouldn’t normally get out.”
Woodward saw straightaway that Redford was not only on his last legs but on the level, and so he got out the long, involved story.
Redford was very impressed with Woodward, a guy who would just cut you off when you ceased to interest him. He drove the actor all over Washington, showing the inside tips.
Woodward was known as the office galley slave, a quick but clumsy writer who was on the paper nine months before the break-in case. He had page one stories all the time. His wife calls him The Rock.
Formerly of Yale, Woodward caused his father, an Illinois judge, much bereavement when he skipped law school for the journalism racket. His shoulders are bunched up in his tailored suits, and with his impassive eyes and slow, careful speech, it is an honest shock when he blurts out the word “fuck.”
“When I first met Woodward, I was struck by his impatience, his politeness,” Redford said. “Patronizing is not the word … it was like he was taught to respect elders, to be respectful of people. But in truth, underneath, there was no patience for all that. He was going through the motions.
“He always appeared to be politely enduring what you had to say, because he had something else on his mind. That was my first impression. His eyes were moving around a great deal. His eyes seemed to be categorizing props in the room as he talked to you. He’d—”
Here, he mimicked a man whose wandering attention was seized by a houseplant.
“I became fascinated with what he was seeing around me. He appears to be moving in slow motion, but in truth he’s moving like a house afire. He’s deceptively fast.
“He was almost abnormally decent. He said, ‘Look, the trust is there. If it’s broken, it’s broken. Up to the point it’s broken, I’m trusting you.'”
Redford thought both reporters looked nervous, scared. The stories were just breaking, and they were different people then.
“Very different. That’s a story in itself. The effects of success, some of it predictable, some of it not. I thought we had a lot to share from that standpoint—I was going through a strange time. I was getting a certain amount of success, some of it surprising, some of it confusing. And a lot of it abusing. I was having troubles dealing with it. They seemed yet to go through it.”
This would be after The Sting and The Way We Were.
“It was like a lot of sudden fanfare. I was eager to share that with somebody. This is something you shadow-box. You spar with it; you don’t embrace it.
“And Woodward is so locked into a style of his own, in terms of being a workaholic.” Redford’s face gloomed up. “And I don’t know about being a workaholic. Everybody keeps applying that word to him. He’s obsessed with work, but a lot of it is curiosity. It’s an easy toss-off to say workaholic, because Washington is a town filled with work-aholics, it’s like a receptacle for workaholics.”
Redford watched a very serious man, a man who didn’t make the cocktail party circuit, didn’t really know what was on the end of his fork other than his present assignment. He had a moral code so clear that it was established in one declarative sentence that there would be no talk about the identity of Deep Throat. “He stopped me from even wanting to pursue it,” Redford said.
The decisive moment for Redford happened one miserable night in an airport cafe when Woodward reached over Redford’s arm and grabbed the check. Redford protested, don’t be silly, this can go on the production. But Woodward said, no, he’d like to do it. Then later, after coffee. Woodward said, sincerely, frankly, “Thank you for letting me pay for this.”
Redford, who pays attention to the rituals of man, was moved.