Late last summer I called Robert Redford in Malibu. He was getting close to finishing the technical work on Ordinary People, his debut as a director, and he was anxious to get away from Hollywood. Although born and raised in Southern California, Redford intensely dislikes living in Los Angeles. I asked if his opinion had improved during this stay.
“Not at all,” Redford said. “Merely confirmed. It’s always been red alert: smog, sulfur content, people coughing and wheezing and going into air-conditioned rooms to lie down.”
How about the film community? Had it changed?
“No. Hollywood only changes for one reason—fear. The entire town is built on fear. You always have a lot of people punting on third down.”
The first time we met was over two years ago, in Utah, on location for The Electric Horseman, and the first thing I wrote in my notebook was that even without makeup, Redford’s face had settled into an image of healthy middle-age that should let him play the same kinds of youthful roles for at least another decade.
What is intriguing about Redford, however, is that he probably won’t continue to play those same roles. He says he never even considered appearing in Ordinary People, and has not decided on his next project. Indeed, the question remains, how long will he continue to play the role of actor ? And the answer, in part, lies in the reception of Ordinary People.
The desire to direct is not exactly a novel idea for midcareer performers with money in the bank. But Redford may be able to pull it off. His taste in film properties has been impeccable thus far. Always a political enthusiast, he suggested the investigative focus for All the President’s Men when Woodward and Bernstein were still thinking of centering their book on the five burglars’ point of view. Two years later, Redford optioned Judith Guest’s Ordinary People while the book was still in galleys, long before it showed signs of becoming a critically acclaimed best seller.
Work on Ordinary People has kept Redford in New York and Los Angeles longer than usual. In 1961, he and his wife, Lola, bought two acres of isolated land in Utah from a sheepherder. Two years later, they designed and built their first house. They now own most of the mountain, on which they’ve constructed a showcase passive-solar home, complete with a solar-heated pool efficient enough to allow swimming at 8,000 feet, from spring until November. Redford also branched into ranching and farming. He now has 7,000 acres devoted to quarter horses, alfalfa, corn, wheat and barley, as well as a garden, greenhouse and trout pond.
His life in New York City is very different. “I like New York,” he says. “It’s a tough, honest, dirty city that doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It’s a place where cops or cabbies say, ‘Hey, Rahbert!’ and then leave you alone. People don’t goon out the way they do in some cities.” Redford guards his privacy with great care. He has, for example, done only a few TV talk shows in more than a decade. And when he does agree to a magazine interview, it is usually only because it involves an environmental issue he believes in.
His interest in the environment is not, however, that of a dilettante. He won’t bring up any subject—be it early-twentieth-century impressionism, an off-off-Broadway playwright or a solar energy expert—unless he knows exactly what he’s talking about. Redford, 42, returned this year to an active acting career after three years of seclusion in Utah. Electric Horseman, which brought him out of semi-retirement, offered the romantic pairing of Redford and Jane Fonda, and its commercial success proved that despite his long hiatus, Redford had lost no box-office appeal: he is among the three or four most highly paid actors in the world (although for his directing debut, he earned Guild minimum, $106,000 for twenty-six weeks). He jokingly refers to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) as his “overnight success”; in fact, Redford started acting a decade earlier, in New York stage productions, notably Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park in 1963. The subsequent screen version sparked Redford’s career.
Immediately after completing Electric Horseman, Redford played a reform-minded warden in the grim prison film Brubaker. Released in June, it surprised everyone by becoming one of the more successful pictures of the summer. And only days after Brubaker wrapped. Redford launched into Ordinary People, starring Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch and Donald Sutherland, and due to be released around October 1st.