Tonight, millions of viewers will see what is probably the first made-for-TV special about Robert Redford.
It is not a program about American Indian rights or offshore oil drilling or global warming or any of the other left-of-center political causes the actor has lent his name and money to over the years. It is a special about Robert Redford and his movies.
The recalcitrant, honeyed actor who spurned Hollywood to hole up on 5,000-plus acres in Utah’s Wasatch Range and whose on-screen persona is second only to Clint Eastwood’s in its taciturnity quotient, has for the first time in several years allowed the television cameras to roll.
One might ask why the publicity, which includes, in addition to the TV special, a rare set of interviews conducted in his Rockefeller Center office.
“Why am I doing this? Good question,” says the actor, sprawling lightly scuffed elkhide boots on his coffee table. “I don’t really believe it does anything. Maybe the times are changing from when you did the work and it spoke for itself. Or maybe that view is just naive.”
Cynics might suggest that Redford’s reluctant descent from the mountaintop to the microphone has as much to do with the changing times as it does with the actor’s shifting currency as a box-office draw. When Dustin Hoffman must come packaged with a Tom Cruise, even one of the country’s most enduring superstars does not escape unscathed.
And recent history has not been overly kind to the actor who, in his heyday, was something of a blond god who parlayed a Kennedyesque hairline and a moody Hemingway-style heroism into iconhood. Indeed, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969), “Downhill Racer” (1969), “The Candidate” (1972), “The Way We Were” (1973), “Three Days of the Condor” (1975) and “All the President’s Men” (1976) were films that seemed to locate the country’s Vietnam war-altered Zeitgeist within Redford’s brooding, alienated all-American-boy persona. As Newsweek put it, “What Redford has always captured best is the flawed American hero.” He didn’t do badly at the box office, either--from 1974 to 1976, Redford was voted the No. 1 box-office draw by exhibitors.
But since 1980, he has appeared in only three films--"The Natural,” “Out of Africa” and “Legal Eagles"--while directing two others--"Ordinary People” and “The Milagro Bean Field War.” Of his acting films, only one--the Oscar-winning “Out of Africa"--was a major commercial hit, and critics were not kind about his performance in that. For most of the past decade, Redford kept to the hills, priming the pump on his Sundance Institute, revitalizing the annual U.S. Film Festival at Park City, Utah, developing a ski resort, sponsoring seminars on various environmental causes and generally staying clear of the madding crowd to the point that even he now admits, “I want to get back to work. You need to work. I want to act more and direct more.”
Now comes the first Redford movie since “Legal Eagles” more than four years ago. “Havana,” Sydney Pollack’s latest film and his seventh with Redford, opens this week in a denser-than-usual thicket that is this year’s Christmas movie glut.
A Casablanca-style romance set against the last days of the Batista regime in Cuba, “Havana” is a glossy, $40-million period picture that is only one of many big-ticket, adult-market films being released this month. “Bonfire of the Vanities,” “The Russia House,” “The Sheltering Sky,” “Hamlet,” and, of course, “Godfather III” are all hitting screens within the next few weeks. And of those, “Bonfire” and “Godfather III” are arriving with higher-than-usual anticipation among moviegoers.
For the makers of “Havana,” the question seems to be whether after half a decade’s absence, Redford can still pull them in.
“Everybody is nervous about this Christmas,” says Pollack. “There’s a lot of movies out there. They’re all expensive and a lot of them are looking for the same slightly older audience. It’s going to be a rough road. I can’t tell you whether Robert Redford will or will not open a picture. He may not be the first (choice) among 18-year-olds anymore. But you will see his movies. He has a kind of staying power.”
Hence, tonight’s television special, which is narrated by Dick Cavett and will include footage from “Havana,” as well as clips from previous Redford-Pollack pictures. The unusual TV program, shot and edited in the last three weeks, was apparently a last-minute compromise between the promotional requirements of “Havana’s” distributor, Universal Studios, and Redford’s own longstanding reluctance to make the usual pre-opening publicity rounds. It was made by an independent producer at the instigation of Universal and licensed to NBC.
If Redford is discomfited by these modern-day demands of the Hollywood mill, he didn’t show it during a two-hour conversation in the actor’s Manhattan headquarters a few days after Thanksgiving. Despite an on-again, off-again, on-again appointment dangled before the press via his publicity agent, Redford in person epitomizes a cowboy-style insouciance, one just touched with the gloss of stardom. He looks as if he has been carved from amber with that spill of yellow hair perfectly matching his weathered, lightly tanned face, his maize-colored silk shirt and those buttery boots of his own design. He is 53, lithe and moves with the same casual athletic grace that won him a college baseball scholarship more than 35 years ago. His presence, soft-spoken and still, seems like a gift held just out of reach. As Pollack puts it, “Bob is a minimalist; he withholds, he never seduces his audience but makes them come to him.”
“How long do you think you’ll need?” the actor asks, shutting the door to his office, furnished with family photos, Indian art and two velvety, Victorian-style couches. On the coffee table is a bottle of Evian water, one goblet and a bowl of granola. Slipping into a rocking chair, Redford takes his place at the head of the table, launching into what will be the recurring topic of the next two hours--his wary relationship with Hollywood and his current standing in it.
“Look, I’m not particularly anxious not to cooperate. I don’t much like (publicity). But I guess what ultimately matters these days . . . is getting people into theaters. It’s so competitive, so expensive, there’s so much money being put out to attract audiences, it’s almost a sub-part of the industry. Audiences have so much information jammed down their throats, that we now have to compete to make people aware that you’re out there. I guess I have kind of a purist view that is no longer practical, that I would rather have my work speak for me. . . . But then I’ve always separated my public self from the private so I could have one. I don’t feel I’ve owed my life to the public--a performance, yes, but my life, no. There is no category called the public’s right to know in the Constitution. That’s something invented by the press for its own benefit. I don’t feel compelled to buy into that--you know, ‘Why are you invading my life?’ ”
Nonetheless, he is here to bang the drum for “Havana,” a film that also stars Lena Olin, Alan Arkin and Raul Julia, and one in which Redford plays another outsider, Jack Weil, a big-stakes, down-on-his-luck gambler who wanders into a political and romantic minefield. More to the point, the golden boy who always gets the girl is for the first time portraying, in the words of his director, “a loser.”
“It’s a slightly different part for me and I liked doing it,” says Redford, leaning back in his chair. “It’s a tough love story, with no redemption through politics. It’s about a moment where a person comes close--has it--and loses it. I liked that. Also, the time period, the ‘50s, is really my time--the clothes, the way you comb your hair. You know, you get to play those guys you knew in high school. Also it’s a time in history (pre-Castro Cuba) that not many people know much about. There is a whole feeling of the film that not many films have these days.”
For Pollack, a director who specializes in romances with larger-than-life characters wrestling with serious, frequently political themes in exotic locales, “Havana” represents a 14-year effort to make “one of those big pictures that I loved from the ‘40s and ‘50s. A tattooed gambler on an overnight ferry to Havana with a lady smuggling radios into the Cuban revolution--that’s interesting to me.”
Using an original and oft-rewritten screenplay by Judith Rascoe, who also authored “The Way We Were,” Pollack had intended to film “Havana” in Cuba, which the director had first visited with Ernest Hemingway’s widow, Mary, in 1978. “I got to see all those places, hear the music and I was convinced I wanted to film in Cuba,” Pollack says. However, federal trade restrictions forbade Pollack from shooting in Havana, and he eventually settled on Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. The director also cut back on the film’s political content--"too much of a ring about two foreigners winning the war for Cuba"--and settled on a “Casablanca"-style romance, a story about personal redemption using the Communist revolution as backdrop.
Redford describes his part in the film as “a man at crossroads, a man moving into autumn, who senses there are only so many seasons to one’s life, so he steps off into a no-man’s land and commits his energies and his passions to a woman, not the game.” Pollack, however, was not originally eager to cast Redford for the part of Weil, whom he describes as “a guy who is way too old to be living the kind of life he has been leading. I wanted somebody who seemed less privileged, and Bob has an aristocratic quality about him. Weil is a guy who has his nose pressed against the glass--he wants to be on the inside but he doesn’t know how until the woman makes him understand this.”
Casting that woman, “who is the pursued and not the pursuer,” was difficult, admits Pollack, who eventually settled on Olin, the Swedish actress who starred as the intellectual sex kitten in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and who won an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress in last year’s “Enemies.” It was a casting decision, however right it seemed on paper, that spawned rumors about conflict and lack of chemistry during the arduous six-month Caribbean shoot last winter.
“Redford and Pollack are craftsman who speak in a kind of shorthand, and Lena is a Swedish theater-trained actress with a different aesthetic and sensibilities,” says actor Daniel Davis, who plays an American journalist in the film. “Their chemistry developed slowly. She played her working relationship to Bob the way she played her on-screen relationship with him--a gradual succumbing.”
For Redford, any difficulties with “Havana” are framed in a discussion of the shoot’s physical demands. “It’s the toughest one we ever did,” he says. “The whole place was out of control, the corruption, the poverty, people out with food poisoning . . . but Sydney and I collaborate very well and I like acting when I don’t have to think about directing, and with Sydney that’s very easy.”
Pollack describes this latest Redford protagonist as “sort of Dennis Finch Hatton (his ‘Out of Africa’ character) several years later.” The director calls the first performance from the actor in five years “a challenge of reaching for a kind of vulnerability, a desperation. But Bob is a very intuitive actor, he doesn’t like to analyze something too much. He’s more instinctive. And I can get him to try things.”
When asked if Redford’s own persona, carved from nearly two dozen films in as many years, outweighs such nuanced characterizations, Pollack pauses. “Bob is an easy target. You know the attitude, ‘Why does he always have to be a hero? Why doesn’t he gain 30 pounds for a role or wear a funny nose?’ Well, I don’t think we want Redford to be that way. For three decades he’s been a kind of metaphor for this country and his film roles have reflected that. The characters we’ve worked on over the years are all incarnations of the same man and the real Robert Redford, as I know him, is a composite of all those roles.”
He was still in his 20s when the big break came--the lead in Neil Simon’s 1963 Broadway comedy, “Barefoot in the Park,” directed by Mike Nichols. It was a hit that Redford, then an unknown New York stage actor, carried for more than a year, earning kudos as the new Cary Grant--a drop-dead-handsome leading man with devastating comic timing. “Everybody looked at him as a star,” recalls Emanuel Azenberg, a New York producer and stage manager of that early production and one of the actor’s oldest friends. “There’s 5,000 good-looking guys and Redford walks on and does ‘Barefoot.’ Everybody knew there was going to be a career.”
Six years later--after such lesser films as “Situation Hopeless--but Not Serious,” “Inside Daisy Clover” and the film version of “Barefoot in the Park"--"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” paired Redford with Paul Newman, and that was when “Bob became ‘Robert Redford,’ ” says Azenberg. “One day, Bob couldn’t go into Central Park anymore. He had this persona that surpassed everything and changed everything.”
“Yeah, it does bother me,” says Redford when asked about playing characters so closely associated with himself for more than two decades. “There’s not a lot I can do about it. You lose something and you gain something somewhere else. You move from doing the work and having that carry the day to having your own persona confused in the performance by other people and, yeah, by maybe yourself too.”
“A shift occurs and you restrict yourself just to get by,” Redford continues. “I was a total wild man when I was in school, I’d climb flagpoles naked for a buck. I did a lot of crazy things. When there was nothing at stake, when I didn’t have a family to embarrass, I didn’t care what anybody thought. But when you have a lot of people watching your behavior, you move away from that.”
Behavior, not surprisingly, is why Redford says he initially turned from sports (he had an baseball scholarship to the University of Colorado), then painting (he briefly studied art in Paris), to acting. “I think part of the reason I became an actor is to deal with that exhibitionistic side of yourself. I liked to fool around (in public) and that needed to be satisfied. I love performing. It’s agony, but it’s also terrific. Don’t ever let anybody tell you differently.” The other part of the decision, says Redford, “was about what you wanted to do with your life, make money, building a tall building or somehow interpret life in some way? Being an artist or being an actor was absolutely the same for me--you drew on that part of yourself, how you saw life and what you felt about it.”
What Redford felt about life had a lot to do with his upbringing, first in a Hispanic neighborhood of West Los Angeles, later as a high school student in the San Fernando Valley. “My father was a milkman and things were pretty rough. When we moved to the Valley, I felt like I was being tossed into quicksand. There was no culture, it was very oppressive. I would have preferred the Hispanic neighborhood I grew up in. It’s one of the reasons I did sports a lot to work things out.”
For Redford, who has played a variety of athletes during his film career, the transition from sports into art had to do with “defining a lot of emotional stuff that was never formed right. For some people it’s therapy. Maybe it is for all of us. For me it was anger and finding a place to put my disappointment and frustration with a lot of things. I was a mess. I was somewhat in trouble socially. I lost my (baseball) scholarship pretty quick after I discovered drinking. When I left (college) and got into art, that got me out . . . finding my place in the world had a lot to do with acting.”
Indeed, the best of Redford’s roles have capitalized on that distance spanned between the actor’s chiseled, class-president good looks and a scarred, more hostile psyche. Whether he was playing the sulky, driven Olympic hopeful in “Downhill Racer” or the corruptible political idealist in “The Candidate” or the charismatic outlaw in “Butch Cassidy,” Redford has hewed that line “between what appears and what is,” as he puts it. “See, I never bought the program,” he says leaning forward. “There was always that tension and the darker side is what interests me. People always ask me, ‘Why did you play all those inarticulate guys?’ Well, that was the way you made the point--playing a character who can’t always articulate what he’s feeling and who has to develop action to find out. I think much of the country is inarticulate in terms of what they feel.”
It is the same motivation that Redford says led to his directing his first film, the Oscar-winning “Ordinary People” in 1980, based on Judith Guest’s novel about a repressed well-to-do WASP family. “It is the inability to express feelings in our culture, that’s what’s interesting to me. Where it got laid in has something to do with Calvinism, some of our religions. It was certainly part of the fabric that I grew up in. I was given legacies that I came later in life to realize were not only untrue but unhealthy.”
That was a drive similar to his interest in pluralism that Redford says led to the development of his Sundance Institute in 1980, a film and theater development lab on a corner of his Utah property that has spawned such films as “El Norte,” “Heartland” and the Oscar-winning “The Trip to Bountiful” but has most recently garnered attention for staff cutbacks and a nearly 30% cut in the institute’s $2.7-million budget.
“One of the things that made me nervous in the last 10 years is how the film industry has become more centralized,” Redford says. “One of the things that I think is most valuable is its diversity, which is exactly why I developed Sundance--a mechanism for developing new ideas and new talent. I didn’t realize at the time that would become such an alternative. And it was better received earlier than I thought. When “El Norte” came out that first year and the word was good, suddenly attention was drawn to it and I was trying to keep it from being publicized. I assumed the press would be interested in my role and in finding something wrong with it. . . .”
It is the same reason, Redford says, he has recently scaled back the scope of his U.S. Film Festival, one of the country’s more closely watched and celebrity-filled celluloid circuses, held every winter in Park City, Utah. Two years ago, the festival spotlighted a series of Latin American films based on the short stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the noted Colombian writer who is currently president of Cuba’s Foundation for New Latin American Cinema, with whose school Redford now conducts an annual exchange of Sundance filmmakers. “It’s as good a means I know for telling the truth about a culture--not political propaganda or George Bush going to Mexico, but a person who’s made a film,” says Redford about the exchange. “No, I don’t think this country is very interested in Latin American culture, but I think the world is too small not to understand someone who is so close to us.
“No matter how you cut it, there is no other motive than doing something that is good for the industry,” says Redford about the changing fortunes of both the film festival and Sundance. “It’s not making any money; it’s not making me any money. It’s a 10-year-old nonprofit institution that has its problems like any place. But the amount of cynicism, back-biting and speculation and sniping that’s gone along with it, well, it tells you something about human nature.” About the film industry today, Redford is equally cautious. “The industry has never had so many people in the business of being themselves as it does now,” he admits. “It used to be that the studios were in the business of marketing stars or actors to make more business for the studio. Now there is a more direct line between what a person does with his or her personality and their ability to make money off that. So they do it more directly--actors have their own companies, their own projects. I don’t know whether that’s good or bad, if that is healthier or not, it just is.”
If Redford is waxing rueful over shifts in the Hollywood power structure, they are changes, to be sure, that the actor himself has indirectly helped implement. His own influence has grown from simple leading-man status in the ‘70s to his current amalgam of producing, directing and political activist ventures that includes, in addition to Sundance and the annual film festival, his own production company, Wildwood Productions, as well as his Institute for Resource Management, which regularly sponsors annual seminars on environmental issues.
As a result Redford remains one of the first Hollywood actors to have capitalized on the post-studio-boss system, fashioning a career that includes being the de facto godfather of the country’s independent film movement, one of the country’s more famous conservation lobbyists as well as a respected actor, director and producer. Currently, Redford is producing a series of small films based on Tony Hillerman’s novels, preparing to direct a film based on Norman Maclean’s short story on fly-fishing, “A River Runs Through It,” as well as co-starring in an upcoming Fred Schepisi romantic comedy with Michelle Pfeiffer (“We hope,” says Redford). Schepisi is due in the office any second. One is suddenly tempted to probe Redford for chinks in the armor in these final, allotted minutes.
“I could use my life simpler,” says the actor, who remains estranged from his wife, Lola, although he is close to their three grown children. “I could use more control over my own time. Sundance is now on its feet. It doesn’t need me so much in the center.”
As for any suggestion about the star’s returning to the screen after a five-year absence, Redford is swift, perhaps too swift, to dismiss any suspicions of awkwardness about aging before the public eye. “It doesn’t concern me or bother me, or do I feel it,” he says crossing his legs on the table. “There is a tendency (in the press) to say he looks like this, hair like this, blue eyes like that. . . . But I don’t pay too much attention to the critics anymore. It is sad when you move into a place that they begin to look for the bad side, that feels bad. But it’s predictable.”
Is there anything that Redford feels he does, well, badly?
“What do I do badly? Uh, that’s a great question.” He pauses. “Return phone calls,” comes the response from this actor who is notorious for chronic lateness. “Not getting back to people. Acknowledging that something has happened. I am the worst at planning and organizing. I can do it in certain places and certain times, like directing. But in general I tend to resist too much planning, too much organization. It tends to cut into flight.”
Flight? “Yeah, flight, taking flight, cutting loose, going outside. That’s always been appealing to me, going outside to re-form. I need it in my life.”
Redford is relaxed now. He has moved to the arm of one of his sofas, sitting astride it like a fence post, boots on the cushions, goblet in hand. “How’s this interview going by the way? Is it hot?” he asks with a sudden flash of his wry comic skill before hurtling on in these last minutes.
“Being outside the mainstream is always more interesting. Not that I’m from there. I grew up in the mainstream, in that Republican community in Los Angeles. God, everything was fine, everything was hunky dory. I did what everybody did, I played ball, I had a paper route, I told the truth. I also got into trouble (because) something felt not quite right about it. But you’re too young and inexperienced to know what the hell is going on. You don’t have any voice for that. It wasn’t until I moved out of it, that’s when the interest came to attack it. It becomes fuel, fodder for your work. In your work you play against the system, you play someone just outside.”
Redford gazes out the window at the New York skyline in the cold winter light. “When I made films like “The Candidate,” “Downhill Racer,” “All the President’s Men,” the theme was winning because I was given this false legacy about winning. So there became this edge to dealing with the lie about winning. That’s the essence for me, those characters struggling against a particular system, a system that controls our own independence, our right to be independent.
“The only character I ever played who tried to get completely away from the system was Jeremiah Johnson, and he couldn’t. There are codes and rules wherever you go,” says Redford perhaps referring as much to his film roles as his own life of the past 20 years. “An independent life? You find out it’s impossible.”