ON A BALMY evening this week, the crowd at billionaire Ron Burkle's Beverly Hills estate was a mixture of high-level academia and high-level Hollywood, none higher than Robert Redford, actor, director, Sundance guru and the industry's uber-environmental activist.
Serious gatherings like this at Burkle's begin with a Champagne reception in the foyer, an intimately lavish space where presidents, generals, senators and Los Angeles' moneyed elite mingle and discuss the pressing issues of the day. (Half the town has portraits of themselves with former President Bill Clinton there.)
When Redford entered the foyer from the inner sanctum of Burkle's library (call it America's best-appointed green room), members of Pitzer College's presidents' council had been chatting for an hour, munching on the estate's trademark mini-cheese burgers and bite-sized salads on a cracker.
Like all real stars, there is a space around Redford even when he is in a crowd -- an envelope of fascination and regard that seems to follow him everywhere.
A whisper went through the room when Redford appeared. He was swarmed by adoring Pitzer board members -- they don't get to see many celebs, after all. The topic du jour was sustainable environmentalism, and Redford is the elder statesman of green Hollywood. He was using solar panels at his Utah mountain refuge back when everyone else thought environmentalism involved granola for breakfast.
Not long ago, when Redford visited the Pitzer campus in Claremont to film parts of "Lions for Lambs," he was welcomed by a kindred spirit, college President Laura Skandera Trombley, who had spent the 1980s as an English teacher trying to interest her students in Henry David Thoreau's "Walden." ("They just didn't get it," she recalled.)
But now the students do. The world's environmental strife has become a part of their cultural vocabulary. Global warming is the new Cold War. Recently, the college embarked, under Trombley's direction, on an ambitious project: building dorms entirely of materials from sustainable sources.
Redford, while filming there, was intrigued and impressed. He assigned a crew from his Sundance Channel to document the school's progress in becoming one of America's first campuses to make green an important part of its physical plan.
The actor said that it has become clear to him that the future of environmentalism rests with the young, and he was happy to accept the invitation to attend the college's annual salon at Burkle's Green Acres mansion.
After chatting in the foyer, Redford made his way down a windowed gallery, just past the Renoir. He was stopped briefly by a fan who wanted to chat about his onetime interest in auto racing. "What do you drive now?" someone asked. He laughed. A Prius, and two Lexus hybrids. Then he whispered: "Sometimes I'll put on a mask and drive the [Porsche] Boxster."
After all, this is a man who played Jay Gatsby.
Inside Burkle's soaring, wood-paneled living room, with two Hockneys brightening the walls, Redford found a corner seat on one of two plush suede couches near the fireplace. Casual in an open-collar shirt, blazer, horned-rimmed glasses and a sterling-silver ring with turquoise, the septuagenarian star talked about his own green education.
It all began in Santa Monica, where the 1940s of his boyhood was marked by the destruction of Southern California's orange groves and rugged hillsides.
"I saw the city that I loved slip away, with no land-use plan," he said. "I left for Colorado to attend college."
But the world outside the classroom window was always more interesting than the lecture inside. "After a year I was asked to leave, and they were right," he told the crowd of about 40 Pitzer affiliates.
He went to Europe to travel and study art, and then he moved to New York City, where he discovered acting. By then, however, he had become intellectually fascinated with the emerging environmental movement, or by what it was then known: ecology.
Film and the natural world have been his passions ever since. It hasn't been easy going, though. Early on, his advocacy in environmental causes (dam construction, forest clearing, hillside grading) made him a target of ridicule.
"I would get hammered pretty good by ads in papers and so forth, for being an actor," He said. He paused and added, "Then Reagan got elected, and all that was off the table."
As he spoke, the living-room phone suddenly began ringing. "It's my agent," Redford quipped. Everyone laughed.
In this era of concern over climate change and carbon footprints, yesterday's controversial activist is today's prophetic figure. And Redford believes that his views have a powerful ally in the young.
Recently, he said, he held a conference in Utah for big-city mayors, including San Francisco's Gavin Newsom and Chicago's Richard M. Daly to discuss global warming. But the highlight, in Redford's view, was the students from the Bay Area who shared their environmental poetry with the politicians; it was documented on tape and later broadcasted on the Sundance Channel.
"It really resonated," Redford said. "Change is in the air, and this movement belongs to the young."