Actor, director, producer. Born Charles Robert Redford Jr., on August 18, 1937, in Santa Monica, California. Redford’s father, Charles Redford Sr., worked as a milkman until after World War II, when he got a job as an accountant for the Standard Oil Company. A talented athlete, the younger Redford won a baseball scholarship to the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1955. That same year, however, his mother Martha died suddenly, leaving Redford extremely shaken. His performance in college and athletics rapidly deteriorated, and he began to drink heavily and skip classes and practice. He was subsequently kicked off the baseball team and lost his scholarship.
With aspirations to become a painter, Redford took a job in a Los Angeles oil field to earn money in order to travel to Paris, where he planned to attend art school. He ended up traveling around Europe, eventually studying painting with a teacher in Florence, Italy. By 1958, Redford had become frustrated with his slow progress and decided to return to Los Angeles. That same year, he met and married Lola Jean Van Wagenen, a Mormon student from Utah who encouraged him to cut back on his drinking and resume his pursuit of a career as an artist. The couple moved to New York, where Redford enrolled as a painting student at the prestigious Pratt Institute. He also began taking classes in theatrical set design at New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Redford’s first acting job came in 1959, when the stage manager for the Broadway production of Tall Story asked him to audition for a small part after another actor left the project. Over the next several years, Redford combined stage work in such Broadway plays as The Highest Tree, The Iceman Cometh, and Sunday in New York with work on television, including guest appearances on the popular series Route 66, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Twilight Zone. He made his feature film debut in War Hunt (1962), which received critical praise but made a poor showing at the box office.
In 1963, the comedian and director Mike Nichols cast Redford as the lead in his Broadway production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park. The show was a smash hit, but 11 months into the run Redford tired of the daily grind of stage work and decided to focus on making movies. It was slow going, however, as Redford’s first five films (beginning with War Hunt) failed to attract audiences, although his performance opposite Natalie Wood in Inside Daisy Clover (1965) earned him a Golden Globe Award for the most promising male newcomer. Discouraged, Redford spent the next two years in Europe pondering his next professional move.
In 1967, Redford returned to Hollywood, where he reprised his role in a film version of Barefoot in the Park, costarring Jane Fonda. The film was a box office hit, reviving Redford’s career and earning him a good deal of attention from audiences and filmmakers alike. Even so, Redford had to fight for the role that would make him a bona fide star. At first rejected by the head of Twentieth-Century Fox for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Redford won the part after negotiations with other, more well-known actors fell through and the producer gave in to pressure from the film’s director, George Roy Hill, and star, Paul Newman. Redford’s sly performance undoubtedly added to the overall excellence of the film, which became the top-grossing hit of the year and won four Academy Awards, including one for Best Original Screenplay.
As a newly anointed Hollywood golden boy, Redford also earned critical praise that same year for Downhill Racer and Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, although neither film connected with audiences in the same way as Butch Cassidy. While Redford had several more relative disappointments over the next three years, he hit it big in 1973, starring in two blockbusters—The Way We Were, costarring Barbra Streisand, and The Sting, which reunited him with Hill and Newman. The latter film received 10 Academy Award nominations (including one for Redford as Best Actor) and won in several major categories, including Best Director and Best Picture.
In 1974, Redford played the title character in Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s much-loved novel, The Great Gatsby, costarring Mia Farrow and Sam Waterston. His success continued throughout the decade, with starring roles in Three Days of the Condor and The Great Waldo Pepper (both 1975) and a turn as the star and producer of the acclaimed All the President’s Men (1976), costarring Dustin Hoffman. He finished out the decade with The Electric Horsemen (1979), which reteamed him with his Barefoot in the Park costar, Jane Fonda.
For all his success as an actor, Redford won his first (and so far only) Academy Award as a director, for the emotional family drama Ordinary People (1980). He appeared in only 10 films over the next two decades. Though he turned in several notable performances during the 1980s—most notably in the mythical baseball drama The Natural (1984)—and returned as a romantic leading man in such sentimental romantic dramas as Indecent Proposal (1993) and Up Close and Personal (1996), his best efforts were reserved for behind the camera, where he made a name for himself as one of Hollywood’s most respected filmmakers.
Redford’s second directorial feature was the little-seen but well reviewed The Milagro Beanfield War (1988). He attracted far more attention and praise for his third effort, a beautifully filmed adaptation of Norman Maclean’s popular autobiographical novella, A River Runs Through It (1992), starring Brad Pitt (whom many claimed was a dead ringer for the young Redford) as the rebellious half of a pair of fly-fishing brothers in Montana. In 1994, Redford earned a second Oscar nomination for Best Director for the smart drama Quiz Show, a chronicle of the real-life scandal on the 1950s game show Twenty-One, starring Ralph Fiennes. He adapted another bestselling novel to the screen in 1999, directing and starring in a film version of Nicholas Sparks’ adult romance The Horse Whisperer. His most recent directorial project is The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), starring Matt Damon and Will Smith.
In addition to his own illustrious film career, Redford has become known as the godfather of American independent film. He founded the Sundance Institute in 1981 near his summer home in the mountains of Utah (where he had gradually acquired 5,500 acres of property since 1963) with the intention of promoting the development of new screenwriters and directors and generally supporting the production of innovative dramatic and documentary films. Since 1985, the Sundance Film Festival has served as the premiere American showcase for new independent films, attracting nearly 20,000 people every year and launching the careers of a number of talented filmmakers. In addition, Redford and his colleagues launched the Sundance Channel, a cable television channel devoted to airing and promoting independent short and full-length features.
With his wife, Lola, Redford raised three children, Shauna, Jamie, and Amy, in the family’s homes in New York City and Utah. Redford and Lola, who have four grandchildren, divorced in 1985. A long-term relationship with Kathy O’Rear, a costume designer, ended in 1995. Redford has since been romantically linked to Sibylle Szaggars, a painter.
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