WHAT YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT ROBERT REDFORD (besides his turning eighty-four today)

For those who came of age in the 1970s, Robert Redford was synonymous with the word handsome. His name was evoked time and time again as the epitome of good looks such as when Betty White, in her role as the man-crazy Sue Ann Nivens on the classic Mary Tyler Moore Show, would offer a racy Redford comment. But this fine actor-director-producer was so much more than that: a commanding screen presence whose good looks belied his many attributes, which over time, he presented with generous abundance. Looking back, here's a birthday tribute in today's "Theatre Yesterday and Today."

Robert Redford turns eighty-four-years-old today. A movie star for over five decades since his breakthrough role as the latter of the infamous duo in 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he is also known as a director, producer, activist, environmentalist, philanthropist, conservationist... a whole lot of "ists." However, for purposes of my being a chronicler of all things-stage worthy, this birthday tribute here will concern itself with the beginning phases of his legendary career when he first conquered the theatre. It is pretty much forgotten that he was once a leading man on Broadway. And not just any leading man, but one with enormous promise, who many pinned their hopes on for his continuing in the theatre.

Like Bogart and Brando before him (to name just two), Redford was a Broadway actor who, once the movies beckoned, never returned to the theatre. It’s a shame, considering that those who saw him in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park — which definitively established Redford’s stage credentials — remember him as an actor of easy charm and effortless style. However, his feelings on which road to take (New York or Hollywood) was best expressed when Redford spoke with William Goldman for his landmark 1969 book about the theatre, The Season. Born in Santa Monica, California, Redford said, “I didn’t spend the years I spent in New York so I could end up acting in Hollywood. But in every script they’ve sent me, you could just feel the critics getting ready to roll over and play dead for the girl. All the guys end up doing is looking at her with his hat in his hand and saying, ‘You’re wild and you’re mad, and I love you.’”

What Redford is referring to is playing the role of Paul opposite Elizabeth Ashley’s Corie in Barefoot in the Park. Expert light comedian that he was, he had ambivalent feelings about what it all meant. When Redford left New York for Hollywood, he wound up still carrying water for actresses like Natalie Wood in films like Inside Daisy Clover and This Property is Condemned. But his stardom was established once and for all after the Sundance Kid (with posters of him in hat and mustache that sold by the hundreds of thousands), which allowed Redford to call his own shots basically from then forward. His choices were, for the most part, exemplary. Producing a number of his own films showed off not only his good taste, but an unusual prescience. He had the foresight to contact the two young, hotshot reporters from the Washington Post early on while they were still covering the break-in at the Democratic National Party’s Watergate offices. Before Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein even conceived or wrote All the President’s Men, Redford had nabbed the film rights to their story. Not only did Redford star as Woodward (opposite Dustin Hoffman’s Bernstein), but the film was nominated for the Academy Award as Best Picture. Four years later, he would win an Oscar, not as a producer or actor, but as a director, for his very first effort, Ordinary People.

Redford with Paul Newman in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969).

It all worked better than according to plan for Redford (if there even was a plan). When Redford first started out on this thing called acting, he really didn’t know what he wanted. Redford’s mixed feelings about his looks was something that still irked him as late as 2013, when an Esquire journalist reported in print: “Not his favorite subject, the face. [As a young man] The car got him out of Dodge; the promise of a baseball scholarship got him to the University of Colorado, where the booze helped get him tossed; painting took him to Paris and Italy, acting to New York City, where he attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and began working on Broadway and television. But it was that face that made him a matinee idol and held him hostage.”

Still from the classic "Mary Tyler Moore Show" episode "Chuckles Bites the Dust" (1975).
And since a little beefcake never hurt anybody... Redford with Barbra Streisand in "The Way We Were" (1973).

The writer has an interesting point. It’s hard for most people to imagine what an actor, trapped by his good looks might feel like. When you’re ambitious and have things to say, it can make it hard to be taken seriously if you are dismissed as “just another pretty face.” For that reason, the self-destructive streak referred to (i.e. his getting tossed from school) lingered for some time, as Redford described not long ago to New York Magazine: “That point in my life [going into Barefoot] was kind of a dark period. I wasn’t sure I wanted to act. I decided, I’m gonna sabotage this, I’m gonna make them fire me. I purposely didn’t learn lines — just really perverse stuff. Somebody else would have just let me go, but Mike Nichols [Barefoot’s director] said, ‘You’re gonna be in the play no matter what. You can just lie down on the stage, but I want you to be in the play.’ Had I really won, it would have been a disaster. What a risky thing for Mike to do … I let out a lot of rage in improvisation, and through a craziness I discovered I had when onstage. It was like working with a therapist, that time with Mike, but at least you knew the therapist was a little nuts.”

Nichols helped Redford in a number of other ways, one of which was his use of humor in dealing with situations. “It was Mike’s first job directing a play,” Redford recalled. “How he dealt with his nervousness had a lot to do with his sense of humor and his intellect. On opening night, he pulled the cast backstage and said, ‘Don’t worry, but just remember that everything depends on tonight.’”

Redford with co-star Elizabeth Ashley in the Broadway production of "Barefoot in the Park" (1963).

Redford appeared in four Broadway shows before Barefoot. He replaced an actor in a 1959 Howard Lindsay-Russel Crouse comedy, Tall Story, then had roles in three others, the most significant of which was Norman Krasna’s Sunday in New York, the show that gave him his first solid lead. But Barefoot was a huge hit and cashed in on Redford’s earlier promise with audiences and critics alike. His co-star, Elizabeth Ashley, said of him: “He has a dry humor, and he can make that funnier than almost anybody, given the right material. It's deeper than delivery; it's a point of view." According to a 1998 New Yorker article, its author, Richard Radnor stated that “Redford had a wild comic energy that audiences these days have never seen. Alan J. Pakula, who later directed Redford in All the President’s Men, said of him, at that time, ‘He had the Cagney stuff, all the rage. When I first saw him as a young man, he obviously had to fight for stability.”

Interesting how all that worked out. Redford is now at a “grand old man” status for all his many roles within the film industry. And it can never be underestimated what his work with the Sundance Institute, which he founded nearly forty years ago, has done for independent film and its filmmakers. Besides the better-known Sundance Film Festival and Film Labs, there is also a Sundance Theatre Lab that has been going strong for more than twenty years. Over that time, countless artists in plays — even musicals — have been nurtured at Sundance in the mountains of Utah.

Robert Redford circa the 2010's.

Through that special work, even if Redford never held an interest in stepping on stage during these past fifty years, his heart has told a different story. And never say never... who knows? Maybe when theatre returns in the near future, the name Robert Redford will once again be up in lights on Broadway. Could be just the pick-me-up the theatre might need.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

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Ron Fassler

Ron Fassler is a theatre historian, drama critic and author of "Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway."