The Untold Truth Of Robert Redford

One of Hollywood's most beloved icons, Robert Redford, has had a career spanning a whopping six decades, having seen success both in front of the camera and behind it. The California-born star reached the top of the A-list with the cult classic "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" in 1969 — a role he almost didn't snag. In a 2014 interview with NPR, Redford shared that his co-star, Paul Newman, was already a bona fide celebrity, thanks to roles in 1961's "The Hustler" and "Cool Hand Luke," which came out six years later. Because of this, the vast difference in the two actors' careers was something the studio, 20th Century Fox, simply wasn't interested in. According to Redford, Newman, along with the film's director (George Roy Hill) and writer (William Goldman), pushed for the budding star — something the actor said he never forgot.  

Of course, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" turned out to be a total hit, solidifying Redford as a cinematic icon, yet he never seemed to run into the pitfalls of fame, perhaps due to his close proximity to Hollywood growing up. "I always distrusted California quite a bit because I grew up there," the Sundance Film Festival founder told Rolling Stone in 1994.

As such, Redford traded the glittering lights of Tinseltown for a more adventurous life away from the spotlight – unless he was working on a film, of course. Let's take a look at the untold truth of the notoriously private Robert Redford.

His home life wasn't overly affectionate

Robert Redford was born in Santa Monica, California, to a middle-class family. His father worked as a milkman (and later, an oil company accountant), while his mother was a homemaker (via Biography). The time he spent with Martha Hart Redford was clearly influential on the future star, as she shared her love of both films and books while also having fun with her son through role-playing and teaching him how to draw, per "Robert Redford: The Biography."

Sadly, Redford's time with his mother was cut short, and a year after graduating from high school in 1954, she died from septicemia. Years later, during a chat with NPR, "The Sting" actor noted that the rest of his family didn't exactly deal with loss that well. "[I] come from a dark family [that] emigrated from Ireland and Scotland," he explained, adding, "Didn't talk much; you don't complain much; you don't ask for anything; you bear the brunt of whatever comes your way, and you do it with grace."

Redford added that this approach to death wasn't a product of his mother's untimely passing away. In fact, the star almost had two twin sisters, explaining that they died shortly after his mother gave birth to them. He acknowledged that it was yet another instance where the tragedy simply wasn't discussed at home.

The ever-suave Robert Redford was bullied as a kid

It's hard to imagine that Robert Redford, the man who has played countless charming and confident roles on camera, was once actually struggling to fit in. In fact, his experience growing up with his peers was anything but easy. "I was a freckle-faced, kind of redheaded kid that people made fun of because my hair had so many cowlicks," Redford recalled to Rolling Stone in 1994, explaining that, as a rambunctious youth, adults would reprimand him for running around.

As he grew into his teens, the future star was still bullied as he was a late bloomer — a far cry from the rugged heartthrob he'd later be known as. According to "Robert Redford: The Biography," a local gang called the Pachucks would continuously pick on him, leading to one scary incident on a rooftop. As Redford remembered, the gang wanted him to prove he was a man and dared him to jump from the roof — which he did, nearly dying in the process. The moment led to a revelation for the "Spy Game" actor. "You have two choices, it seemed to me. You can be led by your fears, or you can overcome them," he shared.

By the time Redford was a bit older, the tables had suddenly turned. As revealed in his biography, the star and some school friends started their own gang, the Barons — essentially a front for various illegal activities such as theft and breaking and entering.

He lived a bohemian lifestyle in Europe

Success didn't always come easy for Robert Redford. Truth be told, the future actor had some career flops before becoming a silver screen legend. Speaking to Success magazine in 1980, Redford revealed that while in high school, he repeatedly got fired by his employers, noting that he failed at everything. Thankfully, Redford was gifted with natural athletic abilities, leading him to the University of Colorado on a baseball scholarship. Not one to abide by the rules and put in the academic efforts, however, the young man dropped out of school after merely one year. The solution? He would move to Europe in hopes of becoming an artist.

According to Biography, Redford first went to Paris, where he credits his time in the French capital for sparking an interest in cultural and political affairs. After France, Redford and a friend of his moved to Italy. As revealed in "Robert Redford: The Biography," this time brought a lot of hardship for the young man, who hitchhiked around the country and painted in the streets to make money. Clearly, Redford wasn't flourishing in any wealth, and he confirmed in his memoir that he once had to sleep in cow manure as a means to stay warm.

Per Success, in 1958, he finally gathered his artwork and sold it all for $200, just so he could move back home to America. "[The experience] gave me a kind of nervousness, which was good," he shared with Success magazine on his time abroad.

His first acting role saved him from poverty

When Robert Redford returned home in 1958 after his stint abroad in Europe, he decided it was finally time to make some decisions regarding his career aspirations. As revealed in a 1980 interview with Success magazine, he started studying stage design.

Redford's friend observed his affinity toward the theater, so he told his pal to get some acting experience by spending one year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Redford did just that, but after leaving the performing arts conservatory, things were, yet again, challenging. Rolling Stone wrote that Redford had gotten married the same year he returned from Europe to Lola Van Wagenen. The young couple was struggling financially, and according to the actor, the pair lived on his wife's bank job of $55 a week. When Van Wagenen discovered she was pregnant, she eventually had to stop working — and the pair had nothing in their savings account.

After getting rejected for parts repeatedly, Redford finally got lucky in 1959, when he landed a Broadway role in a comedy called "Tall Story." Although the part had only one line, the budding star got paid $82 a week (via Success). Recalling his audition to Rolling Stone, Redford claims it was an utter mess — with the actor playing with a basketball and acting crazy — until the director finally agreed to hire him on the condition he stopped his audition immediately. "Tall Story" was crucial to Redford's start in the biz, and the rest, as they say, was history.

He feels most at home in the wilderness

Robert Redford's love for the wilderness dates back to his youth and, more specifically, his mother. As revealed in "Robert Redford: The Biography," Martha Hart Redford impacted her son culturally, taking him to Navajo reservations in Arizona and Yosemite, and it looks like that love for the world's natural beauty is something that continued to inspire Redford well into adulthood.

In the 1950s, while riding a motorcycle to the University of Colorado from California, Redford, completely by accident, came across an area in Utah that stuck with him (via Forbes). When he married the Provo-born Lola Van Wagenen in 1958, he took her back to her home state three years later and bought a mere two acres for $500 in what would become his Sundance compound and, later on, the Sundance Mountain Resort. As his career began exploding in the 1960s, he kept buying more land. "Do another TV show, buy another acre," he shared with AD.

By the late '60s, when developers began trying to disrupt Utah's natural landscape, Redford and some friends bought thousands of acres, successfully preserving the area. By the late '80s, he added 95 cottages to his resort, later building over 200. Per Forbes, in 2020, he finally sold his property. "Change is inevitable," he told the outlet, praising the buyers and adding, "[they'll] ensure that future generations can continue to find solace and inspiration here."

The reason he started the Sundance Film Festival

The Sundance Institute, which houses the annual Sundance Film Festival, was founded by Robert Redford himself at his resort that he also built from the ground up. As explained by Visit Utah, Redford's love for the area that would become the Sundance Mountain Resort came to be thanks to a road trip that took him to Provo Canyon by accident. Immediately stunned by the natural beauty of Utah's Mount Timpanogos, the actor declared he'd return and build his home nearby.

After expanding his property throughout the 1960s, years later, in 1978, Redford attended the now-defunct United States Film Festival in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he, along with a handful of other people, watched an indie flick. "[The director] has something special to say. I [wished] there was a way to help him," the actor recalled to Time. By 1984, Redford founded The Sundance Institute and held its first film festival a year later.

"The reason I started Sundance was because I felt that the mainstream was completely controlling exhibition, and I just felt that there were a whole lot of other people out there who were talented, who had stories to be told, but they were undisciplined because they had not had a chance to develop themselves," the star explained to the Walker Art Center. The Sundance Film Institute has given some major names their first big breaks, such as Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, and Wes Anderson.

He credits a convicted murderer for reigniting his lust for life

By the early 1960s, Robert Redford was finding steady work in the film industry, with his star power only rising. His personal life was going swimmingly as well, and he and his wife Lola Van Wagenen were parents to two children at this point — yet something was missing. In 1963, Redford's friend, actor Carol Rossen, got in touch with him again, observing that something seemed wrong with her friend. "He felt he was in the wrong place, not just in the entertainment industry, but in life," she recalled in "Robert Redford: The Biography."

So, Redford, who was obviously at a loss, decided to take a solo road trip to clear his head, parking his car in California's Big Sur and choosing to walk for 90 miles. As detailed in his biography, he finally came across Deetjen's Big Sur Inn and became fast friends with the hotel's owner. "Here's a man who'd come full circle in the journey life," Redford shared, noting that the man was a convicted murderer who spent time in Alcatraz before getting to Big Sur himself.

The men spoke endlessly over the course of a few days. "He'd get plastered and cuss at the world," the actor mused, adding, "He was volatile, but he had great wisdom." It turns out that those days spent with the innkeeper were just the fix Redford needed to reignite his overall lust for life.

Robert Redford's connection to Natalie Wood

Of course, being a Tinseltown icon for six decades means Robert Redford has countless famous pals. That said, he was particularly close to fellow Hollywood legend Natalie Wood, having first met the "West Side Story" star long before he reached the A-list.

Speaking in a TCM special of "Star of the Month," Redford revealed that he first met the child star in high school, where he was one of the teens in charge of moderating the entrance of late students attending assemblies. One day, when Wood was late, it was Redford who wouldn't let her into the auditorium. "She begs, but I won't budge, so she storms off," he explains, noting that he didn't have a clue who she was.

Years later, when Redford himself was climbing the A-list, he ran into his former schoolmate again when they starred together in 1965's "Inside Daisy Clover." The two hit it off, in part thanks to a kind gesture made by Redford. According to "Robert Redford: The Biography," for one scene, the pair had to shoot on a boat off the Santa Monica pier, where, at one point, thanks to some heavy winds, the two stars got stranded at sea. Wood, who was famously afraid of the water, was visibly upset, so her co-star took it upon himself to ease the tension. From that moment, they became lifelong friends until Wood's untimely passing in 1981. "I'll always be thankful to Natalie for the things that she taught me," Redford shared with TCM.

The one movie role that made Robert Redford feel guilty

"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," released in 1969, is the movie that made Robert Redford a household name. "When I read [the script], I thought, 'This is perfect for me,'" recalled the actor to The Salt Lake Tribune. "It had a lot to do with my own sensibility, which has always been kind of an outlaw sensibility since I was a kid."

Redford, who was still relatively unknown in Hollywood, has his co-star, Paul Newman, to thank for snagging the part of The Sundance Kid. According to ABC News, while director George Roy Hill wanted someone else for the role, Newman respected Redford's talents as a fellow stage actor and pushed for him. The two men quickly became incredibly close while on set, discovering shared interests that only grew as time went on. In fact, Redford had so much fun with Newman that he's been quoted as saying that he felt guilty for taking money for his work due to how fantastic the entire experience was (via TCM).

Besides Redford's contributions on camera as The Sundance Kid, he's also responsible for the location of the flick. Per The Salt Lake Tribune, after the actor got hired, he discovered Hill intended to film in Spain as it was cheaper than in America. Thanks to Redford, it ended up being Utah instead, as he took the director to his stomping grounds and explained why it was historically and visually significant for the film.

He was slated to play the iconic lead role in The Graduate

It's hard to imagine anyone other than Dustin Hoffman playing the role of the panicked and clueless Benjamin Braddock in "The Graduate." Yet, this 1967 classic almost had a completely different actor as its lead star.

According to Vanity Fair, the film's director, Mike Nichols, had experience working with Robert Redford on Broadway, having directed him in "Barefoot in the Park," leading to their eventual friendship. So, when Nichols began casting for "The Graduate," his pal was keen on the lead role. "I said, 'You can't play it. You can never play a loser,'" recalled the director to Vanity Fair. Although Redford protested, Nichols asked him a simple question: did he ever get rejected by a woman? Redford was confused by the question, partially because the answer was, obviously, no. 

Interestingly enough, when the then-still-unknown Hoffman showed interest in the role, he actually phoned Nichols before auditioning himself to suggest that he wasn't the man for the job and it should specifically go to Redford.

Nevertheless, Nichols had his heart set on Hoffman and convinced him to come to Los Angeles and audition. As Hoffman recalled to The Criterion Collection, his screen test was a disaster, in his opinion. "[I was] violently nervous," noted Hoffman. Of course, those nerves were exactly what Nichols was after, and by the time Hoffman was back home in New York, he quickly discovered that the role of the painfully awkward Benjamin was his (via Vanity Fair).

A hoax about his death spread in 2015

Having been born in 1936, Robert Redford is well into his golden years. According to NPR, that actor has been in good health for most of his life — save for a case of polio he had as a child, which, thankfully, wasn't too severe. Yet, in 2015, a bizarre rumor briefly began spreading that the actor had died.

As detailed by Reuters, in December 2015, Britain's Sky News tweeted that Redford, then 79, suffered a fatal fall from a golf buggy in Santa Monica, California. Of course, considering that the actor has countless fans, tributes immediately start pouring in online. The scuttlebutt lasted a full 15 minutes before getting taken down.

Redford, who doesn't use social media, never commented on the situation, but as his publicist, Cindi Berger, told Reuters, "This is a sick hoax. I just spoke to him, and there is no truth to this whatsoever," adding that the Tinseltown legend was going about his life just fine.

His purported final movie was a beautiful swan song

In 2016, during an interview with his grandson for Walker, Robert Redford announced that he'd be retiring from acting after two more films. That final flick ended up being the David Lowery-directed "The Old Man and the Gun” — a fitting watch for an industry great such as Redford himself. Brian Tallerico of dubbed it "a love letter to a cinematic legend," and, after watching Redford's ever-present charm, it would be difficult to disagree.

According to Time, "The Old Man and the Gun" is based on a true story, well, for the most part, and stars Redford as Forrest Tucker, who, at the age of 70, has escaped San Quentin State Prison in California. He immediately goes back to doing what he does best: robbing banks. However, the main thing that separates Tucker from other criminals is that he oozes a sort of gentlemanly charm, one that even his hostages can't help but fall for.

Of course, it's the main character that attracted Redford to the project as much as it did. "Some of the other outlaws I've played have done what they've done because they were against the law," explained the actor in an HFPA interview, quipping, "[Tucker] isn't against anything — he's just having a good time." Noting to Variety that he hopes the movie will simply make people smile, it's the perfect send-off to a Hollywood icon.