The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Robert Redford

It's no overstatement to call Robert Redford one of the most important people in Hollywood history. Upon his emergence as a Boomer generation icon in the 1960s, he was merely a devastatingly handsome leading man type, an A-lister for decades for his work in classic movies like "Barefoot in the Park," "Jeremiah Johnson," "The Sting," "The Natural," "The Great Gatsby," and "All the President's Men." But that wasn't enough for Redford, who became one of the first big stars to segue into directing, for which he won an Oscar in 1981 for "Ordinary People." A champion of filmmaking, he'd found the highly influential, indie film-touting Sundance Film Festival and become an outspoken naturalist, environmentalist, and conservationist, too.

But for all the art and positivity that Redford has undoubtedly unleashed into the world, he's endured a shocking amount of hardship, misfortune, death, dysfunction, calamity, and tragedy. Here's a look at the worst, lowest, and most trying moments in the long life and career of Robert Redford.

Robert Redford had a polio as a child

In 2011, Robert Redford collaborated with author Michael Feeney Callan on "Robert Redford: The Biography," an exhaustive, definitive look back on his life that included previously unknown or little-known revelations about the personal life of the mega-famous actor. One of the most harrowing stories came from Redford's childhood — when he was diagnosed with polio, the devastating disease that leads to severe breathing issues, paralysis, and often death (per the Mayo Clinic). It was almost entirely eradicated in the 1950s with a vaccine, but Redford grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, when polio remained rampant. "It wasn't an iron lung case. It was a case of mild polio, but it was severe enough to put me in bed for two weeks," Redford told NPR's "Fresh Air," explaining that he developed the disease after swimming in the ocean. "I couldn't move very well, but I was not paralyzed." He realized he had the disease when he awoke one morning and couldn't move his arms or open his eyes.

Eluding major lasting damage from polio, Redford would pay tribute to Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, as a co-director of "Cathedrals of Culture," a documentary about the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

Robert Redford lost an important father figure at a young age

Robert Redford was raised in the Los Angeles area by two parents, mother Martha and father Charles, who supported his family throughout the Great Depression as a milkman-turned-accountant who worked for Standard Oil, per "Robert Redford: The Biography." According to The Mirror, Redford's father had to work such long hours that it left little time for family and Charles Redford's brother, David, filled the void of a father figure for the future superstar. Redford, who would later pursue athletics and a number of cerebral and artistic paths, must have been influenced by the large amounts of time he spent with his well-rounded uncle, a gifted football player who spoke four languages.

David Redford was a member of the U.S. military, and he served as an interpreter in General George S. Patton's Third Army. "On his furlough, he'd come down to play baseball with me and so forth." But then in the early 1940s, the elder Redford was called away to combat, and he died in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. Young Robert Redford was devastated by the death of his uncle, and he didn't get a lot of grief support. "The way the family dealt with it — it just wasn't talked about. It just happened, and you didn't ask a lot of questions," he told NPR.

Robert Redford lost his mother early

Not long after he recovered from a childhood bout of polio, per NPR, a very young Robert Redford dealt with a tremendous family tragedy, the effects of which would be felt for years and end in even more untimely death. When Redford was 10 years old (according to a speech at the Sundance Film Festival Utah Women's Leadership Celebration, via Closer Weekly), the actor's mother, Martha Redford, gave birth to twin girls. Her doctor advised against the pregnancy — Robert Redford's birth had been particularly medically troublesome. "She wanted a family so badly, she got pregnant again," Redford said. The twins died almost immediately after birth.

During that chaotic, traumatic medical episode, Martha Redford developed a blood disorder, which would remain a permanent, nagging condition until it led to a hemorrhage that would be the primary factor leading to her death in 1955. She was 40; her son was 18.

Robert Redford almost died a couple of times during his teenage years

As Michael Feeney Callan wrote in "Robert Redford: The Biography," the post-World War II America of Redford's childhood experienced tremendous racism and racial tensions. Growing up in Southern California, Redford got caught up in race-related gang wars, bullied and pushed around by a member of the Pachucks. "There was a kid called Felix who picked on me, probably because I went to a good school, I was good at track and popular with the girls, and he beat up on me," Redford said. "I toughened up fast," if only for survival, he said. At one point, some of those bullying forces persuaded teenage Redford to join them on the rooftop of a building, and, in order to show off how tough and macho he purported to be, to jump off the roof. Redford accepted the potentially deadly challenge, and the leap nearly killed him.

Later on, Redford experimented with hashish and marijuana and got involved in the semi-legal if not illegal drag racing subculture that ran through Santa Barbara, California, in the early 1950s. On the way to one such race, Redford crashed his car while driving at 90 miles per hour and according to his biography, survived the incident but was "lucky to be alive."

His habits led to an early dismissal from college

According to his authorized biography, Robert Redford graduated from Van Nuys High School in 1954, with adequate grades but an impressive athletics resume. That earned him an acceptance to the University of Colorado at Boulder, which had a baseball program that impressed Redford, and there was chatter that he might earn himself a sports scholarship if he were to succeed on the field. But once classes began, Redford focused on studying art and dropped his baseball ambitions. 

Struggling to make friends, he started hanging around with a senior member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity. The socialization helped Redford come out of his self-imposed isolation, and even increase his artistic output, but it would also lead to his undoing. Within a few months, Redford was a regular in campus "drinking circles," imbibing a lot of booze, pulling pranks, and spending more time drag racing and riding motorcycles than studying, according to NPR.

Redford wouldn't finish college. Following his mother's death when he was 18 years old, Redford began to drink even more, to the point where it led to the loss of his baseball scholarship. Without that, he could no longer attend college, and he was asked to leave the University of Colorado, per the Express.

His first son died in infancy

Slightly more than a decade after grieving the immediate death of his newborn twin siblings, Robert Redford once more dealt with the tragic loss of an infant — this time it was his own child, his first offspring. According to Closer Weekly, in 1958, he married Lola Van Wagenen, a historian based in Los Angeles. Per The Mirror, the couple eloped and then quickly moved to New York, where Redford studied at the Pratt Institute before being cast in a play. By 1959, the Redfords had started a family that would eventually include three surviving children. The firstborn, a son named Scott, wouldn't live to adulthood. At just 10 weeks old, Scott Redford died from sudden infant death syndrome, a mysterious and still poorly understood condition also called "crib death." "That was a tough hit," Robert Redford told People in 1998. "It was our first child. We were in New York and we were broke. It was really tough."

Declining to speak about the event much over the years, Redford instead quietly raised funds for research into the causes of SIDS.

His second son faced numerous health calamities

Following the early and untimely loss of baby son Scott, Robert Redford and Lola Van Wagenen built a large family, per Closer Weekly, which would include children James (or Jamie), Shauna, and Amy Redford. Like his deceased brother, eldest Redford sibling Jamie would also endure health problems as a child and throughout his life. According to "Robert Redford: The Biography," doctors diagnosed newborn Jamie Redford with a severe, potentially deadly case of hyaline membrane disease, an infant respiratory condition (per MedicineNet), giving survival odds of 40%.

The child recovered, but Jamie Redford "suffered the furies" of medical woes, his father told People, including colitis, a chronic digestive condition that leads to inflammation of the colon, infections, and blood flow problems (according to The George Washington University Hospital). The colitis in turn directly led to liver issues, and Jamie Redford was diagnosed with cirrhosis, and he received a liver transplant in 1993 at age 31. Unfortunately, the new organ didn't alleviate the younger Redford's health issues, and Jamie Redford had to undergo another liver transplant. (Every weekend while filming "Quiz Show" in New York, Robert Redford would fly out to Omaha to be with Jamie, where he was hospitalized.) Jamie Redford slowly recovered after the second transplant and endured serious complications, but he would ultimately survive and continue his career as a filmmaker and producer for three more decades. He died in 2020 at age 58 of bile duct cancer.

Robert Redford's close friend Natalie Wood drowned

Van Nuys High School in southern California in the 1950s was the academic home of two screen legends: Robert Redford and Natalie Wood. The two didn't know each other at the time; he was an athlete and Wood was already a big name, having been a child star in "Miracle on 34th Street" and about to land an Oscar nomination for "Rebel Without a Cause." Redford told TCM that he and Wood became close friends and voracious collaborators in the 1960s, co-starring in "Inside Daisy Clover" and "This Property is Condemned." She cameoed in his movie "The Candidate," and he was the best man at one of her weddings.

"I only wish our paths could have crossed again," Redford said. Wood, who had an admitted fear of water, drowned after leaving a yacht where she'd been partying (and fighting with) her husband Robert Wagner, near Catalina Island off California, in 1981. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the circumstances of how Wood actually died remain murky more than 40 years later. Natalie Wood was 43 years old.

His daughter's boyfriend was murdered

Robert Redford's eldest daughter, Shauna, was born in 1961 and became an artist. She'd make headlines in the early 1980s for her association with a tragic story. Shauna Redford's college sweetheart at the University of Colorado was a journalism student named Sid Wells, according to NBC News. In January 1983, Wells rented out a room in his apartment to  Thayne Smika. Less than eight months later, Sid was found dead, killed by a gunshot wound to the head. Smika was arrested but released due to a lack of compelling evidence of guilt. The suspect moved to California, and his abandoned car (with no fingerprints anywhere on it) was found in Beverly Hills in 1986, and Smika was never heard from again. In 2010, new ballistic and forensic evidence emerged that pointed to Smika, and a warrant was issued for the arrest but he was never located and the murder remains officially unsolved.

It was a difficult time for the Redford family. Eight months after Wells' death, according to People, Shauna Redford was driving her Ford Bronco near Salt Lake City and lost control of the vehicle, plunging into the icy Jordan River. A local named Dorine Stalker Rivers witnessed the accident and dove in, retrieving Shauna and pulling her to safety as she lost consciousness. Robert Redford publicly thanked Rivers by inviting her to the premiere of "The Natural" in 1984, which had suspended production so that the star could attend Wells' funeral.

Robert Redford's first marriage ended in divorce

For many years, Robert Redford represented one-half of one of the longest-enduring marriages amongst the Hollywood elite, a group notorious for short-lived wedded bliss. According to Closer Weekly, he married Lola Van Wagenen way back in 1958, well before he found fame and fortune as an actor or filmmaker. The pairing lasted, despite a less-than-rock solid foundation, since he married her in part to prove to his family that he could pull it off. "They feared that I was going to go off the deep end, or that I would never amount to anything, or die at an early age. I wanted to prove them wrong," he told The Telegraph, noting that he and Wagenen had $300 between them at the time of their wedding. 

After parenting three kids to adulthood across nearly three decades, Redford and Van Wagenen divorced in 1985, according to People. "I got lost for a time," the actor said of post-marriage life. After failed flings with actor Sonia Braga and costume designer Kathy O'Rear, Redford met Billie Szaggars, an artist about 20 years younger. They met in 1996, and married in 2009.