Essays · Movies

A Beginner’s Guide to Robert Redford

Robert Redford is one of the few actors who have changed the course of filmmaking during their career.
Robert Redford
Universal Studios
By  · Published on September 24th, 2018

There’s never been a full package filmmaker quite like Robert Redford. He wowed audiences with his golden looks but soon proved he had the talent to be much more than just a heartthrob. Redford’s career is one of the longest in Hollywood history and has spanned across several concentrations in the industry. As his possible last starring film The Old Man and the Gun releases in theaters on Friday, look back at everything Redford has accomplished in his prolific career.

From painter to actor

Born in Santa Monica in 1936, Robert Redford lived a normal early life. He was a self-proclaimed “bad student,” always more interested in art and sports. Despite looking like the poster boy for wholesome 1950s America, Redford didn’t feel at home in normal society. He couldn’t hold down a job during high school, felt completely lost after graduation, and hated college life. After getting kicked out of the University of Colorado Boulder, Redford set off to spend his time traveling around Europe and fell in love with painting. His love for stories was a constant throughout his early life, from when he would listen to his favorite radio show Let’s Pretend about storytelling to when he started taking classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in NYC.

Redford started getting into theater acting first, accepting small roles at first before landing a leading role in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, which he would later play in the film adaptation as well in 1967. After he moved on to Hollywood, Redford started making waves in small roles in film and television. His small roles in television included The Twilight Zone, Playhouse 90, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He acted in a couple of Natalie Wood movies This Property is Condemned and Inside Daisy Clover, which earned him a Golden Globe for Best New Star. Redford wasn’t at a loss for roles, but he became worried about his image of the beautiful blond heartthrob. He refused to be typecast, resulting in turning down roles in even The Graduate and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Lucky to be at the end of the studio system, Redford had the option to control his own image and decide which roles he wanted to take once he had moderate success in the industry. He told LIFE magazine:

“They throw that word ‘star’ at you loosely, and they take it away loosely if your pictures flop. You take responsibility for their crappy movie, that’s all it means. So what I said was, since you say I’m responsible if my name is above the title, then give me the responsibility. That’s all”

1969: His breakout year

The movie that made Robert Redford a household name and a bankable star is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, written by William Goldman and directed by George Roy Hill. He starred beside already well-known star Paul Newman in a role much different than the pretty boys he was playing up until 1969. He still looked damn good but with the role of the Sundance Kid, Redford was able to be more than just a nice face to look at. He was an outlaw, giving him a more interesting character to delve into. This role would define his success and him as a star for the rest of his career. It was widely popular, becoming the highest-grossing movie of that year. It’s popularity never waned, though. Many people who hear Redford’s name think of the fun gunslinger and his impeccable chemistry with Newman.

Redford would star in two more movies that came out in 1969. Although they weren’t as popular, they showed that he was capable of working hard and playing various roles. In Downhill Racer, Redford is champion skier David Chappellet, a talented yet arrogant athlete who clashes with his coach played by Gene Hackman. The movie is allegedly based on famous skier Spider Sabich’s life, who was later killed under suspicious circumstances by a girlfriend in 1976. Roger Ebert actually liked this Redford movie more than Butch Cassidy, calling Downhill Racer “the best movie ever made about sports—without really being about sports at all.” Tell Them Willie Boy Was Here was another 1969 western, but this time Redford starred on the other side of the law as the sheriff in search of an Indian boy Willie for murder. All three of these 1969 movies proved to the world that Redford was good at what he loved to do, telling stories. The world quickly fell in love with him. John Dominis, a LIFE photographer, spent time with Redford in his rural home in Utah during his breakout year, giving the world a glimpse of the real person he was, a strong man who knew what he deserved. Dominis later told LIFE: “He was a real man. A strong person. I liked him a lot. And he was nice to me, even though he didn’t know me.” Redford wasn’t just the good-looking actor everyone liked on screen, he was a well-grounded person who didn’t buy into fame.

Actor Extraordinaire

Redford’s career in acting was only going up from 1969 as he fit the roles of New Hollywood movies during the 1970s. Of the 14 films that Redford starred in during the ’70s, at least six are still recognizable and held to be great films. In 1972, he starred in The Candidate, a political comedy/drama about a different kind of candidate, willing to do whatever since he has no chance of winning. The Way We Were was released in 1973, seeing Robert Redford alongside Barbra Streisand another one of the biggest stars during that time. Redford’s role as Hubbell Gardiner seems to be more like his early roles as a beautiful love interest. The movie is melodramatic, but it was well nominated at the year’s Oscars and many praised both Streisand and Redford’s performances despite the story. 1973 also brought back the dynamic duo Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting, a caper film (comedic heist movie) where Newman plays a grifter and Redford is a mob boss. While it was another fun action-filled collaboration between Newman and Redford, it was the last of two movies they would make over their long careers.

Perhaps one of the most important movies Redford ever starred in, All the President’s Men was released in 1976. Dramatizing the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon in 1974, the movie sees Robert Redford as one of two journalists Woodward and Bernstein that penned the story of corruption. Redford as at the forefront of production from the very beginning. He bought the rights to the journalists’ book about the scandal and hired William Goldman, whom he worked with on Butch Cassidy, to write the adaptation of the book. Redford hated Goldman’s first draft and turned to one of the journalists Bernstein and his girlfriend to rewrite it. Still not happy with it, the director of the movie continued to work with Redford on rewrites. Redford also had a huge hand in casting, selecting Dustin Hoffman as his costar to play Bernstein. The movie was welcomed with universal acclaim and won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, given to William Goldman.

Many other actors wouldn’t be able to last the 60 years of acting as Redford has. Even after his big role as the journalist Woodward, he continued to search for roles that surprised him. Acting was something Redford was clearly talented at, but once he saw the other side of production with All the President’s Men he wanted something more than just being a star. Always the one to take what he wants and know what he’s capable of, Redford shifted his focus to behind the camera.


Redford’s first directing experience is one of his most notable. 1980’s Ordinary People was a dark drama about a family struggling with the death of one son. Robert Redford was looking to direct but needed the perfect story to get started. Once he read the book Ordinary People by Judith Guest, he knew this was the story for him. Actors Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, and newbie Timothy Hutton signed on to play the members of the grieving family. Redford and everyone on board loved the story, but no studio wanted to make it. Redford told Entertainment Weekly: “At that particular time, there was no interest in the film. I’d gone to a couple of studios and they were not interested. They thought it was decidedly uncommercial. Also, the lead character was a woman who appeared dark and negative—they didn’t want to have anything to do with that. Especially because it was going to be Mary Tyler Moore. No studio wanted it.” This initial disdain for the film by the industry just proved how different and refreshing it would be. It finally found its home at Paramount and went on to win big at the 1981 Oscars, one award going to Redford for his directorial debut. Redford would go on to direct 9 films after his debut, including A River Runs Through It and Quiz Show. In the clip below, he talks eloquently about his desire to direct and tell the specific, although difficult, story of Ordinary People.

Sundance Film Festival

If you’re catching on to a pattern here, it’s that Redford is never content with one aspect of filmmaking for long. He had a lot of influence in the industry by 1981 and wanted to use that power to bring new and innovative stories into moviemaking. The Sundance Institute held its first filmmaking lab in 1981, offering independent filmmakers the tools to develop their ideas unique to their personal experiences, rather than what studios think they need to produce. Famous director and longtime Redford collaborator Sydney Pollack acted as one of the advisors of the lab, giving tips to filmmakers they likely would have never known if not for Redford’s Institute.

Not everyone was happy with Redford decision to give a voice to new filmmakers in the remote state of Utah. In an interview with his grandson, he said: “There was a misunderstanding in the beginning that by starting Sundance and having it be in Utah, not Hollywood or New York, that I was like an insurgent. I was like some guy aiming to take down Hollywood by starting something different and new. It wasn’t that at all. I really just wanted to broaden the landscape. Because I was part of the mainstream. I made some films I’m very proud of in the mainstream, and I liked it, but I thought, ‘There are other ways to tell stories, so why don’t we just create this category and then add it to the main one?'”

Redford’s work to bring independent filmmaking into the light was a success. In 1985, the first Sundance Film Festival commenced in a 10-day celebration of narrative, documentary, and international film. The 90s brought filmmakers that reveled in the newfound industry interest in the unique voices of independent filmmakers, namely Quentin Tarantino whose Resevoir Dogs was workshopped in the Director’s Lab and premiered at the 1992 festival. From then on, the festival has continued to innovate to stay an influence on filmmaking around the world. It’s still one of the most notable American festivals, usually starting Oscar buzz for many of the films that premiere there.

Redford has proven that he not only can act but can make his mark in every aspect of filmmaking all while lifting other artists up in a way few other actors have cared to do. Its what earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 and its what has kept him in the industry for longer than most actors. True artists are hard to come by, but it’s clear that Robert Redford has always been committed to being the best artist he could be.

At 82, Robert Redford has announced that his movie with David Lowery The Old Man & the Gun will be the last film in which he’ll act. He only regrets announcing his decision, because news began to focus on him rather than the movie itself. Always the gracious man, Redford would have rather just went quietly out of the industry as to not make it such a big deal. However he would’ve decided to retire, his name and legacy in every aspect of filmmaking could never be forgotten.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_