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People Top 5
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- October 27, 1975
- Vol. 4
- No. 17
The All-American Actor
The Rocky Mountain High Life of Robert Redford includes Acting, Producing, Environmentalistism and Maybe Politics?
"All this," he hollers, eyes bright with the light of battle, "could be ruined in ten years. Ecological disaster. Why?" He shrugs. "Southern California Edison wants to build a giant power plant right down there. Smokestacks 800 feet high. No doubt an engineering marvel, but poison plumes will spew out thousands of tons of pollution every year. They say they need power for Southern California, but why do the power plants already in existence work only at half capacity? There's high-grade coal in this country, and we're hearing rumors of a huge uranium hunt. Big corporations moving in." He grins ironically. "For a minute there I thought we might be watching a major power grab, but I sure was relieved when So Cal assured us it was all in the public interest."
Can this be the living doll of the fan magazine covers? The image is there—the golden thatch, the ice-blue eyes, the all-American jaw—but the man behind it is startlingly fierce, direct, caustic, intelligent. On the screen, though incandescent, he seems cool; face to face one feels a furnace energy. All kinds of energy: physical, intellectual, competitive, creative. But the cool is there too—one friend calls him "a mentholated tornado."
Redford lives as he drives his racing Porsche: with the absolute release made possible by absolute control. Few men do so much of what they would like; few work and play with such targeted intensity. Actor, producer, athlete, rancher, environmentalist, family man—Redford seems to scatter his effects but in fact he balances his life. He is the sanest of the superstars and has the largest political potential of any actor since Ronald Reagan.
Will he run for office? Redford snorts. He has found less risky ways to urge his beliefs. The Candidate took a mocking look at elections in America. Three Days of the Condor, just released, does a job on the CIA. All the President's Men, now in the cutting room, is based on the Watergate best-seller. But Redford's most passionate concern is God's green world and how to keep men from mucking it up. For almost a decade he has fought with fervor to preserve the air, water, forests, birds and beasts of the Utah country he calls home.
Yet Redford is no pamphlet-shuffling fanatic—he would far rather sit on a horse than on a committee. With the luck of his millions, a lust for the outdoor life and a drive for moral survival, this subtle child of the big city has found his way back to The Big Country and demonstrated with the zest of a postponed pioneer how to use it strenuously and well.
Lake Powell, man-made by the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River, is a Henry Moore sculpture 30 miles wide and almost 200 miles long. Bronze cliffs cast in powerful maternal forms enclose a ragged sea of clear blue water. Redford is ripping across the lake on a water ski—cutting perimeters, hopping his powerboat's wake. Back aboard, Redford takes the helm and goes nosing into hot little fjords, watching for Indian traces.
Over more than three decades of violent exercise, his body has taken a steady beating. His left knee has never quite recovered from a snowmobile ride off a 30-foot cliff. His hip was permanently dislocated and his upper back seriously skewed when he jumped from a moving car—to ease the strain he hangs from every lintel he can reach. Hands and feet have been fractured and his nose broken five times.
But he goes right on with his daredevil games: this month he had his first hang-gliding lesson, and he is playing some pulverizing tennis with two fractured toes. At 38, lesions aside, he has the body of a 25-year-old. Not a milligram of fat on the man and he eats as he damn pleases. How tall is Robert Redford? Belittling reports to the contrary, he is 5'11¾".
"Before they put the dam in, some of these canyons were a thousand feet deep," he says, sucking thoughtfully at a can of beer. "Rich natural life down in those canyons. Some of the junipers were 600 years old. There were gophers, snakes, all kinds of birds. Wild sheep. Even deer." Spotting a cliff dwelling, Redford runs the boat ashore and clambers up a 60° boulder-strewn slope. Under a cliff face that bellies above him like a massive sail, he stands quietly soaking up the ancient spirit of the place.
"It's profane in a way," he says with some embarrassment. "I mean, a wealthy glamorpuss comes cruising by in his powerboat and stops off to paw around in the rubble and pick up a little neolithic atmosphere. The truth is, I consider places like this sacred ground. The people who lived here were simple and beautiful. We have so much to learn from them. Admitted, they had simpler choices than we have. But they lived in a noble relationship with nature, and most people in our time have lost that. I truly believe that if we don't move quickly to restore it, nature will take an appalling vengeance on our civilization. In that case, people may find themselves living in conditions that would make this hole in the wall seem like paradise. To stop that from happening is the thing I care about most."
Redford is building a spectacular natural sanctuary in Utah. He owns a ranch and a ski resort at Sundance, a quarter-horse training farm near Provo and a huge tract of wild land in the Wasatch Mountains. "Close to 7,000 acres altogether. That's a lot, I know. I'd understand it if someone said it was too much for one man and his family. But I don't think I'm just piling up land the way some men pile up money. I'm collecting space, and space has a very deep meaning for me."
It began to have meaning while Redford was growing up as an accountant's son in Santa Monica. When he was a little boy, Southern California was still a collection of picturesque villages with plenty of brown and green between. By the time he was 15, much of the free space was gone and most of the breathable air.
"I just felt an overwhelming desire to get out of there," he says. When he was 18 he went to Europe to study painting and in his spare time, too broke to take trains, walked all over the Continent.Back in the states he discovered Utah and a warm, beautiful, tough-minded Mormon girl named Lola Van Wagenen. He fell in love with them both and made up his mind that if his career ever got going he would buy a piece of Utah and make his home there.
With a lump of cash inherited unexpectedly from his grandfather, he bought land at Sundance and in 1962 the Redfords began to build their mountain lodge—with their own hands. Constructed of dramatically intersecting A-frames, the house has seven rooms, two baths, a living room 28 feet high, a brook that rustles past the front door and a huge chimney that rams up through the house like an obelisk. Redford pats the rocks with a contented smile. "Every boulder you see there, Lola and I picked out and put in place. If our marriage survived the fights we had over those stones, I figure it can survive anything." But the best part of the house is the view of peaks and glaciers that, as one visitor put it, "makes paradise superfluous."
Redford also maintains a flat in Manhattan—"Lola and I like the stimulation of New York and we think it's a good place for the children to go to school." But the family spends five months in Sundance. There are three Redford children: Shauna, 14, Jamie, 13, and Amy, 5. All healthy, natural, not in the least Hollywooden; close to each other and to their parents. When Redford talks too much about business, the children have a little song they get together and sing: "Double R/Superstar!/Who in the hell do you think you are?"
Redford and his wife are close too—but not clinging. "I'm away a good deal, especially when I'm making pictures, and we don't work on projects together. Lola is the director of Consumer Action Now (CAN) and she puts in a full week at her New York office working on consumer-environmental issues. But we're in and out of each other's lives at every level. I'd say we stay together because we're strong, not because we're weak."
The love of the land is a richly woven bond between them. He keeps five horses on his 1,100-acre farm, and the family rides hundreds of miles a year. At least once a year every member of the family (except Amy) rides or hikes off into the woods and spends a whole day alone. "Things come to you out of that kind of solitude," says Redford, "that I don't think you can get in any other way." Last summer, needing to escape from All the President's Men, he packed his saddlebags, rode off into the hills for eight days and nights and came back a new man. "Other people have analysis," he says with an easy smile. "I have Utah."
"Jeezuss!" Redford yelps, snatching off his leaky old 10-gallon hat and whacking it ecstatically across his thigh. "Is that a turn-on? We got the all-time ski area! Come on, snow!" Standing atop a 10,000-foot peaklet, he is staring down a slope so horrendously steep that, as one visitor remarked, "when it levels off it's only perpendicular." Mile after mile the slopes plunge down through forests aflame with autumn colors. "And please note," Redford reminds, "that we have built all these trails without violating the land."
At most ski resorts, the trails make unsightly erosive gashes in the summer mountainsides. At Sundance, he says proudly, they will be seeded with wildflowers. "Money is not the point here. The resort will make money—it already does. The point is to do Sundance right, make it into something we love and want to live with."
Which brings Redford to the subject that more than any other absorbs him these days: solar energy. As soon as possible he wants the whole Sundance complex to be solar-powered. "The technology is here," he says, and the advantages, Redford is convinced, are decisive. "First, it's clean—no pollution. Second, it's cheap—once the cost of installation is paid. Third, it's a step toward self-sufficiency—and that makes the switch worthwhile."
Self-sufficiency is almost an obsession with Redford. He wants Sundance to generate its own power, raise its own food, become as independent as possible of the society that surrounds it. Why? "Because I resent the exploitation of the individual. There are a lot of wonderful things about America, but right now our economic and political processes are seriously disturbed. The big accumulations of capital have entirely too much power. They elect our officials. They write our laws. They get us into wars. They keep us poor with high prices. They feed us junk food. They pollute our air and water and chew up our landscape. I can't fight them on a national scale, but I can fight them here at Sundance. I intend to."
What makes Redford run? An impossible dream? An abysmal hunger? The desire and pursuit of the horizon? His wife says simply: "He's always been that way." On a recent day at Sundance he was up at 7 a.m., made nine phone calls and had three business meetings before breakfast, played tennis and had another meeting before lunch, rode horseback and had two more meetings after lunch, spent an hour inspecting the innovative but functional house he is building about a half mile uphill from the A-frame.
Informed that he was late for another meeting, he grinned like a naughty kid and said: "C'mon, let's volley a few minutes. That new court looks so good." After 15 minutes, the only way his friend could get him off the court was to challenge him to a race: "I'll take the Suburban, you take the Yamaha—I'll beat you down the hill!" Broken toes and all, Redford sprinted to the Yamaha, started it in seconds and went bouncing across an open field at 60 mph. "Look at that son of a bitch go!" his friend hollered. "He really is a free spirit!"
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