On Thursday Robert Redford will turn 75, a fitting occasion for a tip of the hat to the man who may well be the most important actor of his generation.
Certainly there are plenty of others who might claim that distinction. Partisans of Robert Duvall, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, or Vanessa Redgrave have nothing to apologize for. All the same, they and other plausible contenders would be hard-pressed to match Redford's impact on Hollywood in the past quarter-century.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Redford's accomplishments as an actor, director, producer, and champion of independent film is that he didn't need any of it. Genetically gifted with an athletic body and the kind of classic good looks that have only gotten craggier and more interesting with age, Redford could easily have coasted, playing the kind of golden-boy leading-man roles he did early in his career for the next several decades. He could have basked in fame, fortune, and the company of beautiful women without doing much beyond showing up for work.
Instead he seemed to view his looks as a challenge, a barrier between himself and being taken seriously that he was determined to scale, circumvent, or blow to pieces.
His first goal was to establish himself as a credible actor. When, after a brief attempt at a painting career, he decided to become an actor, he didn't head straight for Hollywood, which would have been a natural choice for a young man born a few miles away in Santa Monica, Calif. Instead Redford headed for New York to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Upon graduating he stayed in New York, immersing himself in the freewheeling world of live television in an era when challenging drama had not yet been squeezed out of television by commercial series. Appearing on such legendary series as Playhouse 90 (1960), Naked City (1961), Route 66 (1961), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1961) and The Twilight Zone (1962), Redford worked with young, ambitious actors and directors, doing solid work in quickly assembled, scantily rehearsed productions with bite and substance.
By the time he made his big-screen debut in the Korean War drama War Hunt (1962), Redford felt that he had proven himself as an actor -- but he seldom was offered roles that he found challenging in the early years. The Southern drama The Chase (1966), starring Marlon Brando and adapted from Horton Foote's play by Lillian Hellman, gave him a meaty role as an escaped convict, but more often the studios cast him in lighter fare such as Situation Hopeless ... But Not Serious (1965) and Barefoot in the Park (1967), the latter adapting the Neil Simon play in which Redford had scored a hit on Broadway.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) was the most important film of Redford's career. Its gleefully anarchic humor showed a new side of him, and it introduced him to a lifelong friend and collaborator, Paul Newman.
Most important, its blockbuster success put Redford in the position to call his own shots, and he wasted no time in doing so. For the next decade he balanced light entertainments such as The Hot Rock (1972), The Way We Were (1973), and Three Days of the Condor (1975) with more ambitious fare such as Jeremiah Johnson (1972), The Great Gatsby (1974), and All the President's Men (1976).
By 1980 Redford was ready for his next step, moving behind the camera. It was not unprecedented for actors to direct, but the era's most prominent hyphenates -- Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood, most notably -- usually directed films in which they themselves starred, working in the genres with which they were most familiar.
Instead Redford stayed put behind the camera -- he would appear in only two of the films he directed, saying, "As a director I wouldn't like me as an actor, and as an actor I wouldn't like me as a director" -- and directed a kind of film he never had acted in.
The family drama Ordinary People (1980), based on Judith Guest's novel, was a taut, realistic story with no call for actors with preternaturally good looks. Its stars, Judd Hirsch, Timothy Hutton, Mary Tyler Moore, and Donald Sutherland, performed brilliantly for Redford, and the film won four Oscars, including Best Picture and, for its debuting director, Best Director.
He wasted no time in pushing his winnings back onto the table. At a time when offers to direct were pouring in, he didn't direct another film for eight years. At a time when his earning potential as a leading man was at its height, he appeared in only three films between 1980 and 1990.
Instead Redford set out to establish himself as a producer, not only of his own films but also of a mix of quirky independent films and documentaries. And, most significant of all, he poured time, money, and personal prestige into his personal pet projects, the Sundance Institute and the Sundance Film Festival.
Besides his championing of independent film, Redford has been a lifelong advocate of liberal causes, particularly the environment and the plight of Native Americans. Unlike many actors sincerely interested in such issues, however, he has made it his business to become an expert in the social, economic, and political issues involved.
In 2002 Redford received an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement as "actor, director, producer, creator of Sundance, inspiration to independent and innovative filmmakers everywhere."
It was a fair summing-up for a man who has left his fingerprints on thousands of American films of the past 20 years, one way or another.
"I can't think of anything outside of having the gift yourself and creating yourself," Redford has said. "I can't think of the next better thing to do than being able to put it back. Creative expression, I think, is vital to the success of any society ... A society without art will die."