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Santa Barbara Film Fest: Robert Redford Reluctantly Reflects on a Great Career

The 77-year-old legend said, "I don't look back. I never have. One day, you wake up and look in the car mirror and you realize there's history. And then it gets weird."

Robert Redford Santa Barbara - P - 2014
Associated Press
Robert Redford on stage in Santa Barbara

SANTA BARBARA -- If Friday night's Santa Barbara International Film Festival tribute to Robert Redford taught us anything, it is that the legendary actor-director-festival founder is a man of his word. The 77-year-old agreed to come to the fest to participate in a Q&A and accept the American Riviera Award back in Dec., when it looked like a sure thing that he would receive a best actor Oscar nomination for All Is Lost. When that did not happen in Jan., he could have understandably, if disappointingly, pulled out, as some others who were Oscar-snubbed did this year and in years past. But, as an old showbiz pro and a man who knows how tough it is to put together a festival, he did not want to leave someone else hanging and not only showed up but provided one of the more exciting and fascinating evenings of the fest's 29th edition.

Few actors have ever had a resume with the quantity and quality of work as Redford's, which made possible a terrific montage to open the ceremonies. Then Redford, a self-described "shy" man, stepped onto the stage, to a massive standing ovation, took a seat across from film historian Leonard Maltin and said, "I don't look back. I never have. One day, you wake up and look in the car mirror and you realize there's history. And then it gets weird." Nevertheless, look back he did over the course of a two-hour conversation with the well-versed moderator -- and, for the majority of the time, he actually seemed to enjoy it.

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The still blonde and well-coiffed septuagenarian talked about the fact that, as a young man from a working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles, he was an athlete who wanted to be an artist but stumbled into theater and then television and then film. "It was hard for me to accept being an actor," he admitted. "There was a tension that kept me from really enjoying being an actor," at least for a while. It was during a year abroad as a struggling artist in a country in which he did not speak the language that he learned to be a good listener, a skill that made him a more than good actor.

At the outset of his career, he worked a lot on the New York stage and on live television, which was then largely shot out of Gotham. "I liked television then and I do now," he said, noting that he appeared on the last episode of Playhouse 90 and the most watched episode of The Twilight Zone.

But what made him a movie star was his work opposite the late Paul Newman -- with whom he had "a lasting friendship" -- in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), exactly 45 years ago. Redford said he was originally asked to play Cassidy, not Sundance, but wanted to swap and Newman supported the idea, as did George Roy Hill, who Redford emphasized deserved more credit for Butch and its Oscar-winning sequel, The Sting (1973), than he ever received.

In the years immediately thereafter, Redford sought to capitalize on his stardom to get financing for smaller projects with important things to say about American society and, to quote Charlie Sheen, "winning." He intended to star in a trilogy that covered politics, business and sport, but "only" managed to cover the first and third: The Candidate (1972) showed how Americans could fall for a man "totally unqualified but cosmetically appealing," while Downhill Racer (1969) similarly ended with a question, "Wait a minute, what have I won?!"

Redford discussed his long and fruitful collaboration with Sydney Pollack, who had originally started out as an actor before stepping behind the camera, and whom Redford fought for on several pictures. They ended up collaborating on seven, including Jeremiah Johnson (1972) The Way We Were (1973), Three Days of the Condor (1975) and the Oscar-winning Out of Africa (1985). "We had a wonderful connection," Redford said. "I felt that I was in good hands. He understood me as an actor."

Even as perhaps the biggest movie star in the world, at his height, Redford still had to fight to get his passion projects made. These ranged from 1974's The Great Gatsby ("I loved the novel") to 1976's All the President's Men (noting that he was pursuing a film about Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein long before Richard Nixon ever resigned from the presidency).

Ordinary People (1980) marked his first time directing a film himself. He decided to make the jump because, he said, "Being an actor was very satisfying, but there was something still unfulfilled." He wanted to tell the story about "the grey area" of American society, a film about people who "focused on things looking right but were not willing to look at feelings." His directorial debut was recognized with the Oscars for best picture and best director, no small feat. "It was surprising," he said of the acclaim. "Not expected."

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Over the years since, he has become the ultimate multi-hyphenate, splitting his time between acting, directing and running the Sundance Film Festival, which he established in 1978. "I'm curious about everything," he confessed.

What his most recent challenge, the part of "Our Man" in J.C. Chandor's All Is Lost (2013), represented to him was "a wonderful opportunity to go back to my roots as an actor." The film's script -- which Redford says was the first one he was ever offered by a Sundance alum -- was only 30 pages long and featured virtually no dialogue, but would pose great challenges in other respects. "It was physically very difficult," he acknowledged, "but I thought, 'At this point in my life, let's see what I can do.'"

Anyone who saw Redford's performance in that film and/or at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival saw what Redford can do. He may not be a spring chicken anymore, but he's still handsome -- and, more importantly, he's still got it.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg