Biographer praises Robert Redford's global impact

Published: Saturday, June 18 2011 4:00 p.m. MDT

Michael Feeney Callan

Ree Ward Callan

What Michael Feeney Callan expected to be a three- or four-year-project, pretty much the standard for biographies, turned into a 16-year effort: the life story of Robert Redford.

Part of that was "Redford being Redford," Callan said in a telephone interview from California. Redford has a reputation for never being on time. "Paul Newman jokingly suggested I call the book 'The Late Robert Redford,' " Callan said.

Callan, who lives in Dublin, where he has written novels, plays, short stories and has worked for the BBC, Ireland's Ardmore Studios and PBS as a writer, producer and director, is in the United States for a book tour; he will be doing a reading and signing at the King's English in Salt Lake on Tuesday for "Robert Redford: The Biography" (Knopf, $28.95).

Part of the reason for the length of the project was because Callan wanted to go beyond "the headline value" to explore not only the complex persona but also the cultural influence that is Robert Redford.

"It's too easy to dismiss Redford as a tabloid figure," Callan said. "It's easy to be distracted by his 'pretty-boy looks.' There have been all these tributes to crease-browed directors, probably because they look so serious. Perhaps because of his image, Redford gets overlooked. I've always felt his work has been undervalued, and that the key thematic connections in his directorial films were unexplored. He is really a serious, literary force right up there with the likes of Hawthorne or Whitman."

Redford has had a tremendous impact, not only in America, but globally, Callan says. "Sometimes we get caught up in the speed of culture and don't realize the enormous weight and value the American film culture has always had around the world."

Born in 1937 and raised in California, Redford grew up comfortable with the Hollywood milieu. His career started in television and theater before turning to film. He has, so far, appeared in or directed more than 40 movies; he's received two Oscars, one for directing "Ordinary People" and an honorary one for lifetime achievement. He has also been known for his work with independent filmmakers, both through the Sundance Institute and the Sundance Film Festival; and for his involvement in political and environmental issues.

He married Lola Van Wagenen, a Mormon girl who lived in a neighboring apartment, in 1958; they were the parents of four children, including one who died of SIDS. They divorced in 1985. Redford purchased Sundance, in Provo Canyon, in 1961 and still maintains a home there.

Callan first met Redford at a taping for a Bravo television series in 1995. "I want to do this and asked for his help. At first he said no. I persisted; I let him know that I was going to proceed anyway." As the conversation went on, Callan quoted a phrase from Edgar Allan Poe. "He came back with a quote from 'The Raven,' and suddenly we were talking poetry. A couple of days later, he called to say OK, he would work with me."

They both share a genuine love of poetry, Callan says. "That's what we would find ourselves talking about at 3 in the morning over a glass of wine: Ted Hughes and T.S. Eliot, Prufrock, 'The Waste Land.' In essence, Redford sees the political power of words. But poetry is about the distillation of words. He gets that, too."

Redford was actually an uncredited writer on many of his films. "As I read his notebooks and diaries and scripts, I realized that he never took a script and just recited the words. He took the character that had been created and then created his own character."

The book is well-researched, candid, thoughtful, revealing not only the life and times of Redford, but also the culture and tenor of the era. There is some of the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, but there is also a probing of deeper issues. There is "accountability for neglect of his marriage, incompetence in friendship, failed partnerships, failed businesses." There is information about the process of making movies, as well as discussions of politics, environmental concerns, and the all-consuming-at-times Sundance Institute.

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