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.
The hardest part, Callan says, was "to deflate the media mythology, to overcome the popular inclination to just look at the headlines. He was so much more than the popular icon of the '60s and '70s."
Director Sydney Pollack, "who became a great friend on the project, told me the only way to approach it was to get all the aspects of his personal life, build up the true details of what he did, and let people evaluate it for themselves."
If readers want sex scandals, if they want dark secrets, they will have to look at other lives, Callan says.
"Redford's most powerful relationships were those with Lola, and with Sibylle Szaggars (whom he married in 2009). His romantic life was far more serene than most people want," Callan said.
"He is a family man. I would often take my family along for meetings. I got to know him over a lot of years. He was determined not to be swallowed by glamour and image, but to keep on with important films that say something about the human condition."
Callan characterizes Redford as a "tough critter, with a sense of mission in his career that took a lot of strength and fiber. I learned how much his commitment to independent film defines him. He wanted to leave some mark, something for future generations. His heart is in the right place."
That commitment has inspired Callan, who is currently working on a project with Britain's Channel 4 and Abbey Road Studios to "empower young musicians in much the same was as Sundance helps young filmmakers." Callan will also publish a book of poetry later this year.
Callan's favorite Redford film is one called "An Unfinished Life." "I have a huge soft spot for that one, which is often overlooked. Unlike some actors, Redford was slow to embrace old age, but in that film, he played an ornery, old geezer. I see of lot of that character in him."
Redford's personal favorite was always "Jeremiah Johnson," the story of a Mountain Man who struggles to survive in the wilderness. "It was about endurance, and that became a spiritual message for him. If you talk to him on that level, on what really matters the most to him, that's the message that comes through. He saw his job as one of enduring, as leaving the best possible legacy he could. He was a man who worked very, very hard to try to do something good."1 comment on this story
Michael Callan book signing
Where: King's English, 1511 S. 1500 East
When: June 21, 7 p.m.