Robert Redford's employees and colleagues call him "Ordinary Bob." It's spoken with affection, not derision, but they say he doesn't much care for the nickname.
Yet it seems apt. After all, there is irony both in the title of the 1980 film "Ordinary People" and in the life of the man who won an Oscar for directing it.Still a stunning motion picture a decade later, "Ordinary People" is, on one level, about people who seem to the outside world the epitome of health, wealth and happiness, but who are actually crumbling under the weight of a tragedy.
In the case of Redford, he zealously protects his private life but appears to enjoy cultivating an image as a regular Joe, an ordinary person, if you will. But he is, after all, Robert Redford - an internationally recognized movie star whose name in the credits is, as they say in Hollywood, "a deal-breaker." This, despite his refusing to play the expected industry party games, which include everything from making sequels to selling oneself on "20/20" to maintaining residence in Malibu.
The Hollywood publicity machine in particular irks Redford. Though he recognizesthe value of making the moviegoing public aware of his pictures, he feels the appearances of actors on magazine covers and daily television talk shows has reached a ridiculous zenith. Which explains why he's not doing much in the way of publicity for his latest film, "Havana." At least on a national level.
But last week, at his Sundance resort in Provo Canyon, Redford agreed to meet with the Utah media, giving several back-to-back, one-on-one interviews, making us a fairly exclusive club since he is shunning the ritual of New York and L.A. junketeer gabfests with literally hundreds of reporters.
Dressed in a casual, baggy purple shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots, Redford looks close to his 53 years these days - and there's nothing wrong with that. The blond good looks are perhaps a bit more rugged, but he's fit and trim and wishes there was more snow on the Sundance mountains so he could hit the slopes.
A couple of hours earlier he was wearing a ski sweater over the shirt and sat in front of a fireplace, complete with roaring fire, as he posed for a local TV news cameras. But for his interview with the Deseret News he relaxed in his office, sans sweater, leaning back in a comfortable chair behind his desk. One wall of photos contains pictures of friends and citations awarded on behalf of his environmental activism. Behind him is a row of books, with Tony Hillerman's name prominent on the first; Redford is adapting Hillerman's novels as a film series - but don't call them "sequels."
Munching on apple slices and bread with peanut butter, Redford thoughtfully discussed the 10th anniversary of the Sundance Institute, the annual Sundance Film Festival in Park City (scheduled to begin Jan. 17), his starring role in "Havana" (opening next Friday), a prime-time television special that plugs the movie and, of course, the chore of granting interviews.
"I may be old-fashioned," Redford said, "but I hold to the idea that the work should speak for itself. It (publicity) has become an obligatory part of our business. I'm expected to do certain things I don't want to do. Video packets, `The Today Show' and `The Good Morning This and That Show.' "
The upshot is - he's not doing them. So it seems somewhat contradictory that he would plunge into an hour of prime-time network television.
"I have misgivings about it. I have mixed feelings about it. Yet, it was my idea." For Redford, this was a tradeoff. An hour documentary about the seven movies he has made with director Sydney Pollack, including, of course, "Havana." In exchange, Universal Pictures would stop pushing him about going on the talk-show circuit. (For more on the TV special, see the accompanying story on this page.)
He may have misgivings about plastering himself all over the tube and the printed page in service of a project, but the number of projects is about to go up substantially. He's gearing up for a resurgence of work that will have him making more films in the next 12 months than he's made in the past 12 years.
During the '80s, since "Ordinary People" and prior to "Havana," Redford directed one film ("The Milagro Beanfield War") and acted in three ("The Natural," "Out of Africa," "Legal Eagles").
But in February of 1991, Redford begins a comedy, "The President Elopes," in which he co-stars with Michelle Pfeiffer, which will be quickly followed by his directing "The River Runs Through It," a film he has been trying to get off the ground for several years. Shortly thereafter, he will either go into another acting role (a film about the rain forest, in which he plays the villain) or direct the third film in the Hillerman series, depending on whether the second is done by then. (The first, "Dark Wind," which stars Lou Diamond Phillips, just finished shooting; the plan is to do one movie in the series every eight months.) He's also developing an acting project with director Martin Scorsese.
Redford says he's wanted to get back to doing more work for awhile, but as the Sundance Institute celebrates its 10th anniversary he is just starting to feel he can really leave the day-to-day operations in the hands of others.
"I would never leave it, but I need to step more away from it to concentrate on my own work. So I came out of (`Havana') with a real agenda for work as opposed to the last several years.
"(The institute) has gone as I hoped it would in terms of the work. And it's had some benefits I wasn't anticipating. I always hoped it would be good for the state. I didn't think it was going to be international. That was the big surprise. We now have the Tokyo Film Festival, we have the Latin program and we have our Soviet program. So, that's been good.
"A lot of people thought for years that we were producing movies, that we were a mini-studio. It was very hard to get communicated exactly what we were. But what we are, and always were, is a development station for an artist or a filmmaker to go from their beginnings to making movies."
As for "Havana," Redford's role as a middle-aged gambler who finds redemption through his love for a political activist (played by Lena Olin) is a bit more grizzled than moviegoers might expect. And he admits that this character perhaps flies in the face of audience expectations. But he bristles at the notion that he's not perceived as a character actor.
"You know, I've never considered it otherwise.
"I've always felt that almost every part I've played has been a character part. I mean, I look at it that way. I can't help how I look or how I seem to people."
Sydney Pollack agrees. The Oscar-winning director, who, aside from being Redford's most frequent collaborator is also one of his closest friends, said in a telephone interview from his Los Angeles office, "He began by playing nut cases - psychotics, Nazis - and that's how we all heard about him in New York, this terrific new character actor. Then he became this kind of romantic icon, if you will.
"I've always believed Bob is a character actor at heart - a character actor in a leading man's body. And it's been a frustration for him all of his life, in a way."
Redford adds, " my early work in TV . . . `Hitchcock,' `Twilight Zone' and a lot of others . . . I played deranged killers, psychotics, rapists - I mean just totally deranged.
"Now I might not sometimes play characters that do a lot of arm-waving, but subtlety has always been a more preferable route for me.
"When people start thinking of you more as a persona, they are less inclined to allow you to move into different areas. Sometimes they're wrong. Sometimes they're just very stereotypical or restricted in their own thinking of what they'll allow you to do. And sometimes they're right. It's legitimate if somebody says, `Well you just didn't reach me as that character, or you just didn't seem right as that character.' "
Redford was drawn to "Havana" by the prospect of working with Pollack again, but he was also drawn by the role. "I liked playing that particular character - a little sleazy, a little tacky, a man slightly on the outside of the social mix in life."
Maybe it will help shake that "romantic leading man" notion attached to him, which hasn't been helped by his having been seen by a fickle moviegoing public in only three movies during the past decade. "That's probably been a problem for me and it's one of the reasons I'm anxious to work more, to get out of that problem."