SALT LAKE CITY — All good things come to an end, even in Hollywood. After roughly six decades in front of the camera, the legendary Robert Redford is retiring from acting.
In an August interview with Entertainment Weekly, the 82-year-old multi-hyphenate announced his plans to finally close the book on this portion of his career, saying his new movie, “The Old Man & the Gun,” will also be his last on-screen appearance:
“Never say never, but I pretty well concluded that this would be it for me in terms of acting, and (I’ll) move towards retirement after this ’cause I’ve been doing it since I was 21. I thought, 'Well, that’s enough.' And why not go out with something that’s very upbeat and positive?"
Since then, however, Redford has walked back his original comment (somewhat), telling People, “I think it was a mistake to say that I was retiring because you never know.”
Redford’s contributions to the screen go well beyond just his 60 years of iconic roles as an actor.
He’s also an Academy Award-winning director, a prolific producer of both narrative films and documentaries and, through the Sundance Institute and the Park City-based Sundance Film Festival, an incredibly influential advocate for independent cinema.
But whether or not this really is the end, with “The Old Man & The Gun” hitting theaters this week (and already earning glowing reviews), what better time to look back on Redford’s long list of acting credits and try to whittle them down to just a handful — five, specifically — of his most iconic, must-see roles?
'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' (1969)
Despite his reputation as Hollywood’s “golden boy” with “matinee idol looks” (two phrases that have dogged Redford his entire career, and which, in turn, he has spent his entire career subverting), one glance at his early filmography shows an actor who worked tirelessly to pay his dues, racking up credit after credit after credit in often mostly thankless (and sometimes nameless) parts.
In 1960 alone — the year he made his on-screen debut — Redford appeared in no less than a dozen different film and TV projects, including, notably, a Sidney Lumet-directed adaptation of “The Iceman Cometh” (with Jason Robards) as well as episodes of classic TV shows like “Maverick” and “Perry Mason.”
In 1966, he took home a Golden Globe for “Most Promising Newcomer” for “Inside Daisy Clover.”
(Redford would go on to win an additional five Golden Globes.)
And the following year, in 1967, he reprised the role he originated on Broadway for a film version of “Barefoot in the Park” alongside Jane Fonda. (He and Fonda have appeared together a whopping six times over the course of their careers, including most recently in last year’s “Our Souls at Night.”)
But at the very tail end of the decade, it was “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” that finally catapulted Redford into superstardom — thanks in large part to his co-star, Paul Newman.
Already a Hollywood A-lister himself, Newman went to bat for the younger actor after fellow superstar Steve McQueen dropped out due to a dispute over who would receive top billing.
Other big names like Jack Lemmon, Warren Beatty and Marlon Brando all passed on the role, as well.
According to Mental Floss, as one small concession to the studio execs, though, who viewed Redford as too much of a lightweight, the movie’s title, originally “The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy,” was flipped — and the rest, as they say, is history.
What resulted was a pitch-perfect blend of buddy comedy, heist movie and Western that gave Redford plenty of moments to shine as the laconic, impossibly cool gunslinger opposite Newman’s wily idea man.
Off-screen, Redford and Newman became lifelong best friends — what has been referred to as the original Hollywood bromance — going on to star again in the equally great “The Sting” in 1973, which won seven Oscars and earned Redford his only nomination for acting.
And Redford, of course, later reused the name “Sundance” a number of times: first for the huge tract of land he bought in Utah (formerly Timp Haven) and then again when he founded the Sundance Institute.
'Jeremiah Johnson' (1972)
Filmed, at Redford’s insistence, on location in various parts of Utah (according to AMC.com, he outright refused to do the movie if they filmed elsewhere; the studio had originally insisted on shooting the whole thing on the Warner Bros. backlot), “Jeremiah Johnson” is another classic Western, albeit of a very different kind.
Based with typical Hollywood concern for accuracy on the real-life story of mountain man John Jeremiah Garrison Johnston, the script (by future “Conan the Barbarian” director John Milius) conveniently omits the rather key detail about its subject having allegedly consumed upwards of 300 human livers during his decadeslong vendetta against the Crow tribe, earning him the less-than-subtle nickname “Liver-Eating” Johnson.
Historical accuracy aside, though, “Jeremiah Johnson” offers a surprisingly nuanced examination of Man and the West, touching on two of the themes that would come to play a large part in Redford’s life outside of film, namely environmentalism and Native American issues.
“Jeremiah Johnson” also marked the second out of seven collaborations between Redford and director Sydney Pollack, whose later projects together included titles such as “The Way We Were,” “Three Days of the Condor” and best picture Oscar-winner “Out of Africa.”
'All the President’s Men' (1976)
Unquestionably one of the great ‘70s political thrillers — and the movie that arguably did more to make investigative journalism seem cool than anything else before it — “All the President’s Men” was more than just a starring vehicle for Redford, who plays young Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward alongside Dustin Hoffman’s Carl Bernstein.
Having first seen articles by the two journalists about the Watergate scandal as it was developing, Redford plopped down $450,000 to buy the rights to their book. He then went on to produce the movie himself despite studios’ reticence to tell a story that was still so fresh in the public’s mind — and that everyone, at the time, was sick of hearing about.
Although Redford is known for his political activism outside of movies, what intrigued him most about the story, he would later say, was less the scandal itself and more the relationship between Woodward and Bernstein:
“I read this small little article on who these two guys were,” he explained (quoted in the Washingtonian). “It said, well, one guy is a Jew, the other guy is a WASP. One guy’s a Republican, the other one is a liberal. One guy writes very well, the other guy doesn’t write so well. They don’t like each other, but they have to work together. I thought, ‘That’s really an interesting dynamic.’”
“All the President’s Men” ended up winning four Oscars, including one for Redford’s “Iceman Cometh” co-star Jason Robards, whom he cast as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, as well as one for writer William Goldman (who also wrote “Butch Cassidy").
'The Natural' (1984)
There are a lot of movies in Redford’s filmography that make use of his golden boy persona, but few do so as effectively as “The Natural.”
Based on a novel by Bernard Malamud that loosely transposed the Arthurian legends from medieval England to 1930s America, swapping out swords and shields for baseball bats and catchers’ mitts in the process, “The Natural” tells the story of Roy Hobbs, a middle-aged batter with borderline superhuman skill who seems to come out of nowhere to save a struggling baseball team (named, of course, the Knights).
Reviled by some critics when it premiered, largely because of the liberties it took with the source material (particularly during its climactic sequence), nowadays, “The Natural” is more often brought up in the context of naming the best sports movies ever made.
As writer Bill Simmons once put it, “Any ‘Best Sports Movies’ list that doesn’t feature either ‘Hoosiers’ or ‘The Natural’ as the No. 1 pick shouldn’t even count.”
Strangely enough, “The Natural” could also be the best King Arthur movie ever made.
And in the case of both of those arguments, a lot of it is thanks to Redford’s performance. Although much older than his character when the movie was made (nearly 46 versus Hobbs’ 33), he manages to convincingly portray Hobbs as more than just a handsome, talented ballplayer, but rather, as a damaged hero whose physical appearance and God-given gifts hide a painful past.
Moreover, the fact that Redford himself had originally gone to college on a baseball scholarship probably helped, although according to director Barry Levinson, the most difficult part of filming wound up being that when Hobbs was supposed to strike out, Redford was too good — he couldn't not hit the ball.
'All Is Lost' (2013)
If one had to pick the single best performance of Redford’s career — the role that summed him up as an actor (as if such a thing were even possible) — J.C. Chandor’s “All is Lost” would definitely be a major part of the conversation.
As the only actor on-screen during the entire 106-minute runtime, and with only a handful of words spoken throughout, Redford delivers an incredibly subtle, physical performance, playing an old sailor fighting to survive on the open ocean as his boat slowly sinks underneath him.
With a plot so stripped-down that it makes “The Old Man and the Sea” seem overwrought by comparison and where every movement, every expression and every sigh become crucial to getting inside the unnamed protagonist’s head, “All is Lost” relies to a staggering degree on Redford’s chops as an actor.
The fact that he wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar for this movie is absolutely dumbfounding.
Honorable mention: 'The Old Man & The Gun' (2018)9 comments on this story
In picking one more movie to name, there are, frankly, way too many options: “Downhill Racer,” “The Candidate,” “The Sting,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Sneakers” and on and on.
Robert Redford is an icon for a reason.
Ultimately, though, if Redford himself thinks “The Old Man & The Gun” is an appropriate swan song to his impressive career, it’s probably an appropriate way to end any list like this.
The David Lowery-directed flick based on the real-life story of bank robber Forrest Tucker currently has an 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.