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Robert Redford remembers the films that made him a legend

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Everett Collection

Robert Redford has appeared in more than 35 films and directed nine. And though his leading-man looks made him a matinee idol, he’s always challenged audience expectations and the Hollywood status quo. As he prepares to go into the wild as author Bill Bryson in A Walk in the Woods (out Sept. 4), costarring Nick Nolte, Redford takes a look back at eight of the projects that have defined his career.

Barefoot in the Park (1967)

Redford was 27 years old when he turned down the opportunity to do a television show in Los Angeles and instead got paid $130 a week for a Bucks County, Pa., tryout of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, directed by a young comedian named Mike Nichols. “I’d never really done a comedy before,” says Redford. “And Nichols had never directed theater before, so we both shared a bit of insecurity.” Redford went on to star alongside Jane Fonda in the 1967 film adaptation, establishing the actor as the quintessential golden boy — which he would spend much of his career bucking against.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

“When I first met [director] George Roy Hill in a bar on Third Avenue in New York, I told him that I much more related to the outlaw character, the Sundance Kid, which was not the role he wanted me for. But George got excited and thought, ‘Hmm, I’m going to make this work.’ It was months and months of battle with the studio. The studio wanted a name as big as Paul Newman’s, and I was quite a ways down on the stardom ladder. And I’d never met Paul but he insisted that the studio support George. And because it was Paul Newman, they agreed. The only thing they did was change the title. It was called The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy — but they wanted Butch’s name first because that’s the part Paul was playing.”

The Sting (1973)

Four years after the runaway success of Butch Cassidy, Redford reunited with that movie’s team for an even greater triumph. The Sting won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, and Redford earned his sole nomination for acting. The screenplay by David S. Ward ticks like an exquisitely engineered watch, but Redford attributes the lion’s share of the success to his director. “George Roy Hill loved reading the funny papers. He loved the idea of telling a story in four or five panels. And so he was able to take the somewhat flawed script, shift a few things around, rewrite a few scenes, and turn it into something damn near perfect. There’s a lot of attention paid to filmmakers who explore the dark side, particularity if it’s violence oriented. But I don’t think George has ever received the praise he deserved for his slightly more lighthearted but wonderful work.”

The Way We Were (1973)

Redford originally turned down the role of a WASP college student who romances Barbra Streisand’s liberal activist. “He was a bit of a Ken doll with no dimension and I wasn’t interested in that. I said, ‘I’ll be interested if we can find some flaws in him.'” And speaking of flaws, he had been warned that his costar possessed a few. “I’d been warned and I’d heard all kinds of crazy things about Barbra, but none of them applied to our relationship. I loved working with her and we had a ton of fun.”

All the President’s Men (1976)

Redford was promoting his politically-charged film The Candidate in 1972, which gave him the opportunity to kibitz with newspapermen. “They were all gossiping about a break-in at a campaign headquarters,” he says. “And I became intrigued by the profiles of the two guys writing about it, Woodward and Bernstein. One was a WASP and the other a Jew. One was a Republican and the other liberal. One was a naturally gifted writer, the other wasn’t. And then President Nixon resigned over the break-in and a lot of people said it was yesterday’s news — but I said, ‘No, it’s the dynamic between these two guys that’ll make it sing.'” Redford costarred opposite Dustin Hoffman and the film was an unexpected box office smash, winning four Oscars, including for its screenplay and sound design. “We took all the elements of their work — the typewriters, telephones, pens on paper, and kicked up the sound on all of them. Every scene where the typewriter is used, the noise is kicked into high gear so there’s a real bang. What does it sound like? It’s sounds like weapon.”

Ordinary People (1980)

“I was looking for something where I could completely author my own work,” says Redford of his directorial debut, a family drama that won four Oscars, including for Best Picture and Best Director. “This story was about feelings that can’t be reached, like with the mother character. The first studio I took it to said, ‘You can’t have Mary Tyler Moore in that role, she’s America’s sweetheart.’ But I had a house in Malibu and I remember sitting there one day in the late fall and suddenly I saw this woman walking, bundled up in her overcoat, and she seemed to be very sad. And when I realized it was Mary Tyler Moore, it hit my like a ton of bricks. I thought, ‘Wow, she could do this.’ When I asked her to be in the film, she wanted it even more than I did. She wanted to explore that side of herself and gave 100 percent to do so.”

Quiz Show (1994)

Ordinary People was about the lies people tell themselves, but Redford’s directorial masterpiece Quiz Show, about a television scandal in the 1950s, is about the lies people are told. “It’s all about how audiences are tricked. I thought it was so interesting to comment on how the public gets completely taken advantage of by the lies that get told to them. That’s a story about much more than one quiz show in the ‘50s.”

All is Lost (2013)

For this minimalist action film by director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call), Redford received perhaps the best reviews of his career as a mariner attempting to survive as his ship sinks in the Indian Ocean. “Movies have become so full of special effects and green screens,” he says. “This was guerrilla filmmaking all the way around. No special effects, just raw to its core filmmaking. It was very tough but I loved it. I loved the feeling of pure cinema in my bloodstream.”

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