Archives: In Search of Redford (’82)

From the original draft of my profile of Robert Redford for Omni Magazine (April ’82)

“So, you came to hear the Sundance Kid?” chirped the wife of the hospitable native I had met on the flight from Spokane as we sped away from the Pullman, Washington (population 18,000) airport into the soundless, star-sprinkled Big Sky night. “I heard he didn’t show.”

Those aren’t precisely the first words an exhausted Redford-hunter wishes to hear–no less after spending twelve hours on three progressively smaller and shakier aircraft, the last belonging to an airline with a safety record for which it has been nicknamed “Crashcade” [Cascade] Airlines.

To be sure, I consoled myself as we headed towards the Moscow, Idaho Best Western, this wouldn’t be the first time the media-phobic Kid has canceled a speaking engagement. But, I cursed to myself a moment later, it doesn’t make sense.

For this wasn’t to be just another speaking engagement–even for Robert Redford. The stellar actor-activist had been booked at Washington State University’s Performing Arts Coliseum as the third annual President’s Convocation Speaker, a Big Event designed for Big Names–like Redford’s–not to mention an excellent device for injecting some pomp and circumstance into Homecoming Weekend, which this year also promised an eagerly awaited Pac-10 football game between the 18th ranked up-and-coming Washington State Cougars and the despised UCLA Bruins.

The thousands of glossy, ecologically colored posters featuring Redford’s reflective figure silhouetted against a rangeland setting that had been plastered across the adjoining Washington State and University of Idaho campuses in anticipation of Redford’s Rap from the Mount–”ROBERT REDFORD/Looking Toward a Balanced Future”–had already become collectors’ items. At the very least, a cancellation would put a crimp in a lot of Cougars’ weekends.

More significantly–at least, from Redford’s point of view–the convocation speech and the news conference scheduled for afterwards had also been designed to serve as a sort of elaborate dedication ceremony for his rumor-enshrouded Institute of Resource Management, the progressive environmental think thank and graduate student endowment program to bestow on the two Northwestern campuses earlier in the year after a long screening process. With the formal start of I.R.M. now twice-delayed by fund-raising problems–where was the $5 million Redford had confidently promised he would bring in the previous spring?–a major public appearance by its founder appeared to be vital to maintain the project’s momentum and sustain the community’s faith in him–not to mention the 20 novice resource managers who had already been recruited. This was one media event the “male Garbo” would have to attend if he was really serious about the thing. Or was he?

The local press, for its part, smelled blood. “Redford Flies into Hornet’s Nest,” bayed the headline in the Spokane “Spokesman-Review” on the day the Mountain Man on environmental politics was scheduled to meet the Mob–and the press.

Nevertheless, it was not until I breakfasted with Hope Moore, the executive director of the Institute, on the morning of the appointed day that I learned, to my relief, that her mysterious boss had arrived by private jet the previous night.

The President’s Convocation Speaker had yet to take his seat amongst the various academic and quasi-academic dignitaries arranged onstage inside the Washington State Coliseum when the first of several preliminary orators stepped up to the microphone. Scattered boos–very much like those heard at baseball games as the day’s umpires are announced–wafted through the rafters of the Astrodome-like Coliseum as the names of the State University Board of Regents were read aloud. Television crewmen tested and readied their equipment. Despite little prior publicity, the vibrations emitted by Redford’s name had been powerful enough to attract more than 100 Northwestern newshawks to the Convocation–not to mention a restless crowd of 5,500 aborigines, anxious for their first look at the Great White Father who had chosen to bestow his Institute (and his vibes) on them.

I flipped through the accompanying press kit, brimming over with press releases enlarging upon the tangible reasons for Redford’s otherwise Inscrutable Providence. “For the past five years, Robert Redford has had the idea of putting together a program directed toward educating resource managers skilled in balanced development,” one flacksheet informed me. “The University of Idaho and Washington State University are uniquely qualified and ideally located to carry out the objectives of the Institute. Only eight miles apart, their proximity, nationally recognized facilities and faculties, and a long history of cooperation ensure unified and outstanding interdisciplinary programs.”

A sudden cheer rang out. I looked up to see the Man of the Hour emerge from the bowels of the Coliseum looking somewhat uncomfortable in cap and gown and what appeared to be two-toned cowboy boots.

“All of us are familiar with Robert Redford’s work as an actor,” President Glen Terrell hummed as scenes from “Butch Cassidy”, “The Sting”, “The Way We Were”, et al., momentarily flickered across thousands of mental movie screens. A look to the side showed that Redford seemed to be blushing.

“But it is not as an actor that Mr. Redford comes to speak to us today,” Terrell twanged on. (“Aw shucks,” someone in the press section wisecracked.)

“It is, rather, as a man devoted to reconciling the motives of environmental preservation and resource development. This commitment pervades every aspect of his life,” the berobed MC explained.

“Most important [sic], it is reflected in his initiation of the Institute for Resource Management… The interdisciplinary curriculum will provide broad experience… For our speaker, the Institute is a fulfillment of a dream…”

Several visibly impatient co-eds wrapped around the railing of the rear mezzanine appeared to be preparing a fusillade of presidential spitballs as Terrell finally boomed:

“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, PLEASE JOIN ME IN WELCOMING THAT MAN…ROBERT REDFORD.’”

Downstage, The Washington State Chamber Ensemble instantaneously swung into action, getting off a fiery cannonade of Sousa before being drowned out by the swelling cloud of cheers, squeals and camera shutters.

“Thank you,” said the Man of the Hour as he stood at the podium, seemingly oblivious to the blinding wash of strobes breaking across his face–and then, in a gesture that immediately elicited another delighted cheer from the crowd, Redford removed his mortarboard, revealing that famous red hair. “I’ve only been in one of these outfits before,” he said apologetically (referring to the honorary doctorate received from Williams College in 1976), “and I didn’t have to say anything–thank God.” Sympathetic chuckles rippled through the audience.

“It all boils down to the important choice of what to develop for our survival and what to preserve. And that is not a choice to be guessed at.”

Hence Redford’s field-grown theory of balanced development. Hence the Institute for Resource Management. It sounded pretty good. It sounded too good.

Along the way, Redford laced up this folksy account of the genesis of I.R.M. with a disclaimer of omniscience–”I think we’re all environmentalists. Anybody who’s interested in how we’re going to get to the future is.”

“So I’m happy to be here,” he said, looking mischievous again,” and I’d like to close by saying I understand that WSU is 5 zip.” “Yea!” “And to show you how serious I am about this commitment here–I was born and raised about a mile from the UCLA campus–and I’d like to state that I hope you make it 6 zip.” “Yea!!!”

The Great White Father quickly exited, accompanied by a watchful state trooper and a flock of beaming trustees. It has been a good speech–and a great performance. From what I heard, the excited students leaving the Coliseum seemed to be in agreement that Redford was a real nice guy–”He Seems To Be a Real Nice Guy” read one of the story headings in the next day’s “Daily Evergreen”–and that he knew what he was talking about.

His handling of the press conference was less masterful. Redford’s demeanor quickly became defensive as he was peppered with question about the fund-raising situation. The aviator glasses which he had donned in the meantime seemed to make him look colder, less friendly, less nice.

Gone was the casual, if somewhat glib, eloquence displayed in his speech. Most of his answers to the welter of queries were evasive, rambling and wooden. Clearly, the Great Man considered the news conference a nuisance to be dispensed with as quickly as possible. Both parties appeared relieved when the Washington State News Director adjourned the stalemate and Redford stalked out with various other directors of the Institute.

Outside the Coliseum, another more welcome nuisance presented itself as Redford’s station wagon was momentarily mobbed by a crowd of fans straining for a close-up of their Once and Future Hero. A giant pastel portrait of Redford was thrust in front of the window for his signature; normally Redford doesn’t sign autographs. This time, however, he did, rolling down his window and quickly scribbling the cherished two words.

A moment later, he was gone.

From the second part of the article, in which, after the author finally tracks down Redford in New York and the latter sits down with the latter for what turns out to be three long, mind-bending sessions.

“My education was there. My education was traveling. My education was meeting people. But it sure as hell wasn’t in the classroom because in those days, in the ’50s and the late ’40s, the Los Angeles educational system was pathetic. There was no incentive.
You didn’t have those wonderful teachers that made you run to class. You didn’t have those wonderful teachers that inspired you to break your back for them. I was only inspired to cut class. I was only inspired to crawl out windows, or to look out windows. To get out there where it was happening. It wasn’t happening in the classroom.”

I was curious why someone who had been so turned off by his own educational experience would invest such faith in education:

“I didn’t feel like I started to really learn anything in my life until I left school. I squandered my first year at Colorado, just squandered it–drank it away–partied it away–because I wasn’t inspired. Whereas now, 29 years later, education is better, and I’m now beginning to see what was possible. I just feel badly that I didn’t have it. So I’ve developed something of an obsession to learn and provide that opportunity for my own kids. I feel very strongly about education. I think one of the reasons I’m propelled in that direction is that I had such a poor one.”

Sensitive to the charge that he was a “solar slummer,” Redford asserted that his appreciation for and knowledge of Nature’s ways had been earned–not bought:

“One thing I have learned about having money–if somebody says, ‘Well yeah, you can afford it. You’ve got a ski area and so forth. It’s easy for you to talk about solar energy. You know you can afford a big house. You can afford to live in the mountains or in the city.’
One thing you learn, if you have money, you also learn what money can’t buy–and Nature is something that very often one can’t buy an appreciation of–it’s something that can’t be bought. And so there’s a value gained there. There is a positive to all that.”

If his respect for Nature had been initiated via painting and climbing, the self-styled anthropologist emphasized it had been certified via his contact with the Southwestern Indians, particularly the Hopis. There was a contagious awe in Redford’s voice as he spoke of his favorite tribe:

“Now you can go through these villages, you can go into the Three Mesas and feel that people are living in abject poverty and wonder how they exist and no one would truly want to live that way themselves. You start to look at how long they’ve been there. That’s the oldest inhabited city in the country. It dates back to 1100 A.D., things of that sort. You have no water, no electricity.
And these people are living up there, and the more you get into their culture, the more you understand the rituals and their dances and their ceremonies, the more impressive it becomes to me that their respect for Nature has been the mainstay of their ability to stay alive. There seems to be no reason: they defy gravity. The Hopi Indians defy defy gravity, with just a handful of tribal members staying alive in these Three Mesas that are threatened by mineral development all the way around, mineral development. How do they stay alive? How have they succeeded in not being taken over by outside interests? Well, I believe it’s a steadfast and almost mystical knowledge and use of Nature.”

It seemed legitimate to ask whether Redford had ever ingested peyote or any of the other mind-expanding herbs for which the Indians of the Southwest were once famous–or infamous. He admitted that he had, but in the same breath emphasized that:

“The Hopis have no use for hallucinogens at all. And I find them the most mystical, the most mysterious, the most magical of tribes.
It just points up the fact that you don’t really need that. And in the ’60s when it was fashionable to go get high with the Indians and to adopt their way of life and get on a mind-expansion trip, I found it radical chic and I found it too much of a trendy thing as opposed to what is to me a deeper experience which is just getting with those people and having that experience without it.”

“Now if the drug is part of the experience, that’s perfectly fine. I think it’s very hard to become an Indian,” Redford said, warming to the subject. “I remember being at a Sundance where the males and females had two separate branches of ceremony. There was a tepee ceremony where several peyote buttons were consumed by the women during the course of 24 to 36 hours. And the men are in a tepee that’s open at the top and performing a dance around a pole to exorcise poor health, to exorcise diseases of various kinds, ailments of various kinds–and it’s without food and without water and there’s dancing. So you hallucinate by dehydration, you hallucinate by chanting, you hallucinate by repetition, and you sweat–it’s a sweat ceremony. The sun is over 100 degrees, and the only rest that you get is when the squaws would come in with peppermint bars and you would lay down and they will cover you with peppermint bars which is cool and refreshing and you would cool off your body temperature to keep you from dehydrating or dying, or your body temperature can get way too high. It cool you down so that when you’re moderate again you get back up and start dancing and this goes on and on and on. And does not stop. Well, it has the same effect.”

Redford’s secretary called up to remind him that our final hour was over. But he was enjoying himself now.

“You can hallucinate without drugs. If we sit here long enough and I chant with you and we just tap our feet and I have a drum and I’m steady enough and I’m strong enough in my mind of what I’m thinking and what I feel, I believe we’re going to hallucinate, or one of us will.”

It was an intriguing suggestion.

“But the Indians have a whole different view about it. It’s sacred. It’s spiritual. They don’t do it to go get high and go into town and buzz the shit out of the town or to get crazy with each other. They do it because it’s a spiritual knowledge situation.

“I found a more important value to being with the Indians, accepting and knowing the fact that you could never be an Indian, you could never be completely of them, but you could be with them and begin to absorb some of their ways and some of their processes and find out what meaning they have for you as a Western person,
as a Caucasian or non-Indian and apply it to your own self.”

As far as getting high was concerned, Redford pointed out:

“My time in college was a booze generation…I certainly did my share of that…But I have no interest in hallucinogens or things like that anymore because I can get so high–I mean this sounds arrogant but it’s just a fact–that I’ve been so high most of my life on living that I haven’t felt the need… I’ve tried it all at one time or another and found it wanting… because there’s nothing that I’ve ever taken or used
and experimented that’s gotten me to a place where I can’t get myself.”

R.R. also asserted that his ecophilosophy had been shaped by his study of the Mormon Church. I mentioned seeing an article in “The Salt Lake City Tribune” in which Redford had praised a recent condemnation of the Reagan Administration’s plan to base the MX missle system in Utah as a reconfirmation of the Church’s ecotheological doctrine of divine stewardship.

“Yes, divine stewardship. I’m fascinated with the Mormon Church and I’m fascinated with its beginnings and what it’s trying to do. I’m somewhat disappointed that it’s become more business oriented and that it’s lost its balance a little bit.

“But I go back to the tenets of the Church and various documents and I find fabulous statements in balance. And one is the statement regarding divine stewardship, said by Brigham Young himself and the elders of the Church which founded that valley, where they talked specifically about what had to be developed for their survival and what had to be preserved for their spirit and their psyche. I think it’s a masterful statement that’s gotten tremendously imbalanced in the last hundred years. I’m fascinated by how the one end of that two pronged statement has completely overwhelmed the other, so that anyone who tries to speak about the other is considered a radical environmentalist trying to stop progress, considered in a negative light, Just reminding the Church of its own statement on one hand has become something of a negative. But I’m fascinated by that.”

Did Redford consider his own theory of balanced development as being an act of divine stewardship?

“Yes, I’d like to think that,” he said after a long pause.

I also mentioned having seen an article in which Redford asserted that he operated in “cycles.”

“Yes. I burn hot and cool.”

What cycle was he in now?

“Reflective,” he answered softly. “Pull back cycle.”

“Now there are some things I can’t pull back on…things that were started years and years ago and are now about to take fruit–like I.R.M.–and the Sundance Institute–they have to be taken care of. But personally, for me, I’m in a reflective place at the moment where I feel the best thing for me is not to charge out with anything…”

“So,” he said after a pause, “as a result, I’m not doing a movie now. I’m not…I’m waiting. I believe in rhythm and when it’s right you do it and when it isn’t you don’t push up against it.”

And how did he get recharged, I asked?

“No magic key to it. It happens when it happens. I go when I feel a return of energy, I go. I don’t think a lot about it…and I’m not an achiever to the degree that I make lists for myself on what to achieve and what to succeed at. I’m not goal-oriented. I resist the use of the word ‘goal’, because goal has termination in it, and I believe there’s always more. So, I don’t like to think of goals or plateaus. I just like to just do. And when I get tired I stop. If I’m not tired I just keep going.”

I had a hunch. If he wasn’t goal-oriented, was he, say, image-oriented?

“No…shit…” Redford said immediately with impatience.

I clarified what I meant.

“Oh I see, I’m sorry. Oh very much so,” he said, sitting up in his chair. “I had a picture in my mind of what Sundance was going to look like, when we built our house. I would go up and sit on the knoll–it was just this raw patch of weed, sage and scrubble, and look out from the knoll and imagine the
house that was going to be there and imagine the meadow that was going to be planted and imagined alfalfa and imagined the deer coming over the meadow that you would come back–that had been flushed out from overhunting, and imagined the migratory birds that would come in when I put in the pond that I imagined, and I would imagine a ski life in there and what it was going to look like. So pictures, I’ve always kind of dealt with that. When I see a picture then I just kind of go to make the picture. And that’s sort of the way I operate. An idea becomes a picture. So that the Resource Management Institute is a solid picture in my mind about how people are going to go and work. Yes, I guess that I operate off–I visualize an idea and then kind of try to paint it.

Turning to the future now, I also mentioned having seen an article in which Redford had been quoted to the effect that he and his wife had gotten into farming because of their anxiety over a future famine. “Was that an accurate quote?”, I asked, as I waited for his assistant to beat down and toss me out onto Fifth Avenue.

“Oh, that was several years ago. Yes, my wife and I got a little farm. We have about 50 acres down in a valley in Utah to put in crops as a hedge against the future. In our view it seemed that if we were going to be heading towards more and more dependence on electrical companies or more dependence on government subsidies, and if the cost of fuel, the cost of food, the cost of everything would keep going up, that maybe we ought to do something to start setting an example as to how that dependence can be reduced: grow your own food and put your own technology on your rooftop to get your own power.”

Yes, he was a “survivalist,” but not in the sense it was currently taken to mean.

“I am optimistic,” he emphasized. “I wouldn’t be making these moves if I wasn’t. If I was a total cynic, I would just pull in my wings and retreat to the safety of whatever I can afford to make myself comfortable and say the hell with everybody else. Why would I be spending this kind of energy and time and money to try to start something like an institute, racing around the country, trying to make things happen, if I wasn’t ultimately optimistic. If I was a pessimist, or a survivalist in the way that you’re talking about–well, I’m all set up to be the perfect survivalist, I’m up in the mountains, I can life there by myself…and tuck in my wings and say, ‘I’m sorry. This is not my station.”

“But,” he snapped, just before I snapped off my tape recorder, “it is.”

Comments are disabled for this post