He went Barefoot in the Park, was nicknamed The Sundance Kid, and quickly became one of America’s most revered movie stars as the calendar flipped from the 1960s to 1970s. And Robert Redford was just getting started. The 79-year-old known for his All-American good looks, everyman appeal, and smart, authoritative characters has been a constant force in American film from the ‘70s (The Sting, All the President’s Men) to the '80s (The Natural, Out of Africa) up through the '90s (Sneakers, Indecent Proposal) and beyond, even as he’s gotten choosier with roles and devotes much of his time overseeing the world’s preeminent showcase for independent cinema, the Sundance Film Festival.
Though Redford only made six films throughout the '00s, he’s been making a major comeback in recent years, beginning with his heralded work in the solo voyage All Is Lost (2013) and villainous supporting role in Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This week’s A Walk in the Woods, in which he co-stars with Nick Nolte as two old buddies on a soul-searching hike through the Appalachian Trail, is his first of two films this fall (he’ll also portray iconic newsman Dan Rather in October’s biographical drama Truth).
In our latest episode of Role Recall, which you can watch above, Redford reminisces about five of his most memorable parts, including how traded places with Butch Cassidy co-star Paul Newman, hid a skiing injury on the set of The Sting, and risked infuriating fans of the novel The Natural for the sake of a happy ending.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
It’s hard to imagine, given how similar their screen legacies feel now, but Paul Newman was a much bigger star than Redford when the pair teamed up for this Oscar-winning Western, having starred in classics like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Hustler, and Cool Hand Luke. In fact, the film was originally titled The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy because Newman was originally set to play the Sundance Kid. Newman, along with director George Roy Hill, lobbied for the young actor — at that point best known for TV and stage work — to get the part. Says Redford: “That’s when I met Paul, and I’ll probably be indebted to him for the rest of my life, because he was the one who said, 'I’ll do it with this guy.’”
The Sting (1973)
Considering Redford set the Sundance Film Festival at the ski resort mecca of Park City, Utah, it’s unsurprising to discover he loves hitting the slopes (he also played a professional skier in 1969’s Downhill Racer). Redford was asked not to ski and risk injury while he prepared to film this comedic con-man caper and eventual Best Picture winner with Newman, but he did anyway — and suffered a “gamekeeper’s thumb,” a type of UCL tear in his hand. When cameras started to roll, he ditched his cast and parlayed the outstretched thumb into a character trait, which is why his Johnny Hooker often carries his jacket on his hand and can be spotted in other scenes not using the digit. Redford earned his first and only acting Academy Award nomination for the role (he’s been nominated for Best Director twice, and won for Ordinary People in 1981).
All the President’s Men (1976)
Aside from Paul Newman, Redford’s other best-known big-screen comrade is Dustin Hoffman. The pair played Watergate whistleblowers Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in this historical drama considered one of the all-time great political thrillers. Redford credits famed cinematographer Gordon Willis (The Godfather trilogy, Annie Hall) with giving the film its distinctive lighting contrasts, which manifested thematically. “Inside, in that fluorescent lighting, there are no shadows. The search for the truth was starting in that room,” he explains. “And then they would go out[side], and they would go into the darkness. So everything outside was always dark.”
The Natural (1984)
Redford spent a decade developing Bernard Malamud’s beloved novel and faced pushback when he was told baseball movies wouldn’t sell (oddly enough, Kevin Costner told us the same thing about making Bull Durham). And the actor, who played the ultimate comeback kid in aging rookie Roy Hobbs, knew that he risked alienating fans of the book by changing the movie’s climactic downer to a more a crowd-pleasing version. “I thought, 'Well, if you can make this film, even though you’re probably going to disappoint a lot of Malamud fans because you can’t have the guy strike out at the end, you’ve gotta go the other way completely.”
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
The actor made a rare recent appearance in a major Hollywood blockbuster by playing the Alexander Pierce, an ultimately shady S.H.I.E.L.D. figurehead, in one of Marvel’s best-reviewed movies. And though it fell within the superhero universe, many regarded Redford’s role in the genre-bending film as a nice nod to his political-thriller roots. And he loved being part of such a splashy movie. “The attractive thing for me in that film, aside from being a villain, which I wanted to play,” he says, “it also allowed me to be part of a system [where a film was] going toward more high technology.”
A Walk in the Woods opens nationwide Sept. 2. Watch the trailer: