Among the more peculiar souvenirs piled up in several decades of film reporting is an artificial oak leaf, found blowing in the wind at Hobbiton in New Zealand. Who but God or Peter Jackson would build a mountain-full of trees and leave them there?
But more intriguing, to me at least, is an official copy of Robert Redford’s birth certificate. I obtained it from a Los Angeles County records office while writing Redford’s advance obit for the New York Times. The obituary was just routine—the Times, which hates being surprised, compiles them by the thousand, and most gather dust for years.
Yet the certificate, filled in with a crotchety typewriter by one Faye M. Smith on Aug. 26, 1936, brought something unexpected—that is, an almost unnerving intimacy with an actor-filmmaker who has always seemed to be hiding behind his half-smile, the lines on his face, or the Sundance Kid moustache he sometimes wore. There he was, Charles Robert Redford Jr., “born alive” in Santa Hospital at 8:02 p.m. on Aug. 18. Full term? Yes. Deformities? None. His namesake father, then 21 years old, listed his occupation as a stock exchange reporter. Redford’s mother, Martha Woodruff Hart, said she was a “housewife.”
Home for the new family was on S. Bedford St. in the Pico-Robertson area of Los Angeles. A current Google street view for the address shows a working-class neighborhood. There was nothing in the record to suggest the drama that would follow, the career triumphs and tribulations, culminating in Redford’s on-again, off-again announcement this week, during an interview with his grandson Dylan, that he would retire from acting after two more films.
Between birth and announced retirement, which was quickly disavowed by Redford’s spokeswoman Cindi Berger, the ride was a wild one. In a 1966 interview, Redford said he was laughed off the Warner Bros. lot when he asked for stunt work at the age of 15. Occasionally, he said he got his start as a juvenile delinquent, stealing hubcaps and joining gang fights in the Rebel Without A Cause era. Acting was not a first choice, nor even a second or third. After the failed attempt at a stunt career, followed by a short stay at the University of Colorado, Redford attended the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, and briefly became a street artist. Next came some oil field work. Finally, he landed a role in a Broadway play, The Highest Tree, which was produced by M-G-M president Dore Schary, the father of friend.
Movie parts followed, more than forty of them. Sometimes, he was derided, as happened with Havana. Sometimes, he was adored, as with The Sting or All the President’s Men.
Redford never got his acting Oscar; but he was named best director, for Ordinary People, in 1981.
And through the ups and downs, there was never any doubt that Faye Smith got it right. As she typed on that birth certificate, Charles Robert Redford Jr. was “born alive.”