Robert Redford on Paul Newman, Sundance and the Increasingly Crucial Fight to Save the Earth

Speaking about his long-time friend and mentor, Robert Redford told a crowd in New York City that he learned a great deal from the late Paul Newman, especially generosity. “Back then it was really about actors playing roles. It wasn’t until later that it became more about actors’ personalities,” Redford told a packed theater at Lincoln Center.

The crowd enthusiastically hung on Redford’s words. This was no doubt because of the star power of the great actor, director and Sundance Institute creator (particularly because the audience skewed toward his generation), but perhaps even more so because the crowd was packed with committed environmentalists. This was a special, intimate conversation between Redford, a longtime green leader, and veteran radio journalist Bob Edwards (formerly of NPR and now of Sirius radio), hosted by the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council (Watch video of NRDC head Frances Beinecke accepting a 2009 Heart of Green Award).

The conversation wound from Hollywood war stories to reflections on Redford’s lower class upbringing in Los Angeles to the making of an environmental leader. One theme common to Redford’s work seemed to be his passion for, and belief in, that which is uniquely American. He told Edwards that he was always most interested in projects that explored American life. Especially “looking for the truth behind the truth in the slogans I was told as a boy,” he said. “As a kid growing up I played a lot of sports,” Redford continued, “and I was told it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. Later I realized that so much of everything was really about winning.”

Redford said that Hollywood in the 60′s and 70′s had many preconceived notions, among them being that political and sports movies were box office death knells. “So of course I went in that direction,” quipped the actor. He spoke about the four years of hard work that went into All the President’s Men (Edwards praised him for helping make “journalism cool”), his battles with studios to get The Natural made, how he turned down The Graduate, and how Paul Newman fought for him to co-star in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (originally to be titled with those names in reverse).

Redford also talked about the founding of the Sundance Institute, which he pointed out is much more than the famous film festival. He donated land and resources to get the institute running in Utah, to serve as a laboratory and supporter of independent film and related arts. The festival itself is said to bring in $50-60 million to Utah over its 10-day run.

“At Sundance we say there is a connection between art and the environment,” said Redford. In fact, this has been true throughout most of the star’s life. “I’ve been involved in advocacy my entire adult life,” he told Edwards. Redford said his commitment to the planet came about as “a lot of things came together,” including growing up enjoying the ocean, then the Sierra Nevadas (he even worked for a time at Yosemite). As a key fixture in a young, vibrant Hollywood during a time of dramatic change, Redford found himself increasingly involved in the environmental movement.

“In the early years protecting the environment was not a popular notion,” said Redford. “You got hammered when you spoke about it. I used to help everyone that I could [who was fighting for the Earth], and there were a lot of startups back then, but I soon realized that was taking too much energy. So I decided to focus on a group that would have the most impact. I thought of NRDC because they could sue to protect it.”

Edwards asked what happened to the seemingly good old days of environmentalism, when a conservative Republican like Richard Nixon was signing landmark green laws like the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, before the green movement was largely considered a subset of the left. Redford answered that he wasn’t sure what happened to make things as polarized as they seem to be today, though he said part of it was likely due to the fact that conservatives were so shocked and injured by the fallout from Watergate that they regrouped in a vindictive, defensive way. “There will always be challenges that keep coming, so you have to keep fighting,” he added. “The last administration was literally trying to destroy the Earth. Back then the best we could do was hold the line and hope for change.”

Now that a more hopeful administration is in power under Barack Obama, Redford pointed out that there is great opportunity, as well as a tremendous amount of work to do. Not only does the new president have his hands full in rolling back some of the damage done by Bush and the emboldened extractive industries, but he also has to contend with serious foreign and domestic problems taxing our resources and energy, as well as the slow nature of federal government itself.

“As time goes on I’ve become more radical, because I’ve seen what’s been lost, and how many of those things can’t be repaired,” said Redford. “That’s why I’ve been going back to the grassroots,” he added, to much applause. When Edwards asked about specific issues, Redford called the idea of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge “insane.” After he wrote a letter to the past president urging him to consider other alternatives, some 750,000 others followed up with their own correspondence. “I have faith in the American people, if you get to them and tell them the right story,” said Redford.

He added that it used to be that environmentalists were usually seen as negatives, telling people what not to do all the time. “Now there are many wonderful positive solutions we can offer,” from renewable energy to new efficiency technologies, such as the exciting green features in the NRDC’s Los Angeles headquarters, which bears Redford’s name.

Redford said the issue he is most passionate about currently is preventing destructive drilling projects on public lands (including offshore). “The meter is ticking [particularly in the face of climate change], so you’ve got to get to as much as you can as fast as you can,” he warned. “I grew up with ‘This Land Is Our Land,’ and public land doesn’t belong to that administration or this one,” said Redford. “We want our kids to grow up with real natural places, not just photos of them.”

Well said, almost like he’s a Natural.

by Brian Clark Howard.
Photo Credit: Anthony Clark/NRDC