Robert Redford coasted to fame as the carefree embodiment of golden-boy charm in beloved classics like The Way We Were and The Sting, but behind those blue eyes and that dazzling smile lies a deeply tortured soul.
“One of his audition pieces for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts was The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe,” biographer Michael Feeney Callan tells Closer of the actor’s early days. “He jumped on window ledges, hung on curtains and bewildered everyone in the room.”
Robert during the filming of The Great Gatsby in 1974. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)
You wouldn’t expect the Sundance Kid to gravitate to such a morbid poem, but the truth is Robert’s life has been marked by tragedy since the start. “He has gone through one hell of a life,” says Callan, who spent 14 years interviewing the icon for 2011’s Robert Redford: The Biography and now reveals new details about him. “All his life he’s been ridden by guilt, but it sensitized him and turned him from a glamour boy into a more layered actor and filmmaker.”
Born Aug. 18, 1936, in Santa Monica, Robert was raised by an emotionally distant accountant father and a Christian Scientist mother who died when he was a teen. “She avoided medical attention after having a stillbirth with twins,” Callan says. Robert looked to his uncle David as a father figure, but he was killed in action during World War II. “Robert was devastated over the loss,” says a friend. A loner all his life, Robert adopted a stray mutt, but it was run over by a car. “I always had this thing… that death was on my shoulder, 24/7,” he says. “My dog. My mom. My uncle. A darkness right on top of me.”
Robert circa 1975. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)
He drowned his sorrows in alcohol and got kicked out of the University of Colorado, which he attended on a baseball scholarship, for excessive partying and drinking. Robert fell in love with acting, and with a Mormon girl, Lola van Wagenen, in 1957. But shortly after they wed, he was struck by the darkest tragedy of all: Their 10-week-old son, Scott, died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which at the time didn’t have a name. “As a parent, you blame yourself,” Robert says of the guilt he carried for not having gone to check on the baby. “That creates a scar that never completely heals.”
Three years later, “Robert feared he would lose another son,” as well as his wife, says the friend, when Jamie was born prematurely with Hyaline Membrane Disease, which killed JFK’s son Patrick. Lola fought to survive, and doctors gave Jamie only a 40 percent chance to live, but they both eventually pulled through.
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