From seeing John Steinbeck having sex to being attacked by an obsessed fan, here 10 revelations from the new biography of Hollywood icon Robert Redford by Michael Feeney Callan.
Apparently, even Robert Redford was bullied as a child. In his neighborhood, there was a Hispanic gang, the Pachucks, and he was often beaten up by one of its members, “probably because I went to a good school, I was good at track and popular with girls.” Once, the bullies prompted him to jump off a roof to prove his manhood. He jumped and almost died from the fall. “Facing down fears hit home early…You have two choices, it seemed to me. You can be led by your fears, or you can overcome them.”
Discovering Sex—and John Steinbeck
He says during his adolescence sex kept him occupied, “I was impatient. I didn’t know what it was, but I wanted it, as much as I could get.” In one instance, he recalls running into the actor Zachary Scott, while shopping with his mother one day. Scott turns out to be a former friend of his mother’s from Texas, and she eventually befriends his wife Elaine, and Redford starts to spend more and more time at the Scott house, because he developed a crush on Scott’s daughter Waverly. Redford describes playing many “mischievous hide-and-seek games testing each others boundaries” at her house. During one such game of hide-and-seek, the two teenagers heard strange noises coming from downstairs and upon investigating, discovered Waverly’s mother making love – not with Zachary. “I didn’t know who he was…I didn’t realize I was witnessing…the start of Elaine’s big affair with John Steinbeck.”
As a teenager, Redford had problems with the law. His used to steal beer and break into empty properties for all-night drinking parties. Once he was detained for breaking into a girls’ school at night. Later he was arrested for driving in an automobile that had stolen jewelry in the trunk. He was even a member of his own gang in high school—the Barons. A friend recalled, “We were a street gang, there’s no other name for it. The Barons became our camouflage for all kinds of petty theft.” Towards the end of high school, he experimented with drugs like marijuana and hashish. He also started drag racing cars, and once crashed a coupe while drivng 90 miles per hour.
Adventures in Europe
In 1956, Redford found himself in Paris studying art. In October of that year, while he was in Paris, student radicals were organizing protests against the Soviet suppression of Hungary. Redford did not know much about the political situation, but he joined in the protest anyway. He was clubbed and injured during a police baton charge. He left Paris soon after that and traveled to Italy, where instead of staying in youth hostels, he and his companion usually slept in the dirt. It was an extremely cold winter and a popular legend of this trip is that Redford used a tip from a Jack London story and buried himself in cow dung. Redford confirms, “It’s true, ridiculous, but true.”
Breakdown, Florentine Style
Later while he was living in Florence, Italy, painting, smoking, and studying art, Redford suffered something of a nervous breakdown. He and his traveling companion split up before he arrived in Florence and he had very little contact with anyone while he was there. He stopped eating and began to lose weight rapidly. He obsessively stared into his mirror, studying himself. One night, while looking in the mirror he began to hallucinate that he could not see his flesh or his bones. “I started to laugh and then I started to cry and I couldn’t stop. It was the weirdest thing. My old self was gone. Dead. I was not the same person after that night in Florence.”
Drinking with a Murderer
In the early 1960s, after Redford married and had children, the stresses of his career and family life were getting to him, so he left on a road trip by himself. He drove 200 miles to Big Sur, and after trekking 90 miles over a few days, despite the cold, he ended up at Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn. Redford got on well with the owner of the inn, and the two spent days listening to music, and indulging in drunken conversation. In fact, the owner of the inn was a convicted murderer who had spent time in Alcatraz, and he lived in a shack, which he had built while working on a chain gang. Redford still admired him, saying he was “isolated from the world, free of self-contempt, managing an inn at the edge of nowhere.”
Lost at Sea
While filming the movie Inside Daisy Clover with Natalie Wood, one of the scenes required Redford and Wood to sit in a boat off the Santa Monica pier. During filming, the wind suddenly changed direction, catching the crew off-guard, and setting the boat adrift in the ocean. The first few attempts to recover the boat failed, and the pair was stuck in the squall all the while moving deeper into the ocean. Wood quickly panicked because she was afraid of the ocean (she died in a boating accident in 1981), but Redford kept her calm with his laughter and jokes, until they were rescued. The incident created a friendship between the two, and rumors of a love affair between them started to circulate. Redford admits that he was very attracted to her, but claims he never touched her, because he “worried about the liabilities of intimacy with the women you act with.”
The Pentagon Papers Connection
In 1971, Redford stayed in the Cambridge, Massachusetts home of Jeremy Larner, while the two ironed out a script together. He did not know that Larner was hiding Daniel Ellsberg, who had released the famous Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. The thousands of documents, which Ellsberg had stolen, revealed that the government purposely lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident in order to accelerate the Vietnam War. After releasing the documents, Ellsberg went into hiding in Larner’s home, in order to avoid agents of the Nixon government, who, allegedly wanted to shut him up. Redford says, “I knew Jeremy was sincere, well connected, anti-Vietnam, but it was all very James Bond-ish. We’d be sitting at the table shuffling the script, and there’d be noise back there and Jeremy would say, ‘Quiet, Dan! Take it easy now.’”
A crazy fan, Nadine Davies, began to stalk Redford in 1967, after seeing him in Barefoot in the Park. The following year, while Redford was filming at Universal Studios, actor Tom Skerritt told him that “some weird woman” who did not “seem to be sane,” was going through his dressing room. A few weeks later, while he was at a hotel watching coverage of the RFK assassination, he was told to stay in his room because a stalker was hiding in the bushes. Davies was arrested just outside Redford’s hotel room. Finally, while filming a scene from The Sting with Paul Newman, Newman suddenly became terrified and Redford turned around to see the same woman running directly at him. Newman yelled “Get her! Get that f**king woman out! Now!” Security eventually tackled her, but she was only feet away from reaching Redford when they did.
In the 1970s, Robert Redford appeared in the film All the President’s Men about the Watergate scandal. Later while Redford was in Paris, facing mobs of fans and paparazzi, his publicist hired a bodyguard agency to watch out for him. The company did some research and informed Redford of a kidnapping plot. They claimed that right-wing Nixonites had been offended by All the President’s Men and had put Redford on a hit-list. The security guards sped him out of France. Redford “thought it was melodrama and, to be honest, I believed none of it. I was wrong. We later learned from an independent investigation, that it was justified, that those people were real, and their order to get me was real. I read the reports, I saw evidence and it horrified me.”