Robert Redford: Sundance to a Different Drummer (Omni 4/82)

 Robert Redford gets a rude awakening to the politics of environmentalism.

The people turned him into a symbol, Robert Redford says. They made a dummy with a blond wig. More than 500 residents of Kane County, Utah, cheered when they hoisted the dummy up to set it on fire. One speaker called him “skunkman, a self-proclaimed voice of the hypocritical obstructionists.” They burned him in effigy for opposing a power plant, and when they dummy had turned to ashes, there was no director to call for an end to the scene. It was not a film.

The burning in April 1976 wasn’t the worst of it, Redford said recently. “That kind of made me wince around the shoulders a little bit,” he says. “But what was really upsetting was that my own particular view had become so distorted by people’s needs.” Out of the ashes of the experience Redford renewed determination to fight any attempt to cast him in real life, to put labels on him, to turn him into a gold-topped dummy. That’s one reason why he seldom gives interviews.

“I’ve seen too many accounts–of what kind of shoes I was wearing, what color my boots were, whether my clothes were hand-tailored or not, and how tall I was and how big I was, or whether my hair was sandy-colored or my teeth were white” — the data of dummies — “rather than what the hell I was talking about.” The incident in Utah also propelled Redford on a long, sometimes frustrating quest. One initial goal of this quest was nothing less than the establishment of a National Academy for Natural Resources, a sort of Annapolis of the Environment, for educating government employees in how to manage natural resources — perhaps training some of those who had burned him in the effigy or others who might have wanted to.

Redford recently described his quest, his frustrations, and his expectations in a set of interviews with Omni in his cluttered New York office high above Rockefeller Plaza. His workspace confounds the public’s images of him. A large poster for “The Solar Film,” a solar-awareness documentary Redford produced, looms over his memo-laden desk. Affixed to a large expanse of corkboard is a letter from an assistant secretary of the interior thanking the 44-year-old actor-activist for his role in testifying for the 1977 Clean Air Act and helping push it through Congress. Next to it, a note from Jimmy Carter praises Redford for his conservation work and for his article in National Geographic about his horseback trip down the old Outlaw trail.

Facing Redford’s desk, on the opposite wall, is a breathtaking photograph of Timpanogos, the wind-swept Utah peak atop which Redford and his wife and three teen-aged children live in a solar house of his own design. Slopes of the mountain also serve as the sight for Sundance, the low-key ski resort that Redford owns.

Hardest to fit among the memorabilia is the Redford of screen roles. A visitor must look for the small portrait of him and Barbara Streisand, the co-star of “The Way We Were,” semi-camouflaged amid a wall of family mementoes. There’s another family-like photo of the stars of “Ordinary People,” the movie for which director Redford won an Academy Award. And on the bottom of the shelf of a corner bookcase there are several dozen screenplay spines, some with familiar names (“The Electric Horseman,” “Brubaker”), some with intriguingly unfamiliar titles (“Peking Man,” “Greenpeace”). But other shelves suggest other priorities. A ponderous book called “Global Report on Energy” leans against a small golden apple Redford received as an award for “All the President’s Men.”

And during the talks — the first in-depth interviews Redford has granted since 1980 — Redford continually avoided predictable positions.

On Secretary of the Interior James Watt, anathema to many environmentalists: “I happen to think he’s the wrong man for the job. In my views, he’s grossly inadequate. But what I fear is who they are going to pick to replace him. How do we know they wouldn’t be vindictive and replace him with somebody far worse?”

On the balance between conservation and development of the environment: “I’m interested in awakening people to the existence of the environment and what it means and what it has and what the resources are all about. And that includes those resources that should be developed, because I accept the fact that we’re a developmental society. We’re not ever going to change that. The wagons will always be rolling as long as we’re on this planet.”

On the Kane County crowd that burned him in effigy for opposing the power plant: “They’d been standing there in five inches of dust, saying, ‘How am I going to make a life down here, and some shit movie star comes along who lives in the mountains and comes down to this country and tells me what I’m going to do with my life? The hell with him.’ Well, I understand that completely. I would have done the same thing.”

Long before work on the power plant had even begun, it had already generated considerable hope for residents of Kane County. The $3.5 billion Kailarowits facility — capable of supplying electricity for a community of 3 million — would have created a permanent settlement of 5,000 and an increase in payrolls in Kane and more than $100 million a year. Its partners, including the Southern California Edison Company, said that it would eventually have increased tax revenues in the county by $28 million a year. It was to be the largest coal-fired generating plant in the United States.

Everyone agreed that there was an environmental price to be paid for these riches. The plant, which was to supply power to southern California and Arizona, was to be located near eight national parks and three recreational areas. Planning, which started in 1963 — ironically the same year Redford starred on Broadway in “Barefoot in the Park” — focused on the Kane County site because the ground was rich in coal. But burning that coal in the plant would have injected about 300 tons of contaminants a day into the crystalline air of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Bryce Canyon, Zion, and other scenic preservation lands. The question was whether the price was too high.

For Redford — who had already been active in other environmental controversies around the country, though none so close to home — it was. Power-plant partners mounted an expensive campaign to try to show that it wasn’t. “The Southern California Edison Company was taking PR tours with people in helicopters, consuming great amounts of energy just to convince the public it was a great thing,” Redford recalls. “And I went on one.” Redford spent most of the time on the tour asking questions of his guide. “Such as, ‘How much are you spending on PR for this thing?’ And he said, ‘Four million dollars.’ And I said, ‘How much are you spending on R and D for alternate energy systems?’ He said, ‘Two million.’ Those figures alone told me a lot.”

Environmental activists groups, such as the Sierra Club, opposed the project. But Redford, who prefers not to become to closely allied with any group, did his own research. He discovered, among other things, that the developers were proceeding on the assumption that the demand for electricity in California would increase by 7 percent per year. “That was not true,” Redford says. “That 7 percent was a 1970 figure, a time when growth was really going haywire…so I looked into that, with some people in California, and found out that demand was on the decline because of energy conservation and solarization programs and things of that sort.” The growth in demand was more like 2 percent, Redford asserts, and was headed toward less than zero.

There was more. “They were going to mine Utah resources, pollute Utah air, thermopollute Utah water, and consume Utah water to ship power to California, and gouge up fourteen hundred square miles of land for transmission likes in doing so. And I said this is not right.”

And — still acting alone — Redford said it to “60 Minutes.” ‘I said, I think you ought to look at this. There’s a microcosm of something here.’” CBS producers jumped at the idea and pressed Redford to appear on screen. Reluctantly he agreed. It was a role, a label on national display: Redford the power-plant opponent versus Utah Governor Calvin L. Rampton; Redford the environmentalist versus a rough-cut spokesman for the plant; Redford the star from the mountains versus the people of Kane County.

In the end it wasn’t Robert Redford who killed the plant. Partners pulled out in April 1976, publicly attributing the cancellation to economic, regulatory, and environmental causes. Among other problems, the cost of construction had multiplied at least five times during the years of planning, and as Redford had discovered, the demand for electricity was waning nationally. But some of the people of Kane County blamed the decision not to go ahead on Redford and strung up their effigy.

“It was unfortunate and unfair,” Redford says, “but I learned a valuable lesion from them: that what’s missing in all of this is education. What’s missing is real leadership, real information–some mechanism that ten years ago would have been able to really look at that idea for a plant, and analyze it, and come away saying, “It doesn’t make any sense; we don’t have to put it right smack in between Zion and Bryce and Capital Reef National Parks.’”

Redford’s own education was eclectic. Son of an accountant, he grew up in postwar Los Angeles, where schools were “shabby” and teachers provided little incentive. “I was only inspired to crawl out windows, or look out windows, to get out there where it was happening,” Redford recalls. Out there, in Redford’s case, meant the Sierra Nevada. He started climbing mountains with his brother at the age or twelve or thirteen and found the experience “much more exciting than ever going to a movie.” His family, he remembers, couldn’t afford movie tickets anyway, and he used to spend evenings reading in the Santa Monica Library. His favorites: stories of Greek mythology, books by Rafael Sabatini (“Captain Blood,” “Scarmouche”).

Redford went to University of Colorado on a baseball scholarship, entering in 1955. By then he had developed a habit of tuning out speeches and lectures, but resolving to listen harder. In one science class he sat in the front row, fixing his eyes on the face of a soporific lecturer.

“He didn’t like me,” Redford says. “I could tell it. At the end of the professor’s long dissertation on some scientific point, he said, ‘Mr. Redford, would you step up here a minute please.’ Then he said, ‘I’d like you to look at me and tell me exactly what I just said.’ And I looked at him and said, ‘Well, do you know that when you talk, only your lower lip moves?’” Redford dropped out in 1956.

It wasn’t the end of his formal education. He spent more time in classrooms in Europe and New York City, studying art (favorite artists: Modigliani, Monet, and Renoir) and acting. But much of Redford’s education took place off-campus. Some of his best teachers, in fact, were the Indians of the Southwest, particularly the Hopis.

“Now you can go through these villages, you can go into the three Mesas [an Indian reservation where he often sojourns by himself], and feel that people are living in abject poverty, and you’ll wonder how they exist. That’s the oldest inhabited city in the country. It dates back to A.D. 1100. These people are living up there, and the more you get into their culture, the more you understand their rituals and their dances and their ceremonies, the more impressive it becomes to me that their respect for nature has been the mainstay of their ability to remain alive. There seems to be no reason; they defy gravity. The Hopi Indians defy gravity. How do they stay alive? How have they succeeded in not being taken over by outside interests/. Well, I believe it’s a steadfast and almost mystical knowledge and use of nature.”

He took pains to put down the stereotype of the Indian as alcoholic or junkie. “The Hopis have no use for hallucinogens at all. And I find them the most mystical, the most magical of tribes. It just points up the fact that you don’t really need that. In the ’60s, when it was fashionable to go get high with the Indians and to adopt their way of life and get on a mind-expansion trip, I found it radical chic. I found it too much of a trendy thing opposed to what is a deeper experience, which is just getting with those people and having the experience without it.

“I remember being at a sun dance where the males and females had two separate branches of ceremony,” he says. “There was a tepee ceremony where several peyote buttons were consumed by the women during the course of the 24 to 36 hours. And the men are in a tepee that’s open at the top, performing a dance around a pole to exorcise diseases of various kinds. And it’s without food and without water, and there’s dancing.

“So you hallucinate by dehydration, you hallucinate by chanting, you hallucinate by repetition, and you sweat — it’s a sweat ceremony.

“The sun is over a hundred degrees, and the only rest that you get is when the squaws would come in with peppermint branches and you would lay down and they cover you with peppermint branches, which is cool and refreshing, and you cool off your body temperature to keep from dehydrating or dying. When you’re moderate again, you get back up and start dancing, and this goes on and on. Well, it has the same effect.

“You can hallucinate without drugs. If we sit here long enough, and I chant with you, and we just tap our feet, and I have a drum, and I’m steady enough and I’m strong enough in my mind of what I’m thinking and what I feel, I believe we’re going to hallucinate, or one of us will.

“But the Indians have a whole different view about it. It’s sacred. It’s spiritual. They don’t do it to get high and go into town and buzz the shit out of the town or to get crazy about each other. They do it because it’s a spiritual-knowledge situation.

“I found a more important value in being with the Indians, accepting and knowing the fact that you could never be and Indian, you could never be completely of them, but you could be with them and begin to absorb some of their ways and some of their processes and find out what meaning they have for you as a Western person, as a Caucasian or non-Indian, and apply that meaning to yourself.

“My time in college was a booze generation. I certainly did my share of it. But I have no interest in hallucinogens or things like that anymore because I can get so high — I mean this sounds arrogant, but it’s just a fact — that I’ve been so high most of my life on living that I haven’t felt the need. I’ve tried it all at one time or another and found it wanting–because there’s nothing I’ve ever taken or used that’s gotten me to a place where I can’t get myself.”

Redford also says his philosophy of nature has been shaped by his study of the Mormon Church. He praises the church’s condemnation of the Reagan administration’s plan to base the MX-missile system in Utah. Mormon opposition was a reconfirmation of the church’s doctrine of divine stewardship, he says.

“Yes, divine stewardship. I’m fascinated with the Mormon Church, and I’m fascinated with its beginnings and what it’s trying to do. I’m somewhat disappointed that it’s become more business-oriented and that it’s lost its balance a little bit.

“But I look back to the tenets of the church and various documents, and I find fabulous statements in balance. One is the statement regarding divine stewardship, said by Brigham Young himself and the elders of the church, which founded that valley, where they talked specifically about what had to be developed for their survival and what had to be preserved for their spirit and their psyche. I think it’s a masterful statement that’s gotten lost in the last hundred years. I’m fascinated by how the one end of that two-pronged statement has completely overwhelmed the other, so that anyone who tries to speak about the other is considered a radical environmentalist trying to stop progress. Just reminding the church of its own statement has become something of a negative.”

Redford’s plans to bolster education of others went considerably beyond “reminding” people of the beauty of nature. His first conception was grandiose: He would help establish nothing less than an Environmental Annapolis, an academy for the defense of natural resources. Its graduates would march out into the service of national parks, where they in turn would become foot soldiers protecting resources — which Redford considers equally important as the national defense — and foster their rational development.

This strategic plan quickly became mired in meetings. One problem — Redford now calls it a “great mistake” — was seeking government support for the idea. “I really thought that what everybody said could be proved not true, which is that nothing can ever work when you put it in the bureaucracy. You want to kill something, you put it in the government Mixmaster and it will die there–And I said, yes, but if it goes through a study phase, kicked and bloodied about within the government, and if it survives, it’s bound to go.” So the idea, kicked around and bloodied in a “think-tank” group including government representatives, finally won an $80,000 study grant — and went nowhere.

Redford was forced to take on the role he had consistently avoided: front man, fund raiser, spokesman. Increasingly the role meant dealing with the press. It meant that the Sundance kid had to face the Mexican Army, a gang that in Redford’s opinion continually misses the story and hits him.

One sore point: “The Solar Film,” a 10-minute short on solar energy that was nominated for an Academy Award. “It took two and a half years to make,” Redford says. It wasn’t saying solar is the future, simply that it’s an option for the future and that it should be explored. We managed to crack a major distribution chain by getting that film placed in theatres all over the country. So in a sense we were cracking an audience that hasn’t gotten the message yet. PBS [Public Broadcasting System] has the message. Trade schools and environmental groups have the message. It’s the monolithic center section out there that doesn’t have the message yet.

“So we have a big press showing of the film here in New York to announce its release. Do you think we got any coverage? No. I went to Washington and called a press conference. Washington was suspicious of the whole thing. I was asked questions about who was funding it and why, rather than what the film was.

“After that happens enough times, you begin to get wise to what the real nature of the press is. I believe essentially the press is more interested in celebrities when they stay on the screen or when they fuck up on the screen.”

Over the years Redford’s dream of the academy — which he tried hard to keep out of the press in its early stages — became more modest and practical. Its name changed to the Institute of Resource Management, a title intended to convey the message that timber, water, coal, and other natural assets could be developed rationally as well as preserved respectfully. With the aid of former Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus and Andrus’s assistant for cultural preservation, Hope Moore, Redford considered dozens of universities and then finally settled on two: Washington State University and the University of Idaho. In a joint program, they would accept up to 20 graduate students a year in a two-year program leading to a master’s degree. Students would take existing courses in environmental science and regional planning. But the institute’s curriculum would differ from existing programs in offering students business courses, too, including seminars industry representatives. The institute would pick up virtually all of the $15,000 cost per year for each student. The money would come up from a $5 million capital fund to be raised privately, and the whole plan was to have become public last October.

Going public involved substantial risk for Redford. For one thing, the pieces of the capital-fund jigsaw were far from being in place, and many reporters knew it. And once again there was the risk of the public role: In facing the press, Redford stood to become a target for the questions he dreaded: Just how tall are you? What color are your boots? What radical-backpacker group is behind you this time?

The risks were even greater, he finally decided, in pulling back and waiting until all the money came in. His rationale, he recalls: “I want to keep the momentum going, and I’d better go up there and deal with it.” As the time approached for the Washington State President’s Convocation — a big campus event for big-name speakers surrounded by the hype of a homecoming weekend — a Spokane paper headlined: REDFORD FILES INTO HORNET’S NEST. The early part of the day went smoothly. After he was introduced to a crowd of 5,500 students in the cavernous Washington State Coliseum, he was propelled to the mike by a cannonade of Sousa marching music, cheers, squeals, and, when the crowd had quieted, the sound of camera shutters. His first gesture brought another cheer: He pulled off the mortarboard off his head, flashing the red hair.

The soul of the speech was the future. When he was growing up, he noted, his father used to recite a kind of itinerary about the decades ahead. His father used to say he was working hard to make the world a better place. “I suddenly came up short one day,” Redford said, “and I realized that I didn’t know what I could say to my children–.I was afraid we were at a place where we were no longer going to be inheriting life from our fathers, but we were going to be borrowing it from our children.” He went on to tell the Kaiparowits story and to trace the slow gestation of the institute.

But before he reached this part of his prepared message, Redford told a revealing story about himself. He was playing the role of a senatorial contender named Bill McKay in “The Candidate.” In the course of filming, Redford had to improvise campaign scenes. At Fisherman’s Wharf, in Monterey, California, he worked the crowd, shaking hands, kissing babies, keeping up a stock line about food costs and rising taxes. “As I was doing it, I got kind of impressed that I was doing all right,” he told his audience. “And while I was doing this, there was a woman standing there with her nine-year-old son. She was looking at me with a sort of squinty eye as the advance men came across and handed out a pamphlet saying, ‘Vote for Bill McKay.’

“She looked at this guy and said, ‘Hey, what’s the Sundance Kid doing down here on Fisherman’s Wharf?’ And the guy said, ‘That’s not the Sundance Kid. That’s Bill McKay.’ She said, ‘Oh yeah?’ And then she said, ‘You hear that Tim? Ol’ Sundance is running for the U.S. Senate.’”

The anecdote was ironic. Redford in a role moved with ease through the curious crowds, improvising campaign clichés, drawing friendly interest even when people were unsure which mask he was wearing. Now in Washington State, at a press conference after the speech, he had removed his actor’s masks along with his mortarboard. And he faced icy stares.

His defensiveness probably contributed to the antagonistic tone of the press conference. The aviator glasses he had put on seemed to make him look colder. Questioning turned quickly to funding, as Redford had expected. He was evasive. (He said later in one of our interviews that some potential donors were still working out details, and he didn’t want to embarrass or publicize them prematurely.) After several similar probes about money, Redford snapped, “That’s our business.”

Standing about six feet from Redford at the conference, William Funk, director of the institute at Washington State University, says he could see the color rise in Redford. “What impressed me,” Funk says, “is that the women reporters were much harder on him than the men. It was almost as if they had to prove to themselves they weren’t going to be swayed by him.”

But Redford held his temper, refused to be drawn into an attack on James Watt, parried a query about his rumored political ambitions by quoting his friend, director Sidney Pollack, to the effect that if Redford ever ran for office, Pollack would leave the country. Meeting adjourned.

Redford, as himself, had carried it off. The institute early this year reported that it had raised nearly enough to cover a full contingent of students next fall. Interest was high. Four students had already enrolled in the current academic year, paying tuition with their own money. One of them, thirty-year-old Susan Ball, said she had met Redford just once during the months she had been studying wildlife management and teaching a course in how to write an environmental impact statement. She was surprised by the meeting. “I had thought there might be more hype,” she says, “perhaps a bit of theatrical shallowness. But I found him genuine.”

After the conference a crowd of fans surrounded Redford’s station wagon. An autograph seeker thrust a giant pastel portrait of Redford in front of the window, probably unaware that Redford — unlike Gatsby or Bill McKay — never played along with the trappings of public-image making.

But this was the site of his once and future dream, the place where what the hell he has been talking about was becoming real. Redford, smiling, rolled down the window and signed.