Still going strong well into his eighties, Robert Redford is one of the last surviving stars to have broken through during Hollywood’s Golden Age. But despite a six-decade career in which he’s been recognized at the Academy Awards as both a filmmaker and actor, founded the independent film festival known as Sundance, and even won a Presidential Medal of Freedom, little is known about Redford the man.
Yes, as with many of his peers, the Californian has always preferred to keep his private life, well, strictly private. You may therefore not know that away from the cameras, the star of such classic films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting and All the President’s Men and director of Ordinary People, Quiz Show, and The Horse Whisperer has been beset by tragedy.
In fact, Redford had suffered more hardships by the time he first appeared on screen in 1960’s Tall Story than most do in a lifetime. And sadly, his later years haven’t been much kinder, either. From childhood illnesses and near-death experiences to marriage break-ups and several devastating losses, here’s a look at 11, which proves that being an award-winning movie icon doesn’t make you immune from problems.
Robert Redford contracted polio as a child
In 2011, the famously private Robert Redford surprised everyone when he agreed to cooperate with author Michael Feeney Callan on a book about his eventful life. And one of the many intriguing revelations which emerged was the actor’s bout of polio as a child.
Thankfully, it wasn’t a severe case, but even so, the future Hollywood star was still forced to spend several weeks in bed aged 11 after overexerting himself during an ocean swim. In 2018 he told NPR that the mid-1940s was a scary time to fall victim to the condition: "Before the Salk vaccine was discovered, what hung over your childhood was always the fear of polio because all you saw were people in iron lungs."
Redford would later pay tribute to Jonas Salk, the scientist who found a vaccine for the disease, in a 2014 short film. The Oscar winner stepped behind the camera to direct a part of the 3D documentary Cathedrals of Culture about San Diego’s Salk Institute for Biological Studies. As reported by Express in 2014, he recalled, "I was around when the polio epidemic was still a threat … so when Jonas Salk invented the vaccine, it was just earth-shattering news."
Robert Redford nearly died in a dare gone wrong
Who knew that Robert Redford was something of a teenage tearaway? That’s right; the now hugely respectable Hollywood star spent much of his high school years causing trouble with a street gang in his hometown of Van Nuys. And boys being boys, dangerous dares were also part of their daily routine. Unfortunately for Redford, one nearly cost him his life.
The future Academy Award winner was challenged to jump off a relatively high building by the gang in order to prove he wasn’t a complete and utter wuss. As Redford revealed in the 2011 book, Robert Redford: The Biography, "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."
Having apparently proved his manliness once and for all, and only just without breaking every bone in his body, a young Redford was allowed to continue wreaking havoc with the rest of the gang. Petty theft was their main source of entertainment, with alcohol from nearby stores a particular favorite activity. But the star’s life of crime appeared to end aged 16 when he was arrested for possession of stolen jewelry.
Robert Redford lost his mom aged 18
Robert Redford had those attending the Utah Women’s Leadership Celebration at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in tears when he paid an emotional tribute to his mom (via Closer Weekly). Martha Redford sadly passed away in 1955 from a hemorrhage at the age of just 40. Her death was linked to a blood disorder she’d contracted during the stillbirth of her twin daughters eight years previously.
According to Closer Weekly, the Hollywood star admitted that he hadn’t made things easy for his mother as a teen but that she always stood by him. "She believed that all things considered, she just had faith that I had something in me that was going to turn out okay." Sadly, Martha didn’t get to see her faith repaid: her son would make his screen debut five years after her passing.
Robert went on to sing his mom’s praises further, complimenting her smile, adventurous spirit, and positive attitude. He also told a star-studded audience, which included his longtime friend, actress Jane Fonda, that he wishes he’d appreciated her more when she was around: "I took [her] for granted because that’s the way kids were at that age. My regret is that she passed away before I could thank her."
Robert Redford lost his second father figure
Robert Redford first experienced grief when he lost the uncle who’d served as a second father figure to him during his early years. The actor regularly missed out on spending time with his actual dad Charles due to the long and unsociable hours he kept as a milkman.
As a result, a young Robert developed a close bond with his Uncle David, an all-American all-rounder who was not only quite the football player but could also speak no fewer than four different languages. The pair would reportedly often spend time on the football field practicing their throwing techniques.
Once again, Robert was left without a strong paternal presence when his uncle was drafted into the Second World War by General Patton’s Third Army. Sadly, he never returned home. Indeed, David lost his life in 1945 after the Jeep he was traveling across a Luxembourg bridge in was caught in a crossfire. In 2013, Redford told NPR, "The way the family dealt with it — it just wasn’t talked about. It just happened, and you didn’t ask a lot of questions. It was what it was. I think that was sort of built into the family structure … There was no talk about it, and everybody moved on."
Robert Redford got kicked out of college
Robert Redford may have waved goodbye to the criminal life as he entered his late teens following a run-in with the police. But that didn’t mean he was ready to become an upstanding member of society. Indeed, while attending the University of Colorado, the future star built quite the party boy reputation.
In his 2011 book, Robert Redford: The Biography, Michael Callan Feeney wrote, "Redford had become beloved in the drinking circles but was regarded as a loose cannon." The author doesn’t mention exactly what went down in the Kappa Sigma fraternity that a young Redford belonged to. But considering he was kicked out of the college after just 18 months, we can’t imagine it was pretty.
But that wasn’t the end of Redford’s education. After losing his scholarship, he spent time learning how to paint in both Florence and Paris and later studied at New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Thankfully, the University of Colorado didn’t issue a blanket ban on any other Redfords attending: two of the star’s kids, Shauna and Jamie, were later accepted into the institution.
Robert Redford lost his firstborn to crib death
Things appeared to be going swimmingly for Robert Redford toward the end of the 1950s. He’d just become a married man after walking down the aisle with Lola Van Wagenen, made his Broadway debut in Tall Story, and became a parent for the first time with the birth of son Scott.
Tragically, his world would come crashing down one day in November 1959 when the ten-week-old Scott passed away from a condition that would later be termed Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Understandably, the incident devastated Redford, who believed he was responsible for not checking in on the baby earlier. And it would take him more than half a century to open up to the public about the grief he experienced.
In an unusually candid 2011 interview — quoted by Mirror — the Out of Africa star said, "It was really hard. We were very young. I had my first theater job, which didn’t pay much. We didn’t know anything about sudden infant death syndrome so as a parent you blame yourself. It creates a scar that never completely heals."
Robert Redford’s son James almost died at birth
Just three years after his firstborn son Scott’s tragic death, Robert Redford was forced to face the very real prospect of losing his second. Not only that, but his wife Lola’s life hung in the balance at the same time, too.
In 1962, David James Redford was prematurely born with the same condition that had robbed John F. Kennedy of his second son, Patrick. According to biographer Michael Feeney Callan’s book, Robert Redford: The Biography, the baby was only given a 40 percent chance of survival after being diagnosed with Hyaline Membrane Disease. But luckily, the tot and his mother both managed to pull through. "It was a colossal relief for us," Robert explained.
The Oscar winner had previously alluded to the hardships that his offspring have faced over the years in a 1998 chat with People magazine. "People think it’s been easy for me. That’s hard to live with. It’s so untrue. The hardest thing in the world is when your children have problems. There have been so many hits on our family that no one knows about, and I don’t want them to, for my family’s sake."
A boyfriend of Robert Redford’s daughter was murdered
Tragedy struck Robert Redford’s family, and his daughter, in particular, once again in 1983. In what is still something of an unsolved mystery, Shauna Redford’s journalism student boyfriend Sid Wells was fatally shot in the back of his head at his University of Colorado apartment.
His roommate Thayne Smika, who was reportedly due to pay rent that day, was soon named as the number one suspect for the shocking murder. But although he was arrested, the lack of proof meant that Smika wasn’t charged or indicted by a grand jury. And incredibly, he hasn’t been seen since 1986! Smika’s car was found abandoned in Beverly Hills that year, and reports suggest he may have fled America altogether.
The plot thickened in 2010 when enough new evidence emerged for a case review. The district attorney’s office in Boulder County subsequently gave the go-ahead for an arrest affidavit. But despite issuing age-progressed mugshots to the public and a more concerted effort to find him, Smika still remains at large. In 1997 Redford, who attended Wells’ funeral after initially deciding to keep away over fears of press intrusion, said — as reported by Star Tribune — that he’s still very much haunted by the incident: "It’s like a partially opened door with a very dark room behind it."
His friend Natalie Wood died in mysterious circumstances
Robert Redford may well have had Natalie Wood to thank for his breakthrough Golden Globe-winning role as closeted film star Wade Lewis in Inside Daisy Clover. The actress, who was very much the bigger star at the time, reportedly recommended the man she first met at high school to Warner Bros. for the 1965 drama. The close-knit pair would also share the screen a year later in This Property Is Condemned.
Tragically, in 1981, Wood lost her life in circumstances that remain mysterious to this day. The multiple Academy Award nominee was on a boating trip around Catalina Island with her husband Robert Wagner and their fellow actor friend Christopher Walken when she drowned. It’s still not known how or exactly when Wood ended up in the water, but speculation has continued to grow ever since.
Redford was understandably left devastated by the loss of his friend, and despite his reputation as a private man, has often spoken about their connection. He narrated a glowing tribute to his former co-star for the Turner Classic Movies network and also agreed to be interviewed for the 2020 HBO documentary about Wood’s legacy, What Remains Behind.
Robert Redford split from his wife of almost 30 years
Back in the mid-1980s, Robert Redford and Lola Van Wagenen appeared to have one of the most stable marriages in Hollywood. The pair had tied the knot in 1958 and overcame the tragic death of their first-born Scott to have three other children, Shauna, James, and Amy. So, it was a bit of a bombshell when the pair announced — albeit a decade after it actually happened — that they were going their separate ways.
In 2001, 16 years after the split, the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid star told The Telegraph that the relationship had come to a natural end: "It was mutual and it was right to move on. We still have great love, great affection, great friendship. It is wonderful, and I think we probably deserve credit for it because the kids are great, they came through it okay. I never wanted to be one of those divorced showbusiness casualties — so predictable! I wanted to prove that a marriage could last and prove the business wrong. But I couldn’t."
Redford waited quite a while to say ‘I do’ again. He walked down the aisle with German artist Sibylle Szaggars in 2009, almost a quarter-century after his divorce. However, the pair had been living together since the mid-’90s at Redford’s Sundance home.
Robert Redford’s son James died from liver cancer
No parent should outlive one of their children, let alone two. But that’s the situation that Robert Redford and his ex-wife Lola Van Wagenen faced in October 2020 when son James passed away from liver cancer at the age of just 58.
James Redford, who was born three years after the death of his baby brother Scott, had suffered from liver problems throughout his life. He underwent liver transplant surgery in 1993 and later founded an institute for awareness about the procedure. Sadly, while awaiting a new transplant in 2019, the documentary filmmaker was diagnosed with bile-duct cancer. A year later, his wife Kyle, also the mother to his two children, confirmed on Twitter that he’d succumbed to the disease: "We’re heartbroken. He lived a beautiful, impactful life and was loved by many."
In a statement given to People magazine, publicist Cindi Berger revealed that Robert was "mourning with his family during this difficult time and asks for privacy." She continued, "The grief is immeasurable with the loss of a child. Jamie was a loving son, husband and father. His legacy lives on through his children, art, filmmaking and devoted passion to conservation and the environment."