Viewpoint

Robert Redford, journalist

He did not just play a journalist: The actor has reporting chops and inspired my career

It is not often that I go to the movies these days, but this month I made time to catch two Hollywood productions: The Company You Keep, starring Robert Redford, and The Great Gatsby, the latter more out of curiosity to see if Leonardo DiCaprio did better than the 1974 version featuring Redford. He did not, to my relief.

Why the loyalty to Redford?

It has nothing to do with his acting, or his looks, but reaches back to teenage days and early 1976, when I received my monthly copy of National Geographic magazine with Redford's article, Riding the Outlaw Trail.

Passing the offices of the National Geographic the previous year, Redford had dropped in with an idea: Hey, why don't you guys do a feature on the outlaw trail?

In turn, the editors said: Why don't you do it for us, Bob?

And so, before me were the opening words of the piece where Redford drops in on the sister of the outlaw Butch Cassidy at the start of a journey to map the stretch of paths and hideouts from Canada to Mexico that was the bandit trail of the wild west.

"We rode into Circleville, shaking the city dust off our clothes."

I blinked. Did I read that right? Then the cleverness and audacity of the sentence struck me and I was hooked - to writing, to journalism, to places with no piped water and, in a sense, to Robert Redford.

And so, from age 21, it has been mostly that way. From the steppes of Afghanistan to the killing fields of Sri Lanka and the Maoist-infested badlands of Central India or the tsunami-struck Andaman islands, I travelled with the many pockets of my Banana Republic jacket stuffed with notebooks, film rolls, biscuits, water, and sometimes, a thin blanket.

And, every time, I'd mentally shake the city dust off my clothes.

In a sense, my admiration for Redford is because I sense he is a journalist underneath the successful actor. Certainly, he has been truer to himself than many of his peers.

Offered the starring role in the 1967 movie, The Graduate, he turned it down, saying: "I don't look like a 21-year-old kid that never got laid."

The role would go to Dustin Hoffman and make him famous, and the title song from the movie, Simon and Garfunkel's Mrs Robinson, remains popular to this day. Hoffman would go on to appear with Redford in the award-winning 1976 political thriller All The President's Men.

Years later, watching The Horse Whisperer (1998), I marvelled at the way Redford focused the camera on the wrinkles mapping his face.

And he can be frank. Watching his bedroom scene with Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were (1973), his wife Lola - they were married for 28 years - asked him what he was wearing at the time.

"Just Aramis," said Redford.

The interest in the outdoors is genuine, and once, nearly took his life. While he was riding on a mountain range, his horse reared up and nearly toppled him over a cliff after it saw a herd of elk deer. The elk, the actor explained later, have sharp horns that scare horses.

Redford has been a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council for 40 years and was an early proponent of concepts that are currently fashionable, such as renewable energy and solar power.

At the time he wrote the National Geographic article, he had just completed filming for All The President's Men, the tale of how two Washington Post reporters brought down US president Richard Nixon. Redford would go on to do another journalism movie, Up Close And Personal (1996), in which he co-stars with Michelle Pfeiffer.

In a sense, the developments, known as the Watergate scandal, marked journalism's heyday. Last month, he appeared in a Discovery channel documentary on Watergate's 40th anniversary, along with the real Watergate heroes, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

But age mellows and the news industry itself is under threat. And while Redford recently insisted that "there has got to be journalists, there has to be", his views on their mission appear to have evolved over time.

In The Company You Keep, which he also produced and directed, Redford, who acts as the publicinterest lawyer Jim Grant, has this advice for the intrepid reporter Ben Shepard, played by Shia LaBeouf:

"Secrets are a dangerous thing, Ben," he says.

"We all think we want to know them, but if you've kept one to yourself, you come to understand that doing so, you may learn something about someone else, but you also discover something about yourself. I hope you're ready for that."

In the closing pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the raconteur Nick Carraway turns to wave to his neighbour and friend.

"They are a rotten crowd, Jay," he shouts across the lawn. "You are worth the whole damn bunch put together."

You could say pretty much the same for Redford and a good part of Hollywood.

velloor@sph.com.sg