Unblinking as a writer, producer and documentary filmmaker, James Redford, who has died of bile duct liver cancer at the age of 58, spoke candidly with WWD in 2001 about his life as a famous son.
Despite his own achievements as a creative and activist, Redford lived in the shadow of his Oscar-winning father, Robert. ”The one question that I am what’s asked is, ‘What’s it like to be Robert Redford’s son? How do I answer that?” he said at the time. “I don’t know how to answer that question. It’s the only reality I know and it’s a good one.”
Recognizable as he was as his father’s son with the same easy smile, scruffy copper-colored hair and sun-weathered complexion, the younger Redford was not in the habit of trading on the family name. “I come from a long line of storytellers in my family. The problem has been more trying to deal with the misconceptions and presumptions of others. I think we have seen this explosion of celebrity offspring phenomenon — in jail, on drugs, causing trouble. I’m baffled by that and sort of a hater as anybody. I think the average person thinks that things have come easier and that I haven’t really paid my dues. There are presumptions about my last name that are very challenging,” he said in 2011.
Having earned a master’s in literature from Northwestern University, Redford said that he considered himself first and foremost a writer with storytelling at the core of everything he did. “The nicest thing about writing is that it doesn’t matter who you are. That’s fair with me. I’ve written many things that weren’t good enough and I accept that. What most writers have is…something with the way they see the world that is worthy of passing on so that’s within everything,” Redford told WWD.
His portfolio included producing “Mann v. Ford,” an HBO documentary about Ford Motor Co.’s dumping of toxic waste and the medical effects that had on the Ramapough Mountain tribe.
His own health concerns started early, after having two liver transplants in his 20s and 30s he started the James Redford Institute for Transplant Awareness. Redford said in 2011, “I’ve had to get used to the idea of uncertainty about the future but I think everyone comes to that sooner or later. It’s hard to say what I would have been like ultimately prior to all this. I don’t think I waste a lot of time. In some ways, I feel like I’m living the life of two people.”
Having described his upbringing as kind of schizophrenic, Redford divided his time between Utah and New York. “Every time I drive across the Triborough [Bridge], or I guess now the RFK, I have this sensation that everything else in my life — my family, my marriage, my work — is some sort of an illusion and I am actually stepping back into reality. There is something so strong about having grown up in New York City that when you come back it seems as though everything else is just a dream.”
By his late 40s, Redford stopped mountain-biking after too many trips to the E.R. for broken bones and concussions. Hiking and surfing were substituted. “Well, I have to feed myself. I didn’t inherit a mountain of money,” he explained in 2011.
Describing the working and editing that is required to finesse films, Redford said, “Then there’s a moment where you feel things coming together. And it’s like when I was a kid. I used to build these towers on the beach with sand and I would put a tennis ball that would roll around and around and it would come out, and come down to the ocean — from the top to the bottom. But it took a lot of time to make that work. You had to work at the mountain, work at the sand and then finally you would drop the ball and it would go all the way. There is a moment in any kind of writing or film project where you have that feeling, that it’s finally coming together. I think that’s the best feeling.”
At the time of his death, he was reportedly finishing a documentary, “Where the Past Begins,” about the writer Amy Tan for PBS’ “American Masters.”
Redford is survived by his wife Kyle, a daughter Lena and a son Dylan, as well as sisters Amy and Shauna and his parents, Robert Redford and Lola Van Wagenen.