Robert Redford will tell you it's all about story. Some stories start at the end.

It's the last of our three meetings and he says he's sick of talking about himself. We're in Colorado, where he is the guest of honor at the Telluride Film Festival. He looks gaunt, his blue eyes sunken far into his face, his world-famous hair askew.

"I've got bed head," Redford says with mild despair.

He is promoting 'All Is Lost,' in which he plays a sailor adrift alone in the Indian Ocean. He is nearly silent the entire film and his ravaged, desperate performance could earn him, remarkably, only his second Oscar nomination for acting in his 50-year career. (In 1981, he won for directing Ordinary People.)

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Part of being the guest of honor is submitting yourself to an hour of your clips followed by a 45-minute interrogation in front of 600 people. Twice. Redford was charming the first night, watching earlier versions of himself with a grin and the occasional covering of the eyes, ducking out only during the three minutes of 'Out of Africa,' which he says is his most demanding film. The bummer was he had to do the whole thing again 14 hours later. It's now afternoon and he's exhausted, looking small and vulnerable as he falls into a lounge chair in the lobby of the Hotel Madeline.

"Is there really anything more for me to say?" says Redford with a sad smile as he shakes my hand.

We'd spent hours at his Sundance lair talking about his fleeing his hometown of L.A., his battles with Hollywood, and carving a better life in Utah. The conversation had been somber – a product of what Redford calls his dark Celtic roots, a clash with his cowboy-hero image. But now I wanted to know if there were some, you know, kick-ass moments from being the most desirable man of the second half of the 20th century.

"Oh, there were some fun times with my leading ladies," says Redford with a twinkle. He doesn't elaborate, but instead tells me about visiting Jimmy Carter in Plains, Georgia, during the 1976 presidential campaign and being disappointed when Lillian Carter, Jimmy's mom, remarked, "Mighty glad to have you here, but I'd much rather have Paul Newman."

Redford says it in a perfect Southern accent and then talks about lying on the family-room carpet with Billy Carter watching a tape of the Nixon–Kennedy debates in preparation for Jimmy's debates with Gerald Ford. (Carter woke him at 6 the next morning and asked him if he wanted Cheerios.) But he quickly slips over to the flip side of fame and relates skiing with his son Jamie and Vice President Walter Mondale and how oppressive it was with all the Secret Service.

Then Redford sees a familiar face. A man with long, streaked blond hair and a cowboy squint walks toward him with a roll-away bag.

"Am I interrupting?"

Redford flashes his famous smile at Brad Pitt. "Depends what you have in mind."

"Nothing good."

The only clip in the Telluride highlights from a film Redford directed was of Pitt being dragged downriver with a trout on the line in the Redford-directed 'A River Runs Through It.'

"I was just looking at you when you were younger, fresher, cleaner."

Pitt grimaces. "Younger, more respectable, and I smelled better."

They talk about the scene for a moment. Then a sweet thing happens. Both men get more than a little sentimental. Pitt clears his throat.

"I get a little choked up in that bit of 'A River Runs Through It,' " he says.

"You were great," Redford tells him.

"Yeah, I get a little choked up."

They talk about why they're here: Pitt has flown in for the surprise screening of Oscar favorite '12 Years a Slave,' which he is producing. The film features Pitt as the only decent white man – a very Redford-esque star turn. Redford tells him about 'All Is Lost.'

"See it, Bradley. I want to see what you think."

Pitt says he will, makes his apologies for interrupting, and starts moving away, but Redford doesn't want the moment to end.

"You and your lady are doing good things. I would love to catch up sometime. Where are you, pal?"

"We are trying to spend more time in France, about an hour north of Saint-Tropez – trying to do a little artist commune thing. I'd love to talk with you more about it."

Pitt is staring down 50 this year, close to the age Redford was when he started the Sundance Film Festival. Pitt is at the fork in the road that Redford faced in the 1980s: Carve your own path, or become Harrison Ford and rinse, repeat roles until death does you part. Redford sees himself in Pitt: the half-century battle to be taken seriously as an artist and not just another pretty boy. Redford wants to help his old friend on his journey, but he has an un-Redford-like question.

"Uh, how do I even get a hold of you?"

Pitt smirks. "I'm not that hard to reach."

"You aren't?"

Pitt chuckles. "If they say Redford is looking . . ."

Redford beams. "Oh, if they say Robert Redford's looking!"

They do not exchange phone numbers. "I've been terrible about maintenance," Redford told me earlier. "There are many people I love and care for, and I've been a poor friend because I've been so busy moving forward and creating new things."

The two say goodbye. They swear they'll stay in touch. It probably won't happen – Redford is known for having a thousand famous acquaintances but not many close friends. So it goes. Pitt walks away, an assistant trailing behind him. The World's Most Famous Actor emeritus watches the reigning World's Most Famous Actor until he disappears.

A month earlier, I caught my first glimpse of Redford at an amphitheater in the hills above his Sundance Resort in Utah. Down on the stage, three country singers were swapping songs when a shortish man in a baseball cap and corduroys arrived fashionably late with his second wife, Sibylle Szaggars, and a gaggle of grandchildren. They sat on a blanket on the grassy hill far from the stage. Shortly after sunset, clouds blotted out the purple sky. Banging thunder and torrential rain soon followed. Most of the crowd made a run for it, but Redford's family stayed, huddling together until a stereophonic clap from above ended the night. Still, his brood didn't rush off; they waited patiently as the crowd scrambled for cover.

I meet Redford the next day at the resort. It's the jewel in a Sundance empire that has more spin-offs than PepsiCo. There's the Sundance Film Festival; the Sundance Institute, a creative lab to help young filmmakers develop projects; and a ski resort. Oh, yeah, there's also the Sundance Catalog, specializing in southwestern tchotchkes, and the Sun­dance Channel, which Redford sold in 2008. Redford's office is located next to – no lie – a babbling brook. There are some books and a signed Ted Williams ball, but the space is fairly bare except for an unexplained campaign button stuck on the wall reading "save bob," apt shorthand for the motivation that has driven Redford's entire life. I complimented him on sticking it out last night until the end.

"It's the least I could do," he says. "They were singing their hearts out and in danger of getting electrocuted. I couldn't leave."

Visiting Redford in Sundance conjures the line "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree," which most people, including me, know from Citizen Kane and not a love of Coleridge. In a way, Redford is the Charles Foster Kane of Sundance, if Charles Foster Kane were charming and benevolent, not an asshole. (The only arrogance I noticed was that my hotel room was decorated with posters from 'Lions for Lambs' and 'The Conspirator,' two of Redford's less successful directing projects.) Walking the grounds with Bob, as everyone calls him, is to witness a cavalcade of lab participants and pilgrims coming up to thank him for letting them experience his Sundance, a particularly kind gesture from the tourists who are paying $250 a night.

Redford is patient with his supplicants, but he gets prickly about the difference between Sundance the place and Park City's Sundance Film Festival, where you can see a great documentary and then watch a reality star climb out of a Range Rover while not wearing underpants. Redford started Sundance because the movies he wanted to see – ones with story and characters – weren't being made in Hollywood. The only problem is he was so successful that Hollywood decided to devour his Xanadu, with premium vodka parties and assistants scouring the Park City Albertsons for Fiji water. "It makes me fucking nuts," says Redford. He has physically distanced himself from the film festival, making only occasional cameos. "It has moved out of what I had as a comfort zone. It's moved beyond, to where I'm uneasy about it."

Redford talks with sadness about his wayward film child, ticking off the rise of ambush marketers and swag bags, as if it is all out of his control, a stance that Redford's skeptics claim is evidence he sees himself as a reluctant, tragic hero – not only in his movies but also in the story of his life. Either way, Redford knew something had to give. He was in his mid-70s and in a rut that some saw as terminal. So, in 2012, he came up with a plan, simple yet counterintuitive: Robert Redford temporarily turned his back on producing, directing, and the festival, and decided to do something totally different.

He became an actor again.

It used to be simpler. Back in the late sixties, Redford heard about a script by William Goldman originally called The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy. He tracked down the director, George Roy Hill, and they talked about his playing Cassidy opposite Paul Newman as the laconic Sundance. But Redford had other ideas.

"I can do that, but that's not what I identify with," Redford told Hill over a beer. "I feel closer to the Sundance Kid."

The movie came out, received mediocre reviews, then went on to become the highest-grossing film of 1969. Newman and Redford became America's favorite undeclared butch couple. In Newman, Redford found a partner in crime; they shared the same dubious view of stardom and sense of humor. Redford claims he introduced Newman to racing by letting him drive his Porsche to the Utah set of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Years later, they both had houses in Connecticut. "All Paul talked about was cars – cars, cars," Redford tells me with a laugh. "I told him to stop with the cars. It's boring. I would come up to Connecticut on weekends, and one time I called a towing service. I said, ‘Look, you guys have a wrecked car? Preferably a Porsche.' "

A couple of days later, the guys found a flattened Porsche that fell off a railcar. Redford had them wrap it up in newspaper and put a ribbon around it. He then had them drop it on Newman's back porch.

Two weeks passed, and Redford heard nothing. One day he came home and opened the door, and in the foyer was a large wooden box. He got a crowbar and a hammer to open it. It was just a big block of metal.

"He put it in a block," says Redford. "I didn't say anything. So I called a friend of mine, a sculptor in Westport and said, ‘If I give you some material, could you sculpt it?' "

She said yes. The towing guys took the block to the sculptor. About three weeks later, she finished, and – according to Redford – it was an abomination. The guys put it in Newman's garden. "Neither one of us ever mentioned it," says Redford. "That's the kind of relationship we had. It was just fun."

After Butch Cassidy, Redford had power, but he used it like Newman, both embracing and rebelling against his image as everyone's all-American, underscored by Barbra Streisand's remark in 'The Way We Were': "Do you smile all the time?"

Between 1969 and 1973, when he starred with Streisand and then reunited with Newman in 'The Sting,' Redford made a slew of offbeat films, two of which showed his increasing rebellion against celebrity. In 'Downhill Racer,' Redford played a skier obsessed with becoming an Olympic champion. The movie ends with Redford's being carried off the slopes after an apparent victory. But there's one skier still on the course. For a moment, he's beating Redford's time. The crowd drifts away before the skier falls. Redford sees his ghost passing him by; it is just a matter of time before his moment passes. In 'The Candidate,' Redford is Bill McKay, a glib matinee idol of a senate hopeful. By the end of his campaign, McKay sees it's more about cosmetics than policy. Just before his victory party begins, the senator-elect turns to his campaign manager and asks, "What do we do now?"

It's a question Robert Redford is still trying to answer.

The gates outside Redford's Sundance spread are made of stone and cement, looking both ancient and modern. Back in 1963, when he was building his first real home, Redford became infatuated with the stone construction of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West. He tracked down the one guy in Arizona who knew how to mix the stone and cement to get the same look. He spent a few days learning the skill and then built the gates himself. Much like Redford, the end project is both inviting and fortresslike.

He found his Utah place in the manner that he's made many of his career choices: He zigged instead of zagged. After high school in Los Angeles, he went to the University of Colorado, where he was supposed to play baseball but just drifted, failing out after three semesters. On one of his trips home, he took a wrong turn on old Utah Route 40 and found himself on a rough switchback road heading up Mount Timpanogos in Utah's Wasatch Range.

We're driving on some of the same roads in Redford's SUV, heading up to his spread above his resort. "I saw the back of the Timpanogos and said, 'Wow,' " says Redford as he takes a series of turns at too-high speed. "It hit me like a ton of bricks."

With his first acting money, Redford bought two acres for $500 and built a cabin with no running water. His first wife, Lola, was from the area, and they returned in good times and bad, burying their first child, Scott, in nearby Provo after he died of sudden infant death syndrome in 1959.

But it wasn't until the oppressive and giddy days of the 1970s that he considered making Sundance a refuge for his three kids, Jamie, Shauna, and Amy. They went to Dalton, a prestigious school in Manhattan, but Redford felt the walls closing in around them.

It's hard to exaggerate Redford's seventies celebrity. Some of the experiences were funny, if scary. While in a Manhattan office building, Redford was chased into the basement by a group of nurses who'd heard he was in the building. "I plowed out through a couple of nurses, out into the street, and they followed me," remembers Redford. "They started pulling at my clothes and my hair." He jumped into a taxi, where the radio was playing "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," from Butch Cassidy. "I thought, ‘This is too much.' "

Redford liked to take the kids to Trader Vic's in New York, but it became increasingly impossible. After countless well-wishers interrupted one trip, Redford's son trailed behind the rest of the family on the walk home. Redford asked him what the matter was and Jamie answered with a question.

"Why don't those people like you?"

"I think they like me."

"Then why would they come bother you if they liked you?"

Soon after that, Redford started assembling a compound behind the stone gates. (Not much has changed: "People still come at that guy like he's public fucking property," says 'All Is Lost' director J.C. Chandor.) We head up to the family's original A-frame, the successor to the cabin, and run into Eric Schlosser, Redford's son-in-law and the author of 'Fast Food Nation' and 'Command and Control.'

"Hey, Eric," Redford calls out, "just showing him the old homestead."

Schlosser smiles. "All made by hand," he says.

Redford chuckles, acknowledging that his son-in-law might have heard the Sundance creation story a few times. We drive on in the idyllic setting, deer prancing in the fields, a grandson's bicycle tilted over. That afternoon, Redford was leaving for a day of meetings in L.A. about a film adaptation of Bill Bryson's 'A Walk in the Woods,' which he'd originally wanted to do with Paul Newman and that was now creeping forward with Nick Nolte in the Newman role. "I grew up in L.A. I can't do it anymore. I can't take it. Down in L.A, I'm a dick."

Redford will tell you that he hates L.A. because of the traffic, the pollution, and the movie-making industrial complex. But it's also because of a grueling childhood that he airbrushed out of his bio for years, only becoming comfortable talking about it in his later years.

His father was a milkman working 12 hours a day who had little time for his only child. (Redford was named after his father, Charles, but has always gone by his middle name.) His mother tried to make up for it, but there are some things a mom can't do. Bob became close to his uncle David, who taught him how to throw a football and hit a baseball. It was the seed planted by David Redford that started his nephew on a path stretching from American Legion baseball star to skiing in 'Downhill Racer' to doing his own hitting in 1984's 'The Natural.'

But then the war came. His uncle was shipped off to Europe. One day, when Redford was eight, his mother and grandmother picked him up from school, which was weird because he usually walked home. His grandmother got out of the car.

"Your uncle David has passed on."

"What do you mean, passed on? He's dead?"

"He's passed on."

Redford came home and waited for his father in the front yard of their house on the L.A.–Santa Monica border. He saw Charles Redford walking down the street, right toward him. But he didn't look at his son. He just went right into the house and into his bedroom for the next 20 hours.

"I couldn't go in there," he remembers. "When he came out, there was no talk, nothing."

The family eventually moved out to Van Nuys, a nowhere zone in the Valley. As Redford got older, he started to paint and talk about living the artist's life. His father thought it was a bad idea. Then his mother died when he was 18.

"My mom was always in support of me," says Redford. "No matter what I did, she said, ‘You're going to be good.' I never took it that seriously. It wasn't until after she died that I realized she was the only person who believed in me."

Redford drifted for a while. After failing out of college, he split for Europe – an exotic move in 1956. It wasn't a party. He got depressed and lost 40 pounds, and spent much of his time in bars sketching patrons and imagining the conversations they were having. He would write down what he thought was going on at another table on one side of a pad and draw pictures of the guests on the other. "That experience of traveling around, being alone, listening and watching was probably the beginning of how I felt about acting. If you had any talent at all to mimic, I thought that might be enough."

In the late 1970s, Redford said he wanted to direct, and most of Hollywood saw it as a star's folly and were shocked by the depth of Redford's 'Ordinary People.' While Redford denies it, it was hard not to see the through line between Redford's distant, emotionally withholding father and the brittle and aloof mom played by Mary Tyler Moore. Redford won a Best Oscar for directing. He was also heading for divorce and saw the honor as a sign to retreat from Hollywood.

"When it happened, I said, ‘There's something dangerous in the air here,' " says Redford. " 'I just need to be grateful that I got this thing, but I think it's time to take stock. You haven't hardly taken a breath. It's time to stop and regenerate, otherwise you're going to start repeating yourself.' " Redford began dedicating more time to environmental activism. He banged the drum early on global warming and pressed for the protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In Utah, he clashed with locals who disdained him as a Hollywood outsider, but he was integral in keeping untamed areas from falling into developers' hands. (He hasn't really slowed down: This year he's been outspoken on the protection of wild mustangs in the Southwest and recorded a PSA bemoaning the evil of tar sands oil drilling.)

Back in Hollywood, he saw the film biz morphing toward the high-tech-blockbuster era with the rise of Spielberg, De Palma, Lucas, and other modern film wizards. "I realized that a lot of the films were dependent on special effects. Gradually what was missing for me was story, and I thought, 'I can't give that up.' "

So Redford started the Sundance Film Festival, which muddled along until Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape was bought by Harvey Weinstein at Miramax in 1989. It was simultaneously the start of something great and a death blow for Redford's original idea for the festival. Weinstein's company did as much if not more than Redford in establishing indie filmmaking as a real force in the 1990s, but Redford saw it differently.

"Harvey wanted to be a Hollywood mogul," says Redford. "He's got a real merchant mentality; he would start to pick stuff. And then Hollywood came. When the actors started to come, the paparazzi came, and once the paparazzi came, then fashion came, and suddenly you had Paris Hilton," says Redford. "I felt at a certain point that we were being engulfed."

He paints the Sundance changes as beyond his control, which is hard to believe since he is still the festival's godfather. Though he no longer handles its day-to-day operations, he's still the face of the festival and has considerable influence on the films and the corporate sponsors who fund it, to say nothing of Sundance's general direction.

Between his environmental causes, Sundance, and his directing, acting had become an afterthought. He tried to hire others to run Sundance and its assorted business, but that was a disaster, resulting in his nearly having to declare bankruptcy in 2003.

"It was mostly my fault," he says. "It almost became an empire without my managing it, because I was off doing what I wanted to do, which was make my own films. It made me a bit of an absentee owner for Sundance, so advantages were taken in my absence, and when I hit the skids I realized I was in really deep financial shit."

While Redford says he never took a part for the money, it's hard to see his 1990s roles as a billionaire in 'Indecent Proposal' or as a news director in the frothy 'Up Close and Personal' as anything but a paycheck. (Redford told folks he played a tough-minded newsman instead of middle-aged eye candy.) He became increasingly frustrated, struggling with his aging status in the marketplace, seeing the latest new thing's face on billboards and wondering why he wasn't getting those parts.

But Redford wasn't 30 anymore; his options were narrowing. Not coincidentally, the previous quarter century marked the decline of his partnership with Sydney Pollack, whom he met at 26 on War Hunt, his first film. Pollack had directed Redford classics like 'Jeremiah Johnson,' 'The Way We Were,' and 'Three Days of the Condor,' but Redford sensed that his winning a best director Oscar for his first film rankled his old pal. While the two remained friends – Redford sat next to his widow at Pollack's 2008 funeral – they were unable to fix the professional damage done by Out of Africa, Pollack's own Oscar-winning film, in which Redford played a big-game hunter. The two argued over the character.

"I was beginning to feel that I was being used as a symbol," Redford said at Telluride, "rather than a person who had a job and feelings of his own."

It didn't help that Redford's performance was panned while Pollack and co-star Meryl Streep were winning Oscars. The two would work again only one more time.

"Sydney got bored with directing – he wanted to become a mogul," Redford tells me, dropping the M-word again. For Redford, it is the ultimate creative slur.

Redford kept directing films, but after 1990s success with 'A River Runs Through It,' 'The Horse Whisperer,' and 'Quiz Show,' he lost his touch. Since then, his 2000s productions have been bloodless cinematic sermons – often featuring Redford as liberal sage – that failed with the critics and at the box office.

"I think I did it to myself in a way," says Redford. It's time to head back down the hill, to his beloved Sundance, where he'll then catch a flight to his dreaded hometown for meetings. "What I didn't want to do," he continues, "was repeat success. I wanted to move to new things and maybe create new opportunities for other people, other actors and directors. If that worked, add on to that and add on to this. And next thing I knew, there were so many add-ons in my life that I had gotten further and further away from what I loved doing and the way I started, which was acting."

A sinking ship rescued him. The first time director J.C. Chandor heard Robert Redford's voice in person, he knew the actor would be perfect for a film that had no dialogue. In 2011, Chandor was in Sundance for the premiere of his first film, 'Margin Call.' Redford came down from his mountain to give a motivational speech to the filmmakers. Chandor was standing in the back when technical difficulties began.

"Bob's voice started cutting in and out," Chandor recalls. "You'd hear that famous voice, and then you'd hear nothing. And I started thinking, ‘What would it be like if you made a movie where that voice doesn't say anything?' "

Chandor is the first Sundance filmmaker to ask Robert Redford to appear in one of his films. "I don't know if they were scared or what, but it started to bother me, and I wondered if I should have hurt feelings," jokes Redford.

Chandor broke the taboo. He sent Redford a bare 30-page script about a man sailing solo through the Indian Ocean whose boat is hit by a shipping container and who spends eight days trying to survive. Redford is notorious for punting projects down the road. ('A Walk in the Woods' has been on his plate for nearly a decade.) But shortly after he received the script, he and Chandor met in New York. Once Redford realized he wasn't crazy and could pull it off, he signed on, ceding all power to the then-37-year-old director – something a middle-aged Redford would have never done.

"The more time I spent with J.C., I saw that he had a vision I could give myself over to," says Redford, during his second Telluride talk. "I wouldn't have to double think or overanalyze."

The one unspoken wild card was whether Redford could pull off the physical part of the role. An avid skier and hiker, Redford is fitter than most 30-year-olds, but he was still 76. The plan was originally for Redford's face to be used for close-ups and a double to handle the tough stuff. Redford wouldn't have it. He'd done many of his own stunts throughout his career, and he didn't want to change now.

"As you get older, there's only so much you can do. So when we get to this thing, I'm sure it was a combination of ego and DNA saying, I can do it," he says.

Chandor was worried that the shoot might maim his star – the film eventually sank three boats off the coast of Baja – but learned Redford had significantly more energy and verve than your average AARP member.

"We'd have him in the water eight hours a day, and the next morning I'd get up and Bob would be in the hotel pool swimming," says Chandor. "I was like, ‘What the hell?' "

Chandor tried to put limits on Redford's adventures, knowing one wrong fall, one broken ankle would kill the film. But Redford didn't listen. There's a key scene where Redford jumps from his sinking boat to his raft, a distance of six feet with an eight-foot drop. Chandor expressly forbade Redford to do it, but next thing Chandor saw through his lenses was his star making the leap. Redford's daring was eventually taken for granted by the crew to the point where they were evacuating one of the sinking stunt ships and everyone was removed before Chandor and the crew realized Redford was still below. They almost lost their star.

Some nights, Redford would retire to his room to recuperate – "I had tequila on my side" – but other nights he would head out with Chandor and the crew for dinner, charming the women, his fire still burning bright. One night, Redford and Chandor headed out when they learned movie exec Richard Zanuck had died at the age of 77. Redford had been frenemies for years with Zanuck, the scion of a famous filmmaking family, who originally argued that Redford wasn't right for the role of the Sundance Kid. Over drinks, Redford revealed he'd known Zanuck all his life, battling him on the tennis courts as a teenager. The more Redford talked, the more heated he became.

"He and Dick Zanuck are still in a tennis match when they were 14 and he's the poor kid, the milkman's son," says Chandor.

It's hard to watch "All Is Lost" and not focus on Redford's mortality – or, hell, your own mortality. It's the type of unvarnished role his advisers had been urging him to take for years, but he'd become encased in his own dilemma. He'd spent his entire career rebelling against just being another good-looking guy but only partially leaving his comfort zone. Every film Redford has been involved in for the past half-century has him playing a hero; it might be subverting the cliché – like in 'The Candidate' – but it's still the hero. In 'All Is Lost,' Redford doesn't play a hero; just an old man trying to survive.

Robert Redford turned 77 a few weeks before Telluride. He still carves turns on his own mountain, but it is now easier for J.C. Chandor to raise money for his next film than it is for Redford. In a grand irony, the actor's next role is the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the sequel to Captain America, the type of blockbuster that led Redford to flee Hollywood for Sundance.

"This is the new deal," Redford explains. "This is the way the film business is going, with high-tech, high-budget, high things. So many parts of it were not recognizable to me. I thought it'd be interesting to have the experience."

While he now claims he's trying harder to stay in touch with his past, there is little evidence. I mention that I'd recently interviewed James Salter, a former Redford confidant who wrote 'Downhill Racer.' His face lights up. "I've read his new book twice. My daughter asked me who from my past I'd like to reconnect with, and I said ‘Salter.' " What is left unsaid is that he never called him.

Old habits die hard. But Redford's contradictions just remind us he's human, not a golden god, and that's something Redford has been trying to tell us for decades. Let's go back to the start of our story. It is unlikely Redford would have come to Telluride just to be honored; he thinks he has too much road still ahead for that. But the convergence of his past and future – 'All Is Lost' will be released on October 18, almost 40 years to the day after the release of 'The Way We Were' – reminded everyone that they were in the presence of an icon. After the house lights went up, Ralph Fiennes jumped on the stage and hugged a surprised Redford, kissing his hand. The two hadn't seen each other since he directed Fiennes in Quiz Show.

For a second, I thought Redford was going to cry, a rare moment of public vulnerability, but he regained his composure and took his seat on the stage. Dressed in a black blazer, jeans, and cowboy boots, with a silver Telluride medallion around his neck, he looked like a Roman oracle via Ralph Lauren. He would never admit it, but you could tell he loved the moment. His stories were a bit self-serving and unkind to the dead. Asked about acting with Marlon Brando in 1966's 'The Chase,' Redford showed little mercy.

"He was throwing it away, and it was not easy to watch," Redford told the Telluride crowd. "He was trying to wash away or turn away something he had done. I didn't want to watch that."

The audience ate it up. He brought some to their feet when he was asked which presidents of his lifetime he admired. "Nobody," was all he said. (Apparently, Jimmy Carter's Cheerios were not enough.) They even believed him when he said he had no regrets about his career.

The next morning's repeat was less giddy. There was no Fiennes, no Chandor in the audience. Redford was largely alone. He didn't arrive for the clips and took the stage looking disheveled and tired. Someone asked him what kept him motivated as he closed in on 80. He mentioned his characters in 'All Is Lost' and 1972's 'Jeremiah Johnson,' in which he played a mountain man who carries on after the murder of his family.

"They share one thing in common," said Redford, speaking softly. "When times are tough and survival looks impossible, some just quit; they give up. Because it's obvious they can't go any further. And others just keep going. They don't know anything more than to just continue. And I guess that goes for me, too. I will just keep going."

Maybe it was the early hour, but the crowd clapped uncertainly. A few minutes later, Redford put his microphone down. As he exited stage right, hands reached out to touch him, just as they've done for 50 years. Redford stopped for a moment, embracing the limelight. But then, just as quickly, he bolted for the door.

Contributing editor Stephen Rodrick wrote the cover story on Damian Lewis for the October issue.