Robert Redford
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Credit: Photograph by Mark Seliger

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.' "