Robert Redford
  View More Photos
Credit: Photograph by Mark Seliger

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.)