'Robert Redford': Hellraiser to heartthrob

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ROBERT REDFORD, by Michael Feeney Callan. Alfred A. Knopf, 468 pp., $28.95.

Playing everyone from Jay Gatsby to Bob Woodward, you'd expect Robert Redford himself to embody the all-American boy next door. Who'd have guessed he grew up more like the Sundance Kid?

"He climbed fences to swim in neighbors' pools," writes Michael Feeney Callan in his carefully crafted new biography, "Robert Redford." "He 'borrowed' beer from friends' unattended storerooms. Dodging the late-night police patrols electrified proceedings. Gradually the stakes grew higher: breaking and entering and annexing vacated properties for all-night drinking sessions."

Redford's role as a rebel without a cause during his youth in Van Nuys, Calif., is one of the juicier insights Callan dishes up about the enigmatic actor, who, unlike contemporaries such as Warren Beatty, has remained elusive about his private life, especially when it comes to matters of the heart.

And based on this bio, Redford isn't about to kiss and tell. Callan, who conducted extensive interviews with the star and had access to his personal journals, teases with an appetizing morsel about a teenage Redford walking in on John Steinbeck making love to the wife of '40s film star Zachary Scott. The author tantalizes with rumors of an affair between Redford and Natalie Wood while they were filming "Inside Daisy Clover," but Redford says they were just close friends.

Callan, who has also written biographies of Julie Christie, Anthony Hopkins and Sean Connery, is clearly on his game when it comes to dissecting Redford's film career, starting with his apprenticeship on dozens of TV shows from "Playhouse 90" to "The Untouchables," where he was typecast as a psycho or sociopath.

A turn on Broadway in the sex farce "Sunday in New York" paved the way for Redford's success as a romantic leading man, and Hollywood beckoned shortly after. Callan explores Redford's career both as an actor and a filmmaker (his artistic phase in 1950s Europe helped develop the painter's eye that he applied to directing) with intelligence and respect. In Hollywood, the names get dropped at a quick clip -- Jane Fonda, Sydney Pollack, Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman, Mike Nichols, etc. There's also Nadine Davies, the crazed stalker who showed up on several occasions, most notably wandering onto the set of "The Sting."

"I watched this woman bear down on me -- rush at me -- with a frantic, fixed stare," Callan quotes Redford. "I've seen a million fans. This wasn't a fan. She was demented. Newman suddenly started hollering so hard he blew my ears out. He just yelled 'Get her! Get that ---- woman out! Now!' "

Redford's strained first marriage to consumer activist Lola Van Wagenen is also dealt with, along with his devotion to his three children (a fourth died from sudden infant death syndrome in 1959). He and Wagenen divorced in 1985 and he wed German painter Sibylle Szaggars in 2009. The book chronicles Redford's causes both political and ecological, particularly his passion to preserve the Utah landscape that became the backdrop for Sundance. It's just too bad we never learn more about Redford's passions of the female variety.

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