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Redford has done as much for acting as for activism

Robert Redford will be in Baltimore on Friday, June 25 to deliver special remarks at the opening of the Half-Century Summit of Americans for the Arts. While preparing to interview him about his experience as an arts advocate (the piece will run in Sunday's A&E section), I couldn't help thinking about his influence as an actor. For generations of moviegoers, Robert Redford's image crystallized when he played WASP demigod Hubbell Gardiner in "The Way We Were," back in 1973. Hubbell was a talented, sensitive writer for whom "everything comes too easy." He was a masculine figure so casually, naturally attractive that his true love (Barbra Streisand) called him "America the Beautiful." And he was an apolitical humanist who argued, in the dark McCarthy days, that "people are more important" than "principles." Of course, Hubbell was not Redford writ large; he was a character limned with superb judgment by an actor in peak form.

Redford was a vitalizing presence throughout America's late-'60s film renaissance. "We like to see Redford," Pauline Kael wrote in 1969, "because he doesn't make false, actorish moves; his humor and energy go beyond his roles, commenting on them, indicating a stronger character -- a man hiding as a juvenile." A few months later, she elaborated: "The great movie actors know when to cool it and how to relax on camera and just be ... Robert Redford has become a star without ever having had a really good role, because he's an intuitive master of movie technique, of non-actorish readings and minimal gestures; he seems extraordinarily sensitive to the medium, and naturally wary about any inflation of feeling."

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Because of his classy demeanor and all-American looks, Redford's acting never received credit for defining the ebullience and tumult of those times as much as the directing of Coppola or Scorsese.

But even now, see him turn a stump speech into gobbledygook during a prime comic scene in "The Candidate" -- a dissection of American campaigning that has been gaining in stature for almost four decades -- and you feel the euphoria of reality caught on the fly and alchemized into satire.

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A talent this robust and individual doesn't merely go away. When Redford returned to the screen after an absence of several years to play a CIA man in 2001's "Spy Game" (above) he proved he hadn't lost his chops. He was even better as a gnarly rancher in 2005's "An Unfinished Life." (He was even amusing as the voice of a loner horse named Ike in 2006's "Charlotte's Web".) What Kael said about him as a young actor fit him as a mature actor in "Spy Game": "His humor and energy go beyond his roles, commenting on them, indicating a stronger character." And In "Unfinished Life," his vitality enlivened an already deep and sturdy role.

What are your strongest memories of Redford films? Are there some classic American characters you'd like to see Redford play?

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