Six Decades After Robert Redford’s Mom Passed Away, The Star Admitted His Single Greatest Regret

Iconic actor Robert Redford was a fixture on our screens from the 1950s until he retired in 2018. As a leading man, he made countless hit movies and was responsible for championing American independent cinema with his creation, the Sundance Film Festival. The star’s success is almost unparalleled but, in recent years, he’s admitted to one major regret in his personal life.

Before Redford became an actor, he grew up in Santa Monica, California. His father, Charles, worked as a milkman and had to put in long hours to support his family, so the young boy spent a lot of time with his uncle David. Fluent in several different languages, he was also an athlete with great promise who taught the future star how to play football.

Redford was therefore crushed when his uncle died in 1945. During WWII, David served as a member of General Patton’s Third Army and was killed in Luxembourg when the jeep he and his squad were in came under a hail of gunfire. The future star was only eight years old at the time.

Ten years later, an 18-year-old Redford became a lost soul after another family tragedy in which his beloved mother, Martha, died unexpectedly. At the time, the teen was attending the University of Colorado, but his emotional devastation caused him to turn to alcohol for solace. He stole beer from storerooms and would break into empty houses to drink alone. In the end, it cost him his baseball scholarship.

Redford, unsure of what to do with his life, went to find himself in Europe. He had aspirations of becoming a painter and lived in Spain, Italy and France at various points. Unfortunately, Europe didn’t work out and he eventually made his way back to America. The future star studied painting in Brooklyn, but then found his true calling.

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The future star took a place at the American Academy of Dramatic Art and discovered a passion for acting. During a celebration of his career held at the Marrakech Film Festival in 2019, Redford explained his love for the craft. He said, “The idea of being an actor was to have a sense of freedom.”

The star went on, “You were free to be, to act as someone else, if you were paying attention to the people around you.” That idea of liberation, it seems, inspired intense feelings in the student. He concluded, “You had a chance to be an artist because acting is an art form. You had a chance to say, ‘I know this person. I’ve seen this person before, and I want to bring that forward.’”

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Unfortunately, one person who didn’t share Redford’s love for acting was his dad Charles, with whom he had a somewhat troubled relationship. During a 2017 Esquire interview, journalist Michael Hainey made reference to that situation. He said, “It seems your father cast a shadow and didn’t encourage you to pursue the arts.” The star’s response was informed by the understanding he had gained of his father’s nature as he got older.

Redford answered, “It wasn’t [my father’s] fault. I needed to get out of there. I needed to get to a clean, empty space because that house was occupied by thoughts that I didn’t share.” The star went on, “My father grew up in semi-poverty in New England. He was shipped out to California as a teenager because they couldn’t afford to raise two sons.”

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When it came to what drove Charles as a man and as a father, Redford explained, “He was scared to death of poverty. He would take a job that was safe. When I came out and looked like somebody who was gonna be freewheeling, it made him nervous. He thought, ‘He won’t survive that.’”

Redford went on, “That was the tension. [My father] wanted me to be secure, to go to Stanford. I was lucky to get to Boulder, Colorado.” With maturity, though, comes resolution. The star explained, “He was only doing what he thought was right. It took me a while to fully understand that. I thought the best thing was to go to Europe, where there’s nobody tracking me. I love that feeling.”

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When Redford was asked if his father’s negativity still echoed in his head, he answered, “I still hear his voice. You don’t outrun those voices.” The star then opened up about the diametrically opposed outlooks of his parents. He said, “There was a division in my family that left me with a bit of an ache.”

Clearly remembering Martha with great fondness, the star explained, “My mom was from Texas – totally outgoing, full of life, full of laughter, taking risks all the time, encouraging me to do it.” On the other side of his family, though, things were a little different. Redford went on, “My father was more concerned about not taking risks, because that could put you in a terrible spot.” Despite this, the actor does remember his father’s sense of humor with warmth.

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Redford said, “Dad came from a family where vaudeville was in the picture. My grandfather and [playwright] Eugene O’Neill were very close friends. So, there was a lot of poetry, but mainly there was this wicked wit that my dad and my grandfather had. Even though my dad tended to be conservative, he was very witty, with a dark sense of humor.”

Interestingly, a line can be drawn between the vaudeville history of Redford’s father’s family and his own experience acting on-stage in New York. It was here, during a performance of The Seagull, that he was approached by a Broadway agent. The future star’s biggest stage role followed, in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park. He would go on to star in the film version in 1967.

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Everything changed in 1969, though, when Redford starred alongside Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The film won four Academy Awards and launched him to stardom. Over the course of the ‘70s, the actor would become an icon with lead roles in some of the most acclaimed and successful movies of the decade.

Redford’s classics The Candidate, The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor, The Great Gatsby, The Sting and All The President’s Men helped define a decade of cinema. Then, in 1980, the actor released his directorial debut, Ordinary People. At the Academy Awards, the movie won Best Picture and the star nabbed Best Director.

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The star would continue to have a thriving career in both acting and directing over the subsequent decades. But he also did something that would prove vital to American independent cinema. Redford opened up the ski resort he owned in Utah and laid the foundations for what would become the Sundance Institute and Sundance Film Festival.

To this day, the Sundance Film Festival is the premier venue for showcasing independent film. The not-for-profit was responsible for debuting the work of incredible directors such as Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Paul Thomas Anderson and Ava DuVernay. Redford told Esquire magazine that Sundance was, “an organization that, if it got developed right, would create opportunities for new filmmakers whose voices couldn’t be heard.”

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Fast forward to 2018 and, in the lead-up to the release of Redford’s movie The Old Man & the Gun, he announced his retirement from acting. The star told Entertainment Weekly, “Never say never, but I pretty well concluded that this would be it for me in terms of acting, and I’ll move towards retirement after this because I’ve been doing it since I was 21. I thought, ‘Well, that’s enough.’”

At 81, Redford was happy with his career and ready to call it a day. This was a far cry from the troubled 18-year-old who lost his mother far too early. According to the star’s biographer, Michael Feeney Callan, Martha was a Christian Scientist who died when, “She avoided medical attention after having a stillbirth with twins.”

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A scant three years after the death of Redford’s beloved mother, he married Lola Van Wagenen. The year was 1958, she was a teenager and he was in his early 20s. Speaking at the Sundance Film Festival Utah Women’s Leadership Celebration in 2018, the star told the audience that he tied the knot so young because he truly felt like he didn’t have any other option.

Speaking with searing honesty, Redford said, “Obviously I don’t want to denigrate the person I married, there were a lot of good reasons [to wed]. But I have to say it was to save my life. That’s what it felt like at the time.” While it doesn’t sound as though they tied the knot for entirely the right reasons, the pair stayed together for 27 years.

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The couple had three children together during their marriage, although they also experienced the tragic death of their first child at only ten weeks old. In 1959 Redford laid baby Scott down in his crib for the night and by the time the morning came, he had become a victim of sudden infant death syndrome. During a 2017 interview with Esquire magazine, the star talked about how the awful tragedy affected him and his work.

Redford explained, “I was only 21. My wife was 20. We were just starting our lives. I was just starting my career in New York. Of course, it was traumatic, and how that plays out over time, I don’t know. We had to deal with it. You have to move on. And we had other children who came.”

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The star continued, “But something like [losing a child] doesn’t get completely dismissed. It probably shows up in various small ways you’re not even aware of. I’m sure there’s a lot of this stuff that’s subconscious. But it’s pretty traumatic when it happens, particularly when you’re that young. You’re not equipped to deal with it.”

In 2001, while talking to The Telegraph about the couple’s divorce in 1985, Redford explained that, “It was mutual, and it was right to move on. We still have great love, great affection, great friendship. It is wonderful, and I think we probably deserve credit for it because the kids are great, they came through it okay.”

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The star, though, also admitted, “I never wanted to be one of those divorced showbusiness casualties – so predictable. I wanted to prove that a marriage could last and prove the business wrong. But I couldn’t.” In the end, Redford married for a second time in 2009, walking down the aisle with painter Sibylle Szaggers. That union is still going strong today.

During a 2011 interview with the American Association of Retired Persons magazine, Redford spoke about his second wife. A German-born artist, they initially met at Sundance in the ‘90s. He said, “She’s a very special person. She’s younger than I am, and European, which I like, so that’s a whole new life.”

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Returning to Redford’s appearance at the Sundance Film Festival Utah Women’s Leadership Celebration in 2018, the star spoke about the ladies in his life. Taking to the stage to receive an award, he embarked upon a moving speech. He said, “Why do I feel this strong connection with women? I think it probably has to do with my mom.”

Redford explained how, during a misspent youth in which he often fell foul of law enforcement, his mom Martha would always have his back. The star said he, “had a lot of criticism, but I didn’t have a lot of support. The one person who stood behind me was my mother.”

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The star said that Martha, “all things considered, she just had faith that I had something in me that was going to turn out okay.” Redford remembered his mother as an optimistic person, saying she was, “the strong member of the family. She was very outgoing. She always had a smile. She was very, very adventurous.”

Continuing to reminisce fondly about Martha, Redford said, “She came from Texas, and she carried that kind of robust, jocular goodwill. She saw things in a positive light.” Sadly, she wouldn’t live to see her son become a Hollywood icon, as her death occurred in 1955 when she was just 40 years old.

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An emotional Redford then revealed, “[My mom] had a hemorrhage tied to a blood disorder she got after losing twin girls at birth, ten years after I was born.” Despite warnings from medical professionals, and even after her son’s challenging birth, Martha still wanted more children. The Oscar-winner said, “She wanted a family so badly, she got pregnant again.”

Redford believed his mother’s death was unfair, and admitted to feeling a deep regret surrounding it. As he got older and was able to reflect on his life, the star felt ill at ease about the value he placed on his relationship with her as a youngster. He admitted, “I took her for granted because that’s the way kids were at that age. My regret is that she passed away before I could thank her.”

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The star spoke in more detail about his mother during the 2017 Esquire magazine interview, stating that he inherited Martha’s “Let’s go for it” attitude. Redford said, “My mom felt I could do anything. She was the only one who told me that, the one who really did believe that I was gonna do things.”

Redford went on, “[My mom] encouraged me to constantly be opened up.” Then, though, that deep remorse came to his mind again. “And I took it all for granted as a teenager. When she died – she died when she was very young, and I was 18 – the regret that I had was that I couldn’t thank her.”

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The star explained, “When I grew up and I realized what had happened, what she had tried to do, I realized, ‘Oh my God, she really did encourage me to go out there and take chances.” And as time passed, that epiphany crystallized. Redford said, “As you go on in life, you think about regrets before you go to sleep at night. I realized too late that she had a very positive role in my life and I couldn’t thank her.”

Martha died during Redford’s first year of college, and he told Esquire magazine about the moment he found out she had passed. He said, “Sometimes you know things. There was no reason for me to think that she was going to die. I was in the dorm alone and they only had a phone at the end of the hall.”

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Redford remembered, “[The phone] was ringing, and I was the only guy around, so I thought, ‘Well, I guess I should go answer it.’ As I was walking down the hall, I said, ‘This is going to be for me.’ And it was. It was my dad telling me that my mom had died. I had that vibe – it was so weird. I’ve thought about that periodically.”

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