Sure, we lost Butch Cassidy. Paul Newman, with his twinkling blue eyes and devil-may-care magnetism, was a singular actor/humanitarian. But his charismatic more-than-appealing sidekick, the Sundance Kid, remains. And on a balmy morning at the stunning Meadowood Resort in the Napa Valley we caught up with the outspoken, tennis-loving Robert Redford. Once a fine junior player who hit with Pancho Gonzalez, Redford, now 72, still moves with ease and unleashes sweet left-handed groundies as well as wide-ranging musings on tennis, sport, cinema and society.
INSIDE TENNIS: In the movie you produced, The Legend of Bagger Vance, it’s said that God is happiest when his children are at play. That’s such a joyous sentiment.
ROBERT REDFORD: I don’t know about God, but I buy that. The idea of play isn’t something that should be put aside as childish. As a child, I was told that play was a waste of time. I found it to be just the opposite. I found that I was never satisfied or happy when I wasn’t playing. Sports was the ultimate play.
IT: When you play you kind of let go and find a world that…
RR: It was different than abandon playing. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Santa Monica. It was mostly Hispanic. We had to be inventive. We would play in trees or houses that were being built. We’d take scrap lumber and make swords and knives. But sports was more organized, more focused.
IT: As a kid, you actually played with the great Pancho Gonzalez.
RR: Yeah. Toward the end of my childhood, I got completely taken with tennis.
IT: What do you love about it — its movement, the pace of the ball, getting in tune with it?
RR: Moving and hitting. Striking the ball is very satisfying. What excited me, even more than baseball, was the idea of moving and hitting. In baseball, you’re stationary. You run and stand, run and stand. In tennis, you’re always moving.
IT: In The Legend of Bagger Vance, there’s much talk about finding your ‘authentic swing.’ Talk about that.
RR: When I was 13 I played a tall, skinny guy in a Santa Monica tournament who was like an erector set — gangly and mechanical. I thought, “I’ll wipe him out.” He was so unnatural. But he was so consistent. He got everything back while I kept trying to kill the ball. All I did was make mistakes, and he beat me. Then I realized there’s a difference between being natural and being mechanical. I was being a natural. I always had thought that being natural would wipe out anybody. But, no, I realized it had more to do with practice and getting control of your game than just going out there and swinging naturally and running. So in Bagger Vance, the authentic swing is just being receptive.
IT: You can’t force it.
RR: Whatever’s your natural way. That’s why I was never very good at over-programmed teaching, a teach-one-teach-all approach. At Sundance, we teach skiing by teaching each individual a skill set and you feed off that rather than trying to fit that skillset into someone’s game.
IT: You’ve spoken about the notion of soft eyes. You’ve probably used that in your profession…
RR: That came later in my life when I had a career. It went back to when I was a kid and what influences were there in my life. I got very taken with mythology.
RR: The ancient Greek tales from Perseus and Theseus.
IT: Wasn’t that a hefty part of your movie The Natural?
RR: Very much so. Bernard Malamud incorporated everything. The legend of Perseus [exile and heroic quest] and Babe Ruth. He threw everything in, including Eddie Waitkus, the guy who got shot, who everybody said was the natural. He was just going to wipe everybody out. But he got shot by this lady in black. He took all the mythic legends. Hercules cleaning the stables, which I was very familiar with. Then he took more current events, Babe Ruth being The Whammer [played in the film by Joe Don Baker] and then Eddie Waitkus, who was talked about as “the next Joe DiMaggio,” who was going to exceed everybody. And he got shot in the prime of his career [by an obsessed fan in ‘49] on his way up to Philadelphia. He survived three operations, but he never came back. Years later, he would die as a door manager.
IT: The Natural has it all. There’s his slump and elements of despair and injustice.
RR: There’s the good and bad, the black and white. But it’s all very mythic.
IT: As a kid, what sports did you play?
RR: Baseball, tennis, swimming and then football. I played tennis tournaments from 13 to 16.
IT: How’d you do?
RR: Pretty good. But I got interested in other sports. I couldn’t be all about tennis. I played tournaments, then just got tired. I went into different sports [including baseball at the University of Colorado] and I never picked up a racket for 17, 18 years until I was making Butch Cassidy in Mexico. There I saw an assistant to the producer, hitting a ball and I said, “Hey, I used to play.” So we went out on this clay court and I thought, “Why’d I lose this sport?” Anyway, that’s sort of my personal history in tennis. I had certain people that I looked up to. Jack Kramer was not one of them.
RR: I related more to Pancho Gonzalez because he came from the same neighborhood I did. I was very rebellious as a kid and I related to the fact that he was denied playing when he was between 16 and 21 because the guy who was the head of the USLTA at that time [Perry Jones] was very conservative. And because Gonzalez dropped out of high school, [Jones] wouldn’t let him play. He was at his prime and he took five years out of his life. That got me. I related to him because he was angry, and then I watched him play. He was such a natural and stronger than he appeared to be. His serve was amazing. It looked so easy.
IT: It had such a rhythm to it. It was flawless.
RR: Like a wave. He and Ted Williams were my two heroes.
IT: Did you know that Budge taught Ted Williams tennis?
RR: I didn’t. Budge learned tennis from baseball also. I related to Williams because he was left-handed and was from California. I would study his swing in Sport magazine and try to copy it. But getting to hit with Gonzalez was my biggest thrill. In those tournaments, if you got knocked out before the quarterfinals, you became a ballboy on the main court. I had reached the quarters. I was on the backcourts at the L.A. Tennis Club just horsing around. And then Gonzalez walked out and said, “Hey, you. You guys are going to play on the main court.” He just wanted to hit some balls, to get loose. I started hitting balls to him, but I made the mistake of trying to pass him at the net. I was trying to whoop his ass. And he said, “Hey, kid, just hit it to me. I don’t need a showoff.” But that was probably the biggest thrill I had. But I’ve always believed in the power of mythology. And I felt, having been a real baseball fan and player, that the only way to really tell a great baseball story was through mythology. That’s why I was attracted to The Natural. With all it’s references: nine innings, three strikes you’re out, nine positions on the playing field — it’s all very mythical. Luck, fate — it’s all tied together. And particularly the number nine. I didn’t have the same ambitions about ever making a film about tennis. But there was something about tennis. I love the grid, I love hitting the ball, I love really striking the ball and moving. I love the strategy, changing your pace and trying to outfox your opponent.
IT: And there’s a mental side. Let’s talk about the notion of one authentic shot, or that one place, that one stroke or piece of work when you know it’s there. In your own career, was there a time when you said, “Yes, I feel my voice?”
RR: I read a book called The Silent Parts that referred to an electromagnetic field that circles the Earth and has different stop points that are energy spots. I believe that something is there. Because, every now and then, whether you’re playing tennis, baseball or whatever you’re doing, you hardly hear it. You know it’s going right. Like when you hit a baseball and you hardly feel it. You know it’s going over the fence. And it’s easy. For some reason, at that moment, everything came together, it was easy. In tennis, when you’re hitting it right, you barely hear it. When everything is working the way it should, it’s effortless. And when you strike the ball, it just flows.
IT: Likewise, you have such an incredible body of work, but was there one particular time when you seemed to grasp, say, a certain quintessential essence, when it all was just there?
RR: I really liked making The Natural. But I was an actor. In A River Runs Through It — the connection was with fishing, that beauty is physical. Bagger Vance was misunderstood by the critics. They weren’t ready for it. We were dealing with things that were slightly spiritual, a natural realism that’s common in foreign cultures, but we’re realists, and the country at the time when Bagger Vance came out  was going through a very in-your-face, harsh realism. And Bagger went the other way; it was [portrayed] in a mythological light. But they wanted something different, they wanted Ordinary People.
IT: Tennis has a lot of elite qualities to it. But there have also been a sort of insurgent anti-establishment strain — Althea Gibson, Billie Jean, Ashe, McEnroe and Connors.
RR: I’m not a big fan of [bad] tennis behavior. I like Federer because he resembles the class I remember as being dominant. We didn’t have players grunting, yelling, carrying on. There was dignity in the stands, on court. Now it’s like hockey. It’s out of control. I learned sports when there was more respect. Something got unleashed in the ‘80s having to do with greed. Every man for himself, get what you can. You had McEnroe and Connors realizing that their behavior was not so much being condemned as celebrated.
IT: In your movie All The President’s Men, Deep Throat advises Watergate sleuths Woodward and Bernstein to “follow the money.” Does that still apply to sport and society?
RR: Now more than ever it’s about the money. That’s why you see players leaving teams and there’s no esprit de corps anymore. Back then, you would think about the glory of winning, of competing. That was exciting.
IT: Can anything change that? Can a new leadership change that?
RR: It could eventually. The only thing that’s going to survive is change. Things are going to change. Thank God, I hope they do, because it’s been a pretty bad eight years. Things are getting ready now to change. We go through cycles. And I have a hunch that this in-your-face, gouging the womb, insulting irony is going to fade away. It may return to something more dignified. It might be more interesting to be in and watch a sport if there’s more dignity, and not just greed.
IT: Does Federer come to mind?
RR: He not only has a totally fluid graceful game, he’s probably the best example of how the sport came to be played. He has a classy attitude, the attitude of being a champion. He’s not McEnroe.
IT: Mac’s anger and me-first philosophy?
RR: It didn’t interest me. He seemed like a bratty kid. It was childish.
IT: Of all the characters you’ve portrayed, which one do you think would have been the best tennis player?
RR: Out of Africa’s Denys Finch Hatton would have been pretty good if he had picked up a racket, and David Chappellet in Downhill Racer was more like McEnroe. That character illustrated the athlete we were turning out then. When I was a kid, I was given a lie as a maxim. It was: “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” I realized that wasn’t true. And when you saw the Muhammad Alis, the McEnroes, the Connorses, they were about winning and letting you know that that’s all that mattered. We celebrated that. We celebrated athletes who behaved poorly. I realized that it was such a lie that I wanted to put that into a film. So I did.
IT: So, Robert, how come there haven’t been any great tennis films?
RR: There were some tennis scenes in The Way We Were that were cut. If I were to pick a character that I played that embodied a natural athlete it would be Hubbell Gardner [the athletic war hero]. It came easily to him. That was the point of his character. Everything came easy. And sports was just one thing. But [to have a great movie] there’s got to be a strong, outrageous character who does something amazing that, like, comes up from the dead.
IT: What about the Tilden story? Or Serena?
RR: The Tilden story was marred because it was about homosexuality or child abuse. No one wanted to touch it. Same with Billie King. It was about homosexuality and, boy, they didn’t want to deal with that. Ashe came out of the closest. But that’s not as strong a story.
IT: He overcame segregation.
RR: It’s not quite strong enough.
IT: And Serena and Venus coming out of Compton…
RR: Maybe it’s because tennis hasn’t captured enough of the broad audience’s attention as baseball and football have.
IT: I have a couple of teenage daughters, and their generation is dealing with a lot of disillusionment.
RR: Name anybody outside of Federer who anybody can look up to in any way. Certainly not in politics. And so we don’t have any moral leadership anymore and we don’t have a figure, whether it’s a Kennedy or a Lincoln or even an FDR. These were leaders who had some moral base and people could follow. That hasn’t existed for so long that people don’t have it, so therefore they go on their own. The media is at its lowest point. Ever since the Internet emerged, they’ve been threatened. So they’re trying to get sensational and going lower and lower. So what happened with Hillary Clinton was, they were going after Hillary because her manner was getting harsher and more masculine and tougher. And so the press started to go after her. And they kind of were easy on Obama and then they got self-conscious, so they turned on him. The media will play whatever role it can to extend sensationalism.
IT: If there are so few moral guidelines, what does a young individual…
RR: They create their own. The pendulum is going to swing back now. It’s swung way over to where kids are disenfranchised, they’re not involved. They should have a voice in the future, politically and socially. They’ve said, “Why connect with anything that’s so corrupt and stupid? Why bother?” They’re disengaged. They’re now beginning to start getting engaged, and you’ll see that in this election. More young people voting because they feel that there’s a candidate they’re with, whether you think he’s strong enough or not. There’s a candidate who pretty much has had the same impact that Kennedy did on young people who wanted change.
IT: I have to ask you, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for my generation, went to the core and touched a nerve. What was its secret?
RR: Individuality, freedom, going against the grain. America, despite all its law and order, does have an outlaw sense.
IT: I had to laugh because, in The Legend of Bagger Vance, after reflecting on all these feel-good, deep-think insights and philosophies, at crunch time it pretty much came down to the advice “Just bash the heck out of it.” For me, it brought to mind your being stuck up on that cliff with Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and it ultimately came down to the realization that there are times when you know you just have to go ahead and take the leap.
RR: [Laughs] Yeah, you just have to jump.