For Jamie Redford, growing up as Robert Redford’s son was a remarkably normal experience—with a few exceptions. Reared with two sisters out of the spotlight in New York City, Jamie was once embarrassed to find a poster of his father on a high school date’s bedroom wall. And on vacations, the youngster’s love of tearing up the hillsides on motorcycles sometimes drew disapproving looks from staffers at Sundance, his environmentally conscious father’s Utah ranch. “It was totally politically incorrect,” says Jamie, now 37. “But he understood.”
In 1987, however, the younger Redford learned that his life might turn anything but normal. During a routine physical exam, the 25-year-old found out he had a rare autoimmune disease and would probably require a liver transplant within five years. Redford recalls taking the diagnosis as “a death sentence. Transplantation 13 years ago was still weird science.” His wife (then girlfriend), Kyle, now 36, says simply, “It was the worst day of our lives.”
After two liver transplants—both in 1993—Redford regained his health and found a mission: raising awareness of the need for organ donation. He produced a documentary, The Kindness of Strangers fairing on HBO Sept. 23), that profiles patients awaiting transplants and families who have donated deceased loved ones’ organs. “I wanted to show what it felt like to wait and wonder, but also what it was like to give,” he says, adding he hopes to “reach people who haven’t even thought about” the issue. He also produced a short film about organ donation for high schools.
For his part, Robert Redford says he’s proud of his son’s “deeply emotional” foray into the family passions of moviemaking and activism. “To see Jamie decide to put something back by making a film was extraordinary,” he says.
An up-and-coming screenwriter (his rodeo drama Hearts and Bones, starring Daryl Hannah and Kiefer Sutherland, just finished shooting), Jamie had to overcome the famous Redford reticence to share his battle with illness. At age 15, as a student at New York City’s private Dalton School, he began suffering bouts of ulcerative colitis, a common gastrointestinal affliction. But it only infrequently impinged on his “normal, stable” life with his parents (who divorced in 1985) and sisters Shauna (now 38 and a painter) and Amy (28 and a stage actress).
After graduating from the University of Colorado at Boulder—where the English major fell for history student Kyle, whom he wed in 1988—Redford was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a disease that attacks the liver’s bile ducts and in his case caused occasional fevers and abdominal pains. He and Kyle, now a middle-school history teacher, attended grad school at Chicago’s Northwestern University and moved to Denver. But shortly after son Dylan’s birth in 1991, Redford’s health went into “a downward spiral.” He spent seven months on the national organ waiting list. Says Robert Redford of that anguished time: “You want to reach down and make it all right and pick him out of his crib as you could do when he was little.”
University of Nebraska Medical Center surgeon Byers Shaw declared Jamie’s first transplant a success. But a blood clot damaged the new liver and landed him back on the transplant list. Four months later, a second operation went flawlessly. (Redford was never told who his donors were, at their families’ request.)
Redford battled depression as he struggled to gain strength. Then, on a 1993 Caribbean vacation, he swung Dylan onto his shoulders. Kyle says she “stopped everyone on the beach and said, ‘Look, he has stamina!’ ” His dad jokes, “Now she’s probably dangerously close to saying she wishes he had less.”
Indeed, Jamie, who has a clean bill of health, now enjoys golf, running and bicycling near the Marin County, Calif., home he shares with Kyle, Dylan and daughter Lena, 3. “The ability to be physical,” he says, “is an enormous gift.”
Danelle Morton in Marin County