By Michael Rogers
February 18, 1980 12:00 PM

To the millions for whom he has been Hollywood’s Golden One, it will come perhaps as a shock that Robert Redford has, if not a flaw, at least a quirk. The top box office draw of the decade doesn’t like movies. “I’m sure an analyst could explain why,” he says of his phobia about watching himself onscreen. For whatever reason, Redford has never seen at least three of his films (including, perhaps wisely, The Great Gatsby) and had to be dragged to view his newest, The Electric Horseman. “I took a whole row of family and friends in Provo, Utah just to feel secure,” he groans. “I went through two whole containers of popcorn without butter. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch myself comfortably.”

Fortunately for industry balance sheets, that attitude is unique and doesn’t block Redford from pursuing his trade. After four semi-reclusive years, he is back in the saddle again, at 42, playing Horseman’s exploited rodeo star. Since the real electricity comes not from Redford’s suit of lights, but from his engaging relationship with co-star Jane Fonda, the movie has already grossed some $40 million, and its Willie Nelson sound track (Redford talked the Outlaw into his screen debut) is at the top of the country charts.

Moreover, Redford has also completed Brubaker, in which he plays a prison warden, for June release, and is now editing his own film adaptation of Judith Guest’s 1976 best-seller, Ordinary People, which marks his debut as a director. Why, suddenly, these three projects that have allowed him only four days’ vacation in the past 18 months? Deadpans Redford: “You could say I finally took the advice of all the congressmen who would get upset when I criticized them and say, ‘Why doesn’t he go back to the movies?’ ” Actually, the three films are statements on Redford’s central philosophical concerns these days—fame, social reform and family—and it was his own “complicated feelings about the nature of success” that first drew him to Horseman’s celebrity-besotted hero.

“One day you wake up and realize that you’ve become something of a household word, and it’s disturbing,” he muses. “But to say you regret it is horsesh–. There’s something of the exhibitionist in any actor. So it’s not convincing for me to say that I want to be completely private. I feel that, but it can’t be true.” Indeed, with remarkable candor, Redford confesses a fascination with his reflected glory. “This is a very vain business—you’re forced to be conscious of yourself. I’m very prone to looking into mirrors—mirrors fascinate me,” he says. “To be out riding on the trail for three weeks with no contact with mirrors was really an experience. You feel your beard growing, and you don’t know whether you have a boil on your nose.” Still, Red-ford’s no preening self-promoter—he’s done only one TV talk show in 10 years—and loves to put down other aspects of his image. A favorite story is about being spotted by a carload of teenagers in Beverly Hills. “They were waving and pointing,” he smiles. “They rolled down the window and yelled, ‘Robert Redford!’ I said, ‘Heyyy.’ And they said, ‘You are such an a–hole.’ ” He still cracks up at the memory. “It was a great moment.”

It was part the pressures of fame and part exhaustion following three years’ work on All the President’s Men (he produced as well as co-starred with Dustin Hoffman) that led to his subsequent rustication to Utah in 1976. “I wanted to enjoy the things I had worked for,” he explains. “To write a book, build a solar house, to farm, watch my kids grow and think about turning 40 and how I wanted to redirect my life.”

It’s some measure of the man that he accomplished all that, and more. The book is 1978’s The Outlaw Trail, a heartfelt $25 coffee-table tome that began as a National Geographic feature on the West’s endangered legacies. The solar house is a state-of-the-art gem (including an Olympic-size solar-heated pool usable from spring to November). It’s located near the first two acres of Utah land he and his wife of 21 years, the former Lola Van Wagenen, bought from a sheepherder for $500 in 1961. He’s still building Sundance, a 2,300-acre model development community that now includes an ecologically sound ski area, restaurant and an outdoor amphitheater. “It will prove,” he says, “that we don’t have to tear up the land just to make money.” As for farming, Redford has put some 40 acres into breeding quarter horses (30 head); he also grows alfalfa, corn, barley and wheat, and maintains a garden, greenhouse and trout pond.

At the same time, of course, Redford has held his first public office—quietly. For three years he has served his Provo Canyon area in the Wasatch Mountains as sewer commissioner. “That’s a big joke to a lot of people except me,” he smiles. “Some people say, ‘A No. 1 man in a No. 2 job.’ Other people say, ‘A richly deserved honor.’ But I take it seriously.” His other efforts, however, did not make him universally loved in Utah. In 1976 his vocal opposition to a power project caused him to be burned in effigy. The figure wore a sign reading, “I’m a star. I made my money.”

In any case, Redford emphatically denies political ambitions. “I’ve kind of watched myself move up through the rumor ranks without any effort on my part,” he laughs. “Last year they said ‘Congressman!’ This year I hear it’s ‘Senator.’ ” He has, in fact, been working quietly behind the scenes with Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus on plans for an educational and research academy on natural resources. Despite his involvement with local and national pols (including New Jersey’s ex-basketball star, U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley), Redford says, “The current political landscape is pretty pathetic.” Overall he favors Kennedy’s energy policy and has donated a token $1,000 to his campaign, but has no intention of actively supporting any presidential candidate.

Redford’s passion for wilderness stems in part from revulsion at the smog-clogged growth of his native L.A. Born in Santa Monica to an accountant with Standard Oil, Redford rebelled at his urbanized upbringing early on. He discovered the Rockies when he was at the University of Colorado on a baseball scholarship, but dropped out after a year to roughneck in the California oil fields. Then he spent a year as an art student in Paris. Upon his return, he met Lola, then a bank teller and L.A. apartment building neighbor. He soon split to study stage design at New York’s Pratt Institute and proposed via phone. Lola refused, but later relented and joined him in New York—just as his designs on the stage fatefully turned from art to acting.

They have split their time between the big town and the big outdoors ever since. “New York is my favorite city in the world,” says Redford. “It’s honestly dirty, honestly tough, not trying to pretend it’s something it’s not.” He often walks the 40 blocks to his mid-town office from their homey eight-room East Side apartment decorated with museum-quality Indian objets d’art and other Western paraphernalia. Lola once even drove a station wagon full of sagebrush from Utah to put in the hall. When New Yorkers recognize him, “They don’t goon out the way they do in some other cities,” he says. “There’s a certain tough warmth to it that I like—even when they say, ‘Give me your wallet, man.’ ”

Redford says “his best friends” are his children—Shauna, a 19-year-old freshman studying dance and art in a Western college, Jamie, 17, and Amy, 9. “I do as much listening as talking to them. Jamie is already smarter than I am—at least academically,” adds Dad. “Which isn’t saying too much, because I was an academic flop.” Their mother is a Mormon, but non-practicing, and the kids have been raised, reports Redford, in “a zone of neutrality so they can make up their own minds.” So far, the children have indicated no interest in acting—”Maybe I’ve set such a poor example they lost interest.” An unabashed family man, Redford is troubled by the institution’s decline and the seeming fashionable lack of caring of the Me Generation. “I don’t think the family unit is corny—it’s very interesting and basic,” he contends.

That interest, in fact, led him to buy screen rights to Guest’s grim psychological study, Ordinary People, when the book was still in galley proofs. “I always wanted to do something completely on my own,” says Redford, who proceeded to hire Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland and Judd Hirsch. “A lot of people thought I should be committed for the chemistry of that casting, but I believed in it.” Shooting wrapped last month, with Redford taking a director’s minimum of $53,066 rather than his multimillion acting fee. As producer, he’ll share in the profits. He enjoyed directing (“Not so many people are paying attention to you”) and hopes eventually to quit acting.

When not working on the scoring and editing of Ordinary People, Redford enjoys a quiet home life. He and Lola give two big parties a year in Utah, but in Manhattan they’re “pretty private. I’m not your great host. I’m a good guest—I eat well—but I can’t cook.” They may dine with friends like Dick Cavett and actress wife Carrie Nye or ex-New York Mayor John Lindsay and wife Mary. “I like one-on-one relationships.”

For city exercise Redford walks or plays tennis. When he feels the need he flies out to Utah to ski. But the downhill racer recently cracked two ribs, to add to numerous other sports fractures over the years. “I came whipping around a turn, and what was once white became brown. I knew I was in trouble. It seemed like I had a full minute to know exactly what was going to happen—full somersault, flat on my face and chest.” Although his “heart is in the highlands,” he calls New York’s concerts and art galleries “a great feeding ground.” Lately Redford has started sketching again, and he hangs his pen-and-ink washes “in inconspicuous places like the bathroom.” He’d like to squeeze in a visit to Egypt to check out a theory he has about similarities between the ancient Egyptians and Southwestern Indian cultures.

As he sits in his small 22nd-floor office surrounded by Indian-patterned pillows, an eclectic selection of books (from Wallace Stevens to Timothy Leary) and an apothecary jar of fruit and nuts, Redford seems satisfied about his return to movies—if slightly concerned about the impact on his kids. “One thing I don’t want to do,” he says, “is lay a heavy legacy on them that overwhelms their ability to move independently through life. It’s something they’re going to have to deal with, and so far they seem to be dealing with it pretty well.” Then he adds, “Better than I am.” That may be so, but who in Hollywood is doing better?