Robert Redford has risen to the task often, reliably riffing that give-back is payback for all the good fortune he's had through life.
And the cutie cowboy with the customized green hat — an eco-educator echoing the beauty of the natural, and who's harnessed the energy and talents of unbridled youth at his fast-stepping Sundance Institute for writers — tips his chapeau to the whole charitable concept of tikkun olam, a concept that he embraces as emblematic of what he's trying to do.
"Tikkun olam, 'repair the world,' " he repeats the phrase with a smile on a 71-year-old face that has swatted away 20 years without the benefit of plastics.
But then, is it so surprising that Redford jiggles a Jewish concept among his catholic concerns? And as far as "plastic" is concerned, he was, after all, the original choice to portray the Jewish overeducated college kid Benjamin Bradford sinking in the bottom of the gene pool in "The Graduate," before Dustin Hoffman dusted off the role as his own some 40 years ago.
"A wonderful phrase," Redford fesses up, "one which the whole world should adopt. We can all try to play a part in trying to improve the world, even in some small way."
It's a small world after all, growing smaller by the depletion of rainforests. "This," he says in reference to his latest film, "Lions for Lambs," in which he stars and directs, and which opens this Friday, "is the way I speak to it as a filmmaker."
His march into the room comes in like a lion, but his message is that of the world as sacrificial lamb to the hunger of greedy Americans tossing uneducated grenades. Redford is not just an actor speaking "Lions," but going unscripted from the heart.
The film is a triptych of treatises not so much on the way we were, as to what we've become. With its focus on war, moral inertia, unbridled political ambitions and what man has made of man — and women — director Redford is in poetic mood and mode as rebbe as rebel.
His taut waist is directly inverse to the abundance of what life has taught him; waste not, fill up on thanks — not tanks — and be fueled by the fossil energy of tzedakah and teacher.
The college dropout — or, as he acknowledges, "kickout" — kicked off a career as an acting artist by being an advocate for the arts. Okay, he may prattle on about not making the grade at the U. of Colorado, where he rocked and rolled, but prestigious Pratt Institute in Brooklyn saw his potential for rocky-mountain highs, and he became a student of painting there.
If the paintings and drawings he worked on as a college kid attracted attention, Redford didn't kid himself into thinking that they would pave the way as he's paving it for others now.
The accomplished actor, who's gone "Barefoot in the Park" on Broadway and strode through "Naked City" on TV, has played his hunch to the hilt — nearly 50 years after appearing on TV's "Play Your Hunch."
Quiz him now, and the director of "Quiz Show" concedes that he doesn't have all the answers. But what he can answer to is himself, and the man born Charles Robert Redford has made a name for himself as an honest "hit" man — hitting back against those who attack justice as just a plaything for the rich and famous.
This property is condemned, he has said of the good earth, as long as man allows it to be. To battle that, he has gored the enemy with eco-nomics and gone loggerhead to logger head with the logging industry. It's an uphill race for the "Downhill Racer," but he likes his chances skiing over the schism — but by instructing, not inveighing against.
And Redford does not view "Lions for Lambs" as literal loftiness even as it blows up myths and national mythtakes before the viewers' eyes.
With Tom Cruise — "Lions for Lambs" is the first production of Cruise's newly formed United Artists — and Meryl Streep united with Redford on screen, albeit seen independently in scenes, Redford hopes to reap attention for the attrition of values this country is facing.
It's not all academic, although some of the scenes are played out on a college campus. Leafy but not lefty, he insists.
"This is not propaganda," says the director, more intent on showcasing ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
War — what is it good for? In this case, some stunning, explosive scenes that leave little to the imagery of hate's imprint on the soul.
"I've never thought you can go to war for the right reason," he avows, and maybe arms and the man would be thought of more as a play than a playground for battle if religions didn't provide so much ammunition to the enmity among enemies.
"Religions should be stressed less," as a possible antidote to Armageddon arriving from religious war, stresses Redford, while acknowledging that "war will never go away."
While talk of "God being on our side" is absurdist, says Redford, he sides with those who stress the need for spirituality as an impetus to do good: "Spirituality is very important" to the nation's moral health.
Yet walking on the side of the angels can be anything but heavenly when scrutinized by the media, as Redford has learned.
"This movie is carefully not about Iraq. The action sequences [on the battlefield] provide fodder and deeper issues to consider," as do the scenes at college and in a senator's office offer reflections on "the role of the media and politics."
Hollywood's player is also a pragmatist and knows that "this film will have a hard time getting traction," even with such big wheels as Redford, Cruise and Streep stressed in the credits. His motivation, reveals Redford, "is to have this generation see the importance of motivation."
You don't have to be a graduate of the Actor's Studio to see that motivation moves to the forefront in the college scenes in which Redford as professor professes frustration with a student exploding with unfulfilled potential. "That professor-student relationship is symbolic," says Redford of trying to forge an understanding between generations, notably when the teacher asks his wayward ward: "What are you going to do?"
The actor answers himself through life's action scenes. Still, he has climbed the steps of academia in accrued experience; the great gadfly of the national conscience and acclaimed environmentalist has created an environment of caring and questioning.
Not even all the president's men could put together the shambles that a shiftless society is situated in, reflected in movies about a rock and the hard place that America now finds itself in.
"There are so many movies out now about Iraq," says Redford, distancing his from that list of lens-loaded cinematic questions with few answers.
Without question, what may have been a side profession for the American idol cowed by none is … journalism. Would words have gotten to him first before the visual arts, he may have been making news as a newsman.
"I've always been interested in journalism," says the man whose portrayal of Bob Woodward in "All the President's Men" helped cement the national sentiment that Nixon's the one.
But the times — if not the Times — they are a'changing.
"They're not living up to their past" of pushing, shoving truths out of dark corners and deep throats, he says of the media.
Then again, repairing the world takes time, he cautions, and if the days of the kinder and gentler nation are not as numerous as they used to be, well, Redford still has time.
"Am I hopeful for the future? I wouldn't be here if I weren't," says the man who'd rather sun-dance than run for cover from the clouds.