James Redford — filmmaker, activist and son of Robert Redford — dies at 58

(Courtesy photo) James Redford — documentary filmmaker, environmental activist and son of Robert Redford — died Oct. 16, 2020, at the age of 58.

James Redford, who followed his father Robert Redford’s path as a filmmaker, environmental activist and philanthropist while also raising awareness about organ donation, has died.

James Redford, also known as Jamie, died Friday at his home in Marin County, Calif., his wife, Kyle Redford, confirmed in a Twitter post. He was 58.

“Jamie died today. We’re heartbroken,” Kyle Redford wrote. “He lived a beautiful, impactful life & was loved by many. He will be deeply missed. As his wife of 32 [years], I’m most grateful for the two spectacular children we raised together. I don’t know what we would’ve done [without] them over the past 2 [years].”

Kyle Redford, in an interview Monday with The Salt Lake Tribune, confirmed that her husband died from bile-duct cancer in his liver. His past liver disease had returned two years ago, and the cancer was discovered in his bile duct last November as he was awaiting a liver transplant.

James Redford knew that people expected him to be like his father. “I’ve grown up with a sense that there’s always a preconception,” he told The Tribune in 2003. “Over time, I’ve just learned to shrug it off. … I just am who I am.”

James Redford’s filmmaking work was mostly in documentaries, usually focusing on the environment and health, and where they intersected.

His first documentary, “The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia” (2012), was inspired by his son, Dylan, and his struggles with dyslexia in high school.

In “Toxic Hot Seat” (2013), he documented the health problems caused by exposure to flame-retardant chemicals used in furniture. Kyle Redford said the film led to a change in California law barring the use of such chemicals, a ban that spread nationwide. The film also inspired a change to the way California firefighters received health care benefits when they contracted cancer from exposure to such chemicals while battling house fires, she said.

The film “brought to light the direct correlation between toxic chemical exposures and elevated rates of cancer in our profession,” said Tony Stefani, president of the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation, in a statement. “It became the impetus for cultural change throughout the entire firefighting service to better protect the men and women on the front lines.”

His film “Paper Tigers” (2013) followed a high school in Washington state where the principal reformed the school’s discipline process. “Resilience” (2016) traced the link between stress and addiction, violence and disease. In “Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution” (2017), Redford profiled entrepreneurs who pioneered renewable energy technologies that not only reduced fossil fuel emissions but created well-paying jobs.

His most recent film, “Playing for Keeps,” had its premiere this month at the Mill Valley Film Festival, which went mostly virtual this year. The film examines the health benefits of play time, for children and adults. Though ill, Redford was able to promote the film’s premiere from home, his wife said.

Redford, his wife said, was near completion on directing “Where the Past Begins,” a documentary for PBS’s “American Masters” series that traces the immigrant journey of author Amy Tan (“The Joy Luck Club”).

In 2005, Robert and James Redford founded The Redford Center, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that produces films and provides grant money to filmmakers to “accelerate environmental and climate justice, solutions and repair,” according to the center’s website. The younger Redford was co-chair of the center’s board of directors when he died.

Jill Tidman, the center’s executive director, wrote in a Facebook post Monday, “with Jamie came love and contagious joy. He approached everything he did with kindness and warmth, and an openness that spread itself easily among others.”

Tidman added that Redford “worked tirelessly to build a healthier world for us all, and particularly for those most in need of support. He always led with his enormous heart and was guided by his curiosity and creative spirit. He was a fierce protector of the natural world and believed that everyone deserved a healthy environment in which they could thrive and play.”

The Sundance Institute, the nonprofit arts group founded by Robert Redford, said in a statement that it is “deeply saddened by the loss of Jamie Redford."

James Redford, Sundance said, “was a fierce advocate for the power of storytelling to drive impact on the issues that matter most, critical work that he did through the Redford Center and in his own storytelling. … He was a deeply intuitive and kind collaborator. Our community of artists and colleagues grieves this loss, and sends condolences to the Redford family; Jamie’s warmth, passion and generosity of spirit will continue to inspire us."

Redford, in a 2012 interview, said the center’s work stressed the need to offer solutions, not just point out problems. “People are really looking for inspiration these days,” Redford said. “If all you do is ring the alarm bell, people just become tone deaf.”

David James Redford was born, seven weeks premature, on May 5, 1962, in New York City. “The doctors gave Jamie a 40-60 chance, but he hung in,” Robert Redford told his biographer, Michael Feeney Callan. Jamie was born the same month as the U.S. release of his dad’s first movie, the Korean War drama “War Hunt.”

According to Robert Redford’s biography, published in 2011, James’ health scare was one factor that prompted his father to put down roots. Robert Redford bought a plot of land near the Timp Haven ski resort in Provo Canyon, on which he built a home. By 1968, Redford had bought the entire resort, and later renamed it Sundance, after his role in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” the outlaw character that made him a star.

As a kid — growing up part of the time at Sundance with his sisters, Shauna (born in 1960) and Amy (born in 1970), when they weren’t living in New York or visiting their dad on location — James Redford absorbed movies.

“There was no TV reception up at Sundance, and screenplays were always lying around the house — so they became the next best thing for a kid,” Redford told The Tribune in 2003. “I could watch the movies as I read them, so it was like going to your own movie.”

Robert Redford’s biography details the health problems that led to James Redford’s liver transplants, which began to surface when he was a teen. At first, James was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome. As a senior in a New York prep school, different doctors diagnosed him with ulcerative colitis. A collapse in 1981 was misdiagnosed as a colitis attack, and was followed by more.

When Redford and his girlfriend, Kyle Smith, moved to Chicago for their graduate studies at Northwestern University, a doctor at the University of Utah looked at a new battery of tests and diagnosed him with both colitis and sclerosis cholangitis, an autoimmune disease that had damaged his liver. That doctor told him he could receive a transplant.

In June 1988, Redford married Smith, a fifth grade teacher and writer he met at the University of Colorado, where Redford earned his degree in film and creative writing. After a short time in Chicago, where Redford earned a master’s in literature, they moved to Denver. There, James Redford launched a career as a screenwriter, aiming to make a name for himself away from his movie-star father.

But when James Redford was about to get his liver transplant in Nebraska in 1993, his dad — who had left pre-production on “Quiz Show” to be with his son — gave him an assist by offering him a screenwriting job. Robert Redford’s Wildwood Enterprises had the rights to Tony Hillerman’s detective novel “Skinwalkers,” about lawmen solving a case on the Navajo reservation.

“It was such a boost,” James Redford told his dad’s biographer, “because his attitude had always been one of promoting self-sufficiency. On that flight [to Nebraska] he changed. He knew I was at my lowest, that there were so few people for me to lean on, and he gave me this gesture of hope, something to hang in for.”

James’ first liver transplant seemed to be a success, but complications soon set in, with a faulty valve in the replacement liver. The family waited 12 weeks for another liver to become available. One was located on the July Fourth weekend in 1993.

After his surgeries, Redford founded the James Redford Institute for Transplant Awareness, a nonprofit formed to educate the public about organ and tissue donation. Through the institute, he produced his first documentary, “The Kindness of Strangers” (1999), directed by his longtime friend Maro Chermayeff.

In 2001, James Redford scored his first major screenwriting credit, with the rodeo drama “Cowboy Up,” starring Keifer Sutherland and Daryl Hannah. A year later, PBS aired the long-gestating “Skinwalkers,” directed by Chris Eyre, with Wes Studi and Adam Beach in the lead roles.

James Redford made his directing debut in 2003 with “Spin,” which he also wrote, his only narrative feature. “Spin” told the story of an interracial romance between two high school classmates (Ryan Merriman and Paula Garcés) in 1958. The film also starred Rubén Blades, Dana Delany and Stanley Tucci.

After Redford’s liver disease made a comeback two years ago, his wife said, the couple relocated to Arizona to await a replacement liver. The cancer was discovered in his bile duct last November.

James’ son, Dylan, directed a segment of an anthology-style movie, “Omniboat: A Fast Boat Fantasia,” that premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival; Robert Redford came out of retirement to provide the voice of a dolphin. James’ daughter, Lena, is a multimedia artist, whose video “Dear Maria” talks about her father’s health problems.

In 2013, at a gala thrown by Gov. Gary Herbert to honor Robert Redford, James spoke of his father’s appreciation of Utah — and how he and his sisters inherited that same fondness. “The love he has for Utah is visceral, it’s primal, and it’s deeply personal,” James Redford said, adding that Robert Redford’s children “all live in different places, but Utah will always be our deep home.”

When not working in Marin County, Calif. where he lived, James Redford enjoyed yoga, skiing, surfing and cycling. He also played lead guitar in a 1960s/′70s cover band, Olive and the Dirty Martinis, that played gigs in Northern California.

Redford is survived by his wife, Kyle, and two children, Dylan and Lena; his parents, Robert Redford and the historian Lola Van Wagenen; his stepmother, the painter Sibylle Szaggars Redford; his stepfather, George Burrill; and his sisters, painter Shauna Redford Schlosser and filmmaker Amy Redford. An older brother, Scott, died in infancy.

Funeral arrangements have yet to be announced.