Robert Redford was given the Kennedy Center Honors Sunday night.

By luck, I've been walking around with a Redford story.

Before he became Robert Redford, the famous movie star, director and ayatollah of the Sundance Institute, he intended to be an artist.

This is true -- take my word.

One day, when Redford was in town making "All the President's Men" (he was Bob Woodward), I received a call from Ben Bradlee, the editor of The Washington Post, who said, "Robert Redford wants to have lunch with you."

I thought Bradlee was putting me on and I said, "I don't have time to have lunch with washed-up movie stars."

Bradlee said, "This is not a joke. He really wants to have lunch you."

I became excited and told everyone I knew, "Guess who's coming to lunch?"

I studied up on all his films. I wanted to make sure, if he wanted to give me a role in his next film, that I knew how to play against him.

The big day came. We met at the Sans Souci, the power-lunch restaurant a block from the White House.

Redford said, "I wanted to have lunch with you because you played an important role in my life."

I decided Redford was part of Bradlee's joke. "Sure, Bob. Didn't we play stickball together at PS 35 in Queens?"

Redford said, "I mean it. This is my story. Before I became an actor I wanted to be an artist. I went to Paris to study. I was young and very lonely. I know it is very hard to be lonely in Paris, but I was."

I said, "If I had known, I would have taken you to a cafe for coffee."

He went on, "I read your entertainment column in the European edition of the Herald Tribune. In those days, you wrote about restaurants and bars that tourists might want to go to. Believe it or not, your 'Paris After Dark' columns were a lifesaver to me."

I blushed.

Redford said, "One day you wrote about a place in St. Germain called the Bar Anglais. It was very small -- 10 tables. The owners were two Americans, Gordon Heath and Lee Payant.

"They sang folk songs in French and English. The tourists loved it because, to them, this was the real Paris."

I said, "I remember it well. It was in an apartment house, and because the tenants objected to the noise, instead of applauding, everyone snapped their fingers."

Redford continued, "I went there one night, then came back a second night, and showed up after that every night. It was my home away from home, and for a few hours it made me forget how lonely I was.

"After several nights, Lee and Gordon noticed me and invited me backstage between shows. We talked about everything you're supposed to talk about when you're in Paris.

"Then one night I folded up my tent, packed my paintbrushes and canvases, and went home."

He continued, "I became a movie star, but I still dreamed of my days in Paris. It took seven years before I returned. The first night, on my arrival, I knew I wanted to go back to the Bar Anglais. I took a front-row seat. When Gordon and Lee came out, I waved and said hi. There was no response.

" 'Gordon, Lee, don't you know who I am?'

"Gordon said, 'Sure we do. You're Robert Redford, the movie star.' "

Redford told me, "They didn't know who I was."

(c) 2005 Tribune Media Services