Robert Redford bursts into a conference room at the San Francisco Film Centre with a winded "Ugh," having just driven two hours from his home in Napa Valley. He holds meetings here all the time, but for some reason he's been unable to get into the building. "I've been here for 25 minutes!" he says with flustered disbelief, doffing a blue baseball cap emblazoned with a red 9 -- the number of his childhood hero, Ted Williams -- and exchanging his sunglasses for a pair of clear wire-rims.

Slightly built and fit, he darts around the room, opening the French doors to let in the breeze, taking off a leather jacket the color of butterscotch and pulling a bottle of water out of a nearby refrigerator.

Robert Redford is late. Again. It's a problem that has dogged the actor throughout his career. To a person, the colleagues and friends interviewed for this article predicted that Redford would not be on time and that the only question was by how much.

"He's been late all his life," says director Sydney Pollack, who in 1962 starred in Redford's first movie, "War Hunt," and has directed him in seven films. "He goes through phases. I've worked with him when he's been better, and I've worked with him when he's been worse."

Redford delivers a familiar, irresistible grin when he's asked about this. "I've heard about it," he says, his eyes twinkling. "It's a myth."

Let the record reflect that Robert Redford is indeed almost an hour late for a 10:30 interview, but let the record also reflect that an assistant called precisely at 10:30 to say he was caught in traffic and would be half an hour late, which makes him only 25 minutes late, which according to Redford Standard Time qualifies as early. Paul Newman, who has known Redford since they did "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" in 1969, once gave his co-star a pillow stitched with the saying "Punctuality is the Courtesy of Kings." To this day, Newman says of Redford, "He thinks that punctuality is reserved for criminals, whores and politicians."

His Brilliant Careers

Redford has finally settled, opening his water, rebuttoning his blue oxford shirt and leaning back comfortably in a heavy oak chair. Tan, his tousled hair still strawberry blond with just a hint of gray at the temples, Redford retains the boyish good looks that made him a sex symbol in the 1970s, but not in a way that suggests a nip and a tuck with some Botox on the side. He looks his age. It's just that a 68-year-old grandfather of four rarely looks this cute.

"Let me ask you something," he says. "What's the deal? Is this Kennedy?"

He means the Kennedy Center Honors, which Redford will receive tonight. As it happens, one of his fellow honorees is Julie Harris, who starred with Redford in the play "Little Moon of Alban" in 1960.

By "what's the deal," however, his meaning is less clear. As difficult as it is to believe that he has been having trouble getting into a building with which he's intimately familiar for nearly half an hour, it's even harder to feature him not knowing exactly who's sitting in front of him at any given moment, and why.

Redford may live a life unencumbered by such details, or he may just be very good at seeming to. Either way, here goes: Yes, this is for Kennedy and we're with The Washington Post ("Ay-yi-yi!" is his reaction), where we're a film critic ("Are you?), and we've been given the happy -- and, okay, right now just slightly surreal -- assignment of writing an article about an extraordinary, even brilliant, without doubt hugely influential career.

Make that careers.

Because the Kennedy Center could easily have chosen to honor Redford on the basis of his acting alone, beginning with his work in the New York theater and television's Golden Age, then in roles that have become icons of both the light and dark sides of the American spirit. From "Butch Cassidy" and "The Sting" to "The Great Gatsby" and "The Way We Were," from "The Candidate" and "All the President's Men" to "Jeremiah Johnson" and "The Electric Horseman," right up to his most recent film, "An Unfinished Life," Redford has come to embody the most alluring but wistful parts of the American Dream -- the wholesome, handsome hero who harbors deeper shadows.

And the Kennedy Center could just as easily have chosen to honor Redford for his career as a director and producer. His directorial efforts -- "Ordinary People," "The Milagro Beanfield War," "Quiz Show," "A River Runs Through It," "The Horse Whisperer" and "The Legend of Bagger Vance" -- have sought to capture something about what it means to be an American, most often in the form of an elegiac look back at a vanished way of life.

But tonight Redford will be honored specifically for his "extraordinary support of independent film," support that "has had an immeasurable impact on filmmakers and audiences." When speaking of Robert Redford and independent film, of course, one is usually speaking of the Sundance Film Festival, a 10-day event in Utah that Redford bought in 1986 and that has become one of the most powerful marketing engines for films produced outside the Hollywood system.

But for hundreds of filmmakers, Sundance means something most filmgoers have never heard of: The Sundance Institute, which Redford founded in 1981. Through its writing and directing labs, the institute has incubated scores of films that are familiar not just to art-house denizens but mainstream filmgoers: "Reservoir Dogs," "Boys Don't Cry," "Requiem for a Dream," "Bottle Rocket," "Raising Victor Vargas," "Love & Basketball" and, most recently, "Me and You and Everyone We Know" and "Paradise Now." Some of those movies made a splash at the Sundance festival, but they might not have gotten there were it not for the institute.

The filmmakers' labs have been so successful that Sundance created one for theater as well; "The Laramie Project," "Light in the Piazza," "I Am My Own Wife" and "Angels in America" are among the works that emerged from the program.

Redford conceived the Sundance Institute after he won the Oscar for his directorial debut, "Ordinary People." "I've always had this personal theory that at just the moment of the highest achievement, you should stop and go back to zero and not take anything for granted," he says.

Fondly remembering his early days in the New York theater and summer stock, with their bare-bones resourcefulness and environment of creative ferment -- and not so fondly remembering "Downhill Racer," a dark commentary on the American obsession with winning that Redford starred in and financed, and which was subsequently released in 1969 without marketing support by its parent studio -- Redford decided to create what he calls a "mechanism to help others that wanted to have their own vision and protect it."

At the time, the movie industry was undergoing a sea change with the advent of home video and cable, the success of such blockbusters as "Jaws" and "Star Wars" and the beginnings of franchises like "Superman." "I said, 'Well, that's okay, the film business is a broad one, but is that going to be at the expense of more humanistic films?' And I felt that it would be."

In 25 years, the labs haven't changed much. For a few days or a few weeks, aspiring writers and directors who have been chosen by the institute on the basis of their scripts rewrite, rehearse, shoot and edit scenes under the guidance of an ever-changing group of advisers: experienced Hollywood screenwriters, directors, cinematographers and editors who offer feedback, commiseration and tough love. Redford himself is an active participant in these sessions, plucking a struggling director out of the group for a walk in the mountains, or even acting in a scene or two. It's a process that Redford clearly cherishes. "People talk about the fact that Bob can often be late to meetings," says Michelle Satter, who has run the labs since their inception. "He's never late at the lab."

Being Robert Redford

Robert Redford had a cold.

It was mid-October, and he was making one of his usual runs between Napa Valley and Sundance, driving at his usual clip, 105 in a 70 mph zone, when he was pulled over. "My eyes were running and my nose was running and I thought, 'This guy's going to think I'm a drug addict.' " The cop spent 25 minutes in his car, giving Redford plenty of time to wonder what was in store; finally, the policeman walked back to the filmmaker's car.

" 'And another thing,' " Redford recalls the cop saying. " 'Are you Robert Redford the actor?' And I say, 'Yes! I am!' Thinking there might be a light at the end of the tunnel. And he says, 'Wow! That's really something!' And I say, 'Yeah! It's something for me, too!' And then he gives me a ticket."

Redford has always worn his fame comfortably, if with some ambivalence. Indeed, he has been so successful at creating a zone of privacy for himself that it's easy to forget what a huge star he became after the release of "Butch Cassidy," the kind of star who today would be hounded by paparazzi, tabloid gossips and Internet stalkers. But by the time celebrity found Redford, he had begun living a life that had no place for it.

He had married in 1958, just after turning 21, and he and his wife, Lola, went on to rear three children in New York and Connecticut. (They divorced in 1985, and he's been dating the German painter Sibylle Szaggars since 1999.) He bought his first two acres of land in Utah not as an escape from fame -- he had just begun to get work as an actor -- but as a place he could walk and climb and ski, as he had done since he was a boy.

"Thank God I didn't come in at this day and age," Redford says. "I was lucky, because my value system was shaped very early, having to do with how I grew up, with the sense of Hollywood as highly entertaining but shallow. . . . I think that having a life is far more important than celebrating yourself. And I knew those days would end anyway, and I didn't want to end up empty-handed."

Charles Robert Redford Jr. grew up in a working-class, mostly Hispanic neighborhood in Santa Monica, where his father worked as a milkman and later as an accountant. Although young Bobby, as he was called, evinced an interest in art early on, his father, a product of the Depression, discouraged creative leanings. It was the actor's mother, he recalls, who "loved me unconditionally." Martha Hart Redford, who died the year he went to college, "was very outgoing and full of laughter," and "when I look back on it now, I realize she was the one person who believed in me throughout."

Redford spent a year at the University of Colorado, "trying to find the point where what my heart and mind were doing and the program could meet." When he was kicked out for drinking, he says, he realized "the only way was to submit to adventure." He hitchhiked for a year and a half in Europe, living mostly in France and Italy, and when he returned to New York he enrolled in art school, with an interest in designing theater sets. At an acting class at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, he did a scene from Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" and attracted the attention of his teacher. "Suddenly," he recalls, "I had support for something that was very raw, but felt good to me, which was acting."

Redford still calls acting "my main squeeze" and, though proud of the empire he's built in Park City -- which includes a ski resort, restaurants, a retail catalogue and the Sundance cable channel -- he admits that it's come at a price. "I robbed myself of the time for my own career," he says.

That, he says, is about to change: Redford has a number of projects he will soon star in, including "A Walk in the Woods," from Bill Bryson's account of hiking the Appalachian Trail, and a movie about Jackie Robinson in which he will play Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, as well as "The Company You Keep," an adaptation of a novel about the Weather Underground that Redford will also direct.

And, in a case of art and life coming full circle, he's been discussing an adaptation of Bob Woodward's recent book about his relationship with Mark Felt, best known -- in large part because of "All the President's Men" -- as Deep Throat.

But even if Robert Redford never got behind or in front of a camera again, his influence on the film industry and film culture is so deeply woven into their warp and woof that audiences have come to forget, or take for granted, Redford's original vision, and his early championing of films that were too small, too raw, too quirky or too edgy for Hollywood to handle.

"The filmmaking art touches more people than just about any other art form," says Focus Features co-president David Linde, pointing to Redford's career as an actor, director, producer and founder of the Sundance festival and institute. "To be able to generate such an extensive means of supporting that art is much more unique than I think people really appreciate."

Better Late Than . . .

As with anyone who's worked as long as Redford has, there are the inevitable quibbles. There are the projects that have gone south -- a Sundance theater chain was abandoned when Redford's partner, General Cinema, went bankrupt, and announcements of film series and other spinoff projects have never quite jelled. (The theater idea, however, has resurfaced.) The lateness issue is good fodder for a running gag, but it's also caused some people to swear off working with him again. The meetings Redford has missed, the phone calls he hasn't returned, the slow fades -- all are part of Hollywood legend and lore.

"He is the consummate professional," says Variety Editor-in-Chief Peter Bart, who as an executive at Paramount worked on two movies with Redford, "Downhill Racer" and "Little Fauss and Big Halsy." "Once he's committed to something, that's it, he delivers. But . . . he's also a person who has a myriad of opinions on every issue, and he's extraordinarily nonconfrontational. So if he doesn't agree, he may simply not show." Redford, Bart concludes, "is one of the most respected stars, but not one of the most beloved."

Respected, not beloved. Warm, but wary. The star who shunned Hollywood for the mountains, then brought Hollywood to the mountains and sent it back changed forever. The ultimate insider and the ultimate outsider, still looking for that point where heart, mind and the program can meet. If Robert Redford is a bundle of contradictions, says Pollack, those contradictions may be the key to his magnetism. "I think part of the reason that he was such an enduring star for so long is that people never felt like they got to know him completely," Pollack says. "And some of that comes from the tension that exists between the stereotype of a pretty, handsome, blond Golden Boy and the interior, which is much more complicated and even darker."

It's noon, Redford's next appointment is here and he is increasingly eager to bring the interview to a close. "I was told an hour and a half," he says firmly. The man who a little while ago was asking "What's the deal?" now knows precisely what the deal is. (Let the record reflect that he generously offers to continue the conversation over the phone, a promise he will keep a few weeks later.) But Redford has been patient and outgoing and voluble, and he does indeed have an afternoon of meetings ahead of him. He may be late for them, or he may not. Either way, the day will unfold, as his whole life has, on his terms, according to his own instinctive, assured, and occasionally maddening, rhythms.

It's Paul Newman, finally, who probably explains his old co-star best: "The worst part of Bob Redford is his sense of time," Newman says, waiting just a beat. "And the best part of Bob Redford is his sense of time."

Robert Redford founded the Sundance Institute as an incubator for new films.Redford accepts an award for "artistic contribution to world cinema" at a Czech Republic film festival in July. Redford starred in and directed 1998's "The Horse Whisperer."Redford and Paul Newman reunited in September to film an episode of "Iconoclasts," a documentary series for the Sundance Channel.With Dustin Hoffman, Redford went after "All the President's Men."In his salad days, the actor added a "Twilight Zone" role to his credits.