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Washington • Calling "The Candidate" the best political movie ever made, President Barack Obama on Tuesday awarded Robert Redford the nation's highest civilian award, extolling his contributions to iconic movies, independent films and conservation causes.
Redford, a celebrated actor and producer whose Sundance Institute served as a catalyst for an explosion of independent films, was one of 21 film stars, scientists, architects and sports luminaries to receive the Medal of Freedom, a prize given to Americans for their lifetime contributions to the nation.
Quoting from the 1972 film that helped launch Redford's career, Obama noted that Redford's political candidate character, Bill McKay, famously asks his campaign manager after an election victory, "What do we do now?"
"Like the man he played in that movie, Robert Redford has figured that out and applied his talent and charm to achieve success," the president said.
For a man loaded with awards and honors from his time as an actor, producer, director and film incubator, Redford said it was humbling to win such a prestigious prize.
"It's top of the list, obviously," Redford told The Salt Lake Tribune in the East Room after the White House ceremony. "The thing is you don't think about that. You don't think about rewards. For me, the joy was being able to do the work. That's the most valuable the most exciting is doing the work."
When you love the work, he continued, you don't worry about what comes after.
"When it does come," he said, "you go, 'Oh, well I'm kind of surprised, but it feels good.' "
While the White House usually gives out a dozen or so medals each year a tradition started with President John F. Kennedy this year Obama chose 21 recipients in a wide array of fields, from an American Indian activist, the late Elouise Cobell, who fought and won a settlement against the government, to the designer of the flight software that allowed man to land on the moon to record-breaking sports stars and renowned actors.
Redford's group included, among others, Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro, Ellen Degeneres, Diana Ross and Bruce Springsteen.
"I'm the president; he's the boss," Obama said of the latter.
As the outgoing president, Obama appeared to enjoy his time with the constellation of stars sharing the stage with him Tuesday, joking and poking fun at the celebrities, even going so far as to note the movie careers of athletes earning the medal.
"Like the guy from 'Space Jam,' " Obama said, referring to NBA star Michael Jordan.
Redford, now 80, noted the impressive class of medal winners he had joined.
"What a group," he told The Tribune. "Glad to be part of it."
Redford earned the nickname Sundance Kid in his star-making role in the 1969 Western "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," and he used the moniker for his Utah ski resort, as well as his nonprofit arts group, his annual independent film festival in Park City and his TV channel.
Also awarded the Medal of Freedom on Tuesday were: actress Cicely Tyson, basketball legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jordan; physicist Richard Garwin; philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates; architect Frank Gehry; NASA software creator Margaret H. Hamilton; artist Maya Lin; former Federal Communications Commission chairman Newt Minow; "Saturday Night Live" creator Lorne Michaels; college president Eduardo Padrón; singers Ross and Springsteen; sportscaster Vin Scully; and posthumous awards for American Indian advocate Cobell and software pioneer Grace Hopper.