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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Charly (1923-2011)

We are used to seeing heroes played by actors, but there are precious few actors who can truly be considered heroes. But Cliff Robertson became something of a hero to me for standing up to a corrupt system and living with, and ultimately surmounting, the consequences.

Back in 1977, when Robertson learned that the president of Columbia Pictures had forged his name to a studio check in the amount of $10,000, he did not listen to the people who told him not to rock the boat and not to cause trouble for a powerful Hollywood figure and damage the reputation of a major studio. As a result, David Begelman was charged with embezzling more than $61,000 from his studio. He pleaded no contest, paid a $5,000 fine and was sentenced to three years of probation. He lost his job, but within three years he was hired to run MGM.

Robertson, on the other hand, found that he was virtually blacklisted in Hollywood—at least for a while. Having demonstrated that he was unwilling to play the game, people in power froze him out. That he didn’t give up and managed to rebuild his career in spite of everything makes him at least a minor hero to me. And looking back at his c.v., there are so many roles through the years that it is hard to believe that he missed much work at all.

Robertson, of course, is known pretty much exclusively as an actor, but he did direct two feature films and, in a strange coincidence, the first of these was about a character who has spent eight years in prison for writing bad checks. Robertson played the title role in J.W. Coop, his 1971 movie about an aging rodeo cowboy who has tries to rebuild his career after losing his prime performing years to incarceration. His other directorial effort was a 1980 movie called The Pilot, in which he played a pilot with an alcohol problem.

Given Robertson’s ruggedly handsome looks and straight-arrow demeanor, it is no surprise to he was regularly called on to play military men. He played a World War II lieutenant in The Naked and the Dead, a submarine commander in Battle of the Coral Sea, a sergeant on a rescue mission in Up from the Beach, a major in a special forces unit in The Devil’s Brigade, a lieutenant on a mission in the Pacific in Too Late the Hero and Commander Carl Jessop in the all-star war extravaganza Midway. Of course, Robertson’s most famous turn as a military man is clear and away his performance as the young John F. Kennedy in the 1963 adaptation of Robert J. Donovan’s book PT 109.

What’s surprising is that Robertson was not called on more often to play the U.S. president. As far as I know, he only played a sitting president once, in John Carpenter’s 1996 sequel Escape from L.A.. That film was set in the year 2013 (hmmmm) and Robertson’s president has to contend with a daughter, played by A.J. Langer, who has absconded with the controller for a super-weapon and given it to a revolutionary. Robertson also played a (very unscrupulous) vice-president and candidate for president in the 2001 movie Mach 2, in which his political opponent was David Hedison. The star of the movie, however, was former Seattle Seahawks linebacker Brian Bosworth, who had to land a Concorde even though he had washed out of flight school. Robertson played another unsympathetic presidential candidate, vying with good ol’ Henry Fonda, in 1964’s The Best Man, adapted by Gore Vidal from his own play.

There are some other roles you may have forgotten (or maybe never knew) that Robertson played. For instance, did you know that he starred in the very first episode of The Outer Limits in 1963? He played a radio station operator who makes contact with a being from another galaxy. Robertson also starred in a couple of Twilight Zone episodes: one as a pioneer on a wagon train who finds himself in the present day and one as a ventriloquist who suspects that his dummy is evil.

In 1955, he played the pal that drifter William Holden blew into town to visit in Joshua Logan’s Picnic. He was Joan Crawford’s younger love interest in Robert Aldrich’s Autumn Leaves. He starred, along with Sandra Dee and James Darren, as The Big Kahuna in the original Gidget. He was a very young Jane Fonda’s brother in the romcom Sunday in New York. And in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Honey Pot, he played a gigolo named William McFly, hired by millionaire Rex Harrison to help him convince his three ex-mistresses (Edie Adams, Capucine and Susan Hayward) that he is dying.

He played a villain named Shame in several episodes of the Adam West Batman TV series, including one with the cringe-worthy title “Come Back, Shame.” He played Cole Younger to Robert Duvall’s Jesse James in The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. And he and Eric Shea played father and son 1920s barnstormer stunt pilots in Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies. (Trivia note: based on a story by Steven Spielberg, this was meant to be his feature directorial debut but, when Fox wouldn’t let him helm, he swore he would never work for Fox again—and he never has.)

Robertson also played Robert Redford’s CIA section chief in Three Days of the Condor. He played astronaut Edwin A. “Buzz” Aldrin in the TV biopic Return to Earth. He also played Hugh Hefner to Mariel Hemingway’s Dorothy Stratten in Bob Fosse’s Star 80. And he played the boss of Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood in Wood’s final film, Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm. In the third season of the primetime soap Falcon Crest, Robertson played neurosurgeon Michael Ranson, who was a nephew to Lana Turner and soon a brother-in-law to Susan Sullivan.

Robertson also provided the voice of the narrator/pilot in Will Vinton’s 1979 Claymation adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.

But you know that there are two roles, above all others, that people remember Cliff Robertson for. One is the part that got him an Academy Award. Based on Daniel Keyes’s novel Flowers for Algernon (which was expanded from a short story with the same name), Ralph Nelson’s 1968 film adaptation Charly starred Robertson as an intellectually challenged man who, as a result of a medical experiment, gradually becomes a genius. We share his joy—and that of his teacher cum love interest Alice, played by Claire Bloom—as his intellect expands. And we share the tragedy when his progress inevitably regresses. (The book was adapted again in the 2000 TV movie Flowers for Algernon, starring Matthew Modine.) Robertson’s Oscar was well deserved.

For good or ill, however, many if not most people (certainly younger ones anyway) will remember Robertson mainly for his pivotal role in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. Cast as Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, Robertson was the moral center of the film and provided the tragic catalyst for the confused teenager who becomes a budding superhero. The role was iconic enough that Robertson was brought back again for both sequels—even though his character died in the first movie. That makes Spider-Man 3 his final film. I suppose there are worse swan songs for actors who have had careers as long and as respectable as Cliff Robertson’s.

As for me, I choose to remember the man for his off-screen role as the hero who showed that one could stand up to the bullies of Hollywood and do the right thing and still persevere in the end.

-S.L., 15 September 2011

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