The legendary actor Cliff Robertson certainly had many claims to fame, among them being personally selected by President John F. Kennedy to portray him in the 1963 film “PT 109” and an Academy Award winning performance in the title role of Charly in 1968, plus a successful directorial debut with JW Coop in 1971. He was at one time also married to Dina Merrill (his second wife, he had previously been married to actress Cynthia Stone) , also an actress who grew up in superlative wealth (she was raised in part, on the Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida now owned by Donald Trump), and whose aristocratic poise, willowy good looks and unique sense of style earned her many film and television roles as well-bred society women, parts that simultaneously reflected her own life as a scion of two of America’s richest families.
But what was to be one of the most memorable life situations for Robertson, was his role at the centre of a Hollywood scandal in 1977 involving the misappropriation of funds by producer David Begelman at Columbia Studios that brought Robertson additional – and unwanted – celebrity, which ended up adversely affecting his subsequent career. Despite pressure to remain quiet, Robertson and his wife Dina, spoke to the press. As a result, Hollywood producers blacklisted him. He finally returned to studio films a few years later, starring in Brainstorm (1983). The story of the scandal is told in David McClintick’s 1982 bestseller Indecent Exposure.
Along with Charly, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, (Cliff Robertson was finally presented with his Academy Award by Gregory Peck President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – June 2, 1969, he missed the original ceremony as he was away filming in the Philippines, so his award was accepted by Frank Sinatra on the night.) , other films he appeared in included Picnic, Sunday in New York, Autumn Leaves, Too Late the Hero, Three Days of the Condor, Obsession, J. W. Coop, Star 80 and Malone. His career had a 21st Century resurgence when he appeared as Uncle Ben Parker opposite Tobey Maguire’s Spiderman.
Robertson was an avid pilot and owned several de Havilland Tiger Moths, a Messerschmitt Bf 109 and a Supermarine Spitfire. In 1969, he helped organize an effort to fly food and medical supplies to war ravaged Nigeria. When a famine hit Ethiopia in 1978, Robertson again organized relief flights of supplies to that country. In 1992, with Robertson as its first honorary chairman, the EAA’s Young Eagles program began. (https://www.eaa.org/eaa – The Experimental Aircraft Association is an international organization of aviation enthusiasts based in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, United States)
In 1999, he helped kick off the EAA’s campaign, “Vision of Eagles,” a unique set of initiatives designed to educate, motivate and provide direction to young people through aviation- based activities. Dedicated to helping others experience the joy of flight, Robertson played an active role in the Cliff Robertson Work Experience Program, where each summer, two teenage youths are invited to Oshkosh, through the EAA Air Academy, where they work for ground and flight instruction.
Cliff Robertson passed away September 10, 2011 at the age of 88. He is much missed by family, friends and fans from different eras of his career. I have been more than thrilled to find out more about the man himself, and directly from people who knew him personally.
Stephen C. Thompson worked closely with him as his Publicist, during the last ten years of his life, and I have been grateful to have been able to talk to him and get to know much more about the actor, the aviator, the dogged challenger, the man.
Steve with Cliff Robertson below
How did you first meet Cliff Robertson and come to work together?
I got hired to do publicity on 13th Child, a film on the Jersey Devil. I also got to work with Robert Guillaume. At the time, Robert was traveling with his brother in law John Wesley, who I also liked very much.
What are your memories of him?
Cliff had a way of making everyone around him relax. The first thing he asked me was “Steve, where were you born?” Which I thought was a great way to get someone to relax and open up.
What are your top 3 Cliff Robertson Films and why?
Three Days of the Condor, Spider-Man, and Spider-Man 3.
Three Days of the Condor was a sort of coming of age film for me. Throughout the entire film we’re rooting for Robert Redford, but in the end, when he delivers that critical line “You know what, they’re not going to want us to ask them. They’re just going to tell us to get it for them.”
Spider-Man because he was so happy to be able to reach a third generation of film audiences. In fact, he used to tell a story of being at a K-Mart near his home, when a child in a stroller looked up at him and said “Uncle Ben.”
Spider-Man 3 because by that time I had worked with him for several years so when he came on screen it was a strange experience, like seeing your next-door neighbor appear in a film.
If a movie was made of his life, who would be your top choice of an actor to play him?
I can’t imagine anyone attempting to portray him.
Did he share any stories about any of his former co-stars like Joan Crawford, William Holden, Jane Fonda, Rod Taylor, Robert Redford, The Spiderman Cast or even meeting President John Kennedy?
Believe it or not, he didn’t talk much about his performances, in fact, once someone told me he never watched his own films, because whenever he saw a performance, he always felt he could have done better in one way or another. He was, however, proud to have been personally selected by JFK to portray him in PT 109, he spoke of that frequently.
Cliff Robertson was known to be a keen pilot, and it’s said that he was in fact flying a private plane in New York City, on that heartbreaking day of September 11, 2001, is this true?
Cliff was in the air in his Beech Baron near NYC on 9/11. Air Traffic Control instructed him to land as soon as he could, and directed him to Allentown, Pennsylvania. He asked why, and they would not elaborate, other than to say something like there has been a major attack, he said he thought we might have been attacked with a nuclear weapon.
How did he feel about winning the Academy Award for “Charly” in 1969?
Cliff was in The Philippines working on Too Late the Hero when the announcement was made. He had already gone to sleep, when there was a banging on his cabin’s door. It was Michael Caine….when Cliff opened the door, Michael said: “You won, you son of a bitch!”
He often lamented that the year following his winning of the Academy Award was the fastest year of his life.
He made landmark guest appearances (still loved to this day!) in cult TV Shows like Batman (with his ex Wife Dina Merrill) and The Twilight Zone (The Dummy), did he ever discuss these with you?
No, he never discussed his tv work much with me. We mostly discussed the business of filmmaking.
The only time he ever mentioned Dina was when he described shooting J. W. Coop, he said he fell off the horses so much that when he came home and showered she said he “looked like one of those monkeys in the zoo with their big red behinds.”
Did he enjoy playing “Uncle Ben” in the Spiderman Movies?
Yes, he especially liked working with director Sam Raimy, and co-star Rosemary Harris.
10. Do you feel it is important that his work and legacy are not forgotten? What was the best advice he gave you?
I respected his privacy when it came to personal subjects, I only asked him once if he was spending Easter with anyone, and he said: “Yes, my significant other, my cat.”
We mostly discussed the various personalities of directors, producers, etc. He once said: “No matter what, never sacrifice your personal integrity.”
He was by far the most grateful person I’ve known.
(At EMI studios Elstree they are just starting a new film called ‘Winter Rates’ (also known as Out of Season). Pictured are stars Vanessa Redgrave, Cliff Robertson and Susan George, 31st October 1974. (Photo by Bela Zola/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)
Extending many thanks to Steve Thompson for the exclusive interview
Find out more about his films and career in this New York Times Tribute : https://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/11/movies/cliff-robertson-oscar-winning-rebel-dies-at-88.html