As a child growing up in an idyllic California coastal town in the years before the Great Depression, Cliff Robertson was raised to value hard work and perseverance. He saw action in the South Pacific during World War II and worked as a newspaperman before heading to New York City to make a name for himself as an actor. Classes with the Actor's Studio led to his Broadway debut and a busy schedule of work on stage, on television and in such feature films as "PT 109" (1962) and "The Best Man" (1963). An Academy Award winner for playing the title role in "Charly" (1969), Robertson segued smoothly from star roles to character parts in the mid-Seventies but his career was derailed by the 1977 "Hollywoodgate" scandal. After exposing the embezzlement of more than half a million dollars by the head of Columbia Pictures, the actor found himself blacklisted in the industry. Robertson reemerged in a run of high profile films in the early Eighties, reestablishing himself as a venerable American actor, among the last of a dying breed, and a true survivor.
Born in La Jolla, CA on Sept. 9, 1925, Clifford Parker Robinson III was the only son of Audrey Willingham and Clifford Parker Robertson, II, heir to a ranching dynasty. After the divorce of his parents and his mother's death from the onset of peritonitis due to a ruptured appendix six months later, Robertson was taken in by his maternal grandmother Eleanor Sawyer Willingham, a divorceé who adopted the boy and raised him in partnership with an uncle. Robertson's charming but shiftless father would return throughout his childhood to dip into his son's trust fund. To keep the boy from inheriting his father's spendthrift tendencies, Robertson's Calvinist grandmother tutored him in the importance of hard work, self-reliance and perseverance. At the age of nine, he lied about his age to secure a job delivering newspapers. He made extra money trapping lobsters off the coast of California and traded the scutwork of cleaning airplanes and engine parts at Speer Airport in San Diego for flying lessons, riding his bicycle the 13 miles from La Jolla six times a week.
Inspired by the writings of adventurer Richard Halliburton, Robertson joined the Maritime Service at age 15. He saw action during World War II in the South Pacific, North Atlantic and Mediterranean theatres. In peacetime, he studied journalism at Antioch College in Ohio and wrote for The Springfield Daily News. Persuaded that he might make a better living writing for the theatre, Robertson headed for New York City. His first jobs in Manhattan included working for a detective agency and waiting tables and parking cars at the Stork Club. He joined a summer stock company to learn the mechanics of live performance and played parts in repertory. While acting in small roles on live television, Robertson heard about The Actor's Studio, an offshoot of The Group Theatre run out of an abandoned church on the West Side. As a young cadet at Brown Military Academy in Pacific Beach, Robertson had escaped the monotony of drilling by volunteering for campus theatricals; his summer stock apprenticeship had never been more than a means to an end of becoming a playwright. It was during his time with the Actor's Studio that Robertson began to seriously entertain the notion of making a career of acting.
Between 1953 and 1954, Robertson starred in the CBS science fiction series "Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers," for which he pocketed $175 a week. Taping the series by day, he made his Broadway debut at night, appearing opposite Elizabeth Montgomery in the Rosemary Casey comedy "Late Love." In 1955, he made his proper film debut in "Picnic," Joshua Logan's adaptation of the William Inge play, which had been a hit on Broadway two years earlier. In Robert Aldrich's "Autumn Leaves" (1956), Robertson shed his collegiate image to play Joan Crawford's younger, psychotic lover and a battle-hardened army officer in Raoul Walsh's "The Naked and the Dead" (1958), based on the novel by Norman Mailer. He received unanimous praise as the alcoholic antihero of "The Days of Wine and Roses," which John Frankenheimer staged live for "Playhouse 90" (CBS, 1956-1961), but lost the part in Blake Edwards' 1962 film adaptation to Jack Lemmon. Able to transition smoothly between pink-cheeked charm and dead-eyed ferality, the actor segued easily between appearances as an aimless surf bum in Paul Wendkos' "Gidget" (1959) and a merciless contract killer in Sam Fuller's "Underworld USA" (1961).
To play WWII Navy lieutenant John Fitzgerald Kennedy in the fact-based "PT 109" (1962), Robertson was approved by JFK himself, then the 35th President of the United States. Robertson did a dramatic about-face to play an unscrupulous presidential candidate in "The Best Man" (1963), adapted by Gore Vidal from the 1960 political novel by Garson Kanin. Robertson enjoyed many high-profile film assignments throughout the Sixties but the jewel in his career crown was the title role in "Charly" (1968), as a mentally handicapped adult whose IQ is boosted to the level of genius by radical neurosurgery. Robertson had won an Emmy for playing the role in 1961, when the Daniel Keyes source novel Flowers for Algernon was dramatized as an episode of "The U.S. Steel Hour" (ABC, 1953-1963) by director John Frankenheimer, and received an Academy Award for his work in "Charly." In 1971, Robertson made his feature film directorial debut with "J.W. Coop," casting himself in the role of an ex-convict who rehabilitates himself as a rodeo rider.
A demanding and at times difficult actor, Robertson made bold and unusual choices in his film roles through the Seventies. He played Wild West outlaw Cole Younger to Robert Duvall's Jesse James in Philip Kaufman's revisionist Western "The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid" (1972), and was a small town police chief who reluctantly partners with a psychic to solve a murder case in Frank Perry's fact-based "Man on a Swing" (1974). In Sydney Pollack's "Three Days of the Condor" (1975), the actor was charmingly persuasive as a sinister CIA insider bedeviling Robert Redford's outside man. Traveling to Canada for Harvey Hart's "Shoot" (1976), Robertson joined Ernest Borgnine and Henry Silva in a downbeat tale of a rivalry between weekend hunters that escalates into full scale warfare. For Brian De Palma, Robertson headlined the Hitchcockian "Obsession" (1976) and on the small screen he played NASA astronaut Buzz Aldrin in the ABC telefilm "Back to Earth" (1976), which detailed the nervous breakdown and eventual recovery of the second man to walk on the moon.
In 1977, Robertson became the leading man in a Hollywood scandal after exposing Columbia Pictures studio head David Begelman's role in an embezzlement scam. Although the studio board of directors pressured Robertson to remain silent on the subject of the theft of what amounted to $650,000, the actor spoke his mind about "Hollywoodgate" in an interview published in The Wall Street Journal and soon found himself blacklisted within the industry. He worked infrequently for the next two years, during which he directed live theatre and developed what would be his second feature as a director, "The Pilot" (1980), adapted from the novel by Robert P. Davis. Robertson made a comeback in the early Eighties, as Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner in Bob Fosse's "Star 80" (1983) and as a principled research scientist in Douglas Trumbull's "Brainstorm" (1983), a sci-fi extravaganza co-starring Natalie Wood, who died tragically during filming.
After a two-year run on the primetime soap opera "Falcon Crest" (CBS, 1981-1990) and a 10-year stint as the national TV spokesman for AT&T, Robertson pushed past retirement age with a string of assignments in films with budgets high and low, made for television and the cinema. He played pioneer auto maker Henry Ford in "Ford: The Man and the Machine" (1987) and was the President of the United States in John Carpenter's satiric "Escape from L.A." (1996), a belated sequel to "Escape from New York" (1979). Later, Robertson loaned his estimable gravitas to Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" (2002) and its two sequels as web-slinging superhero Peter Parker's homily-prone Uncle Ben. The actor passed away one day after his 88nd birthday on Sept. 10, 2011 in Long Island, NY.