About Clifford Parker "Cliff" Robertson, III
Clifford Parker "Cliff" Robertson III (September 9, 1923 – September 10, 2011) was an American actor with a film and television career that spanned half a century. Robertson portrayed a young John F. Kennedy in the 1963 film PT 109, and won the 1968 Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the movie Charly. On television, he portrayed retired astronaut Buzz Aldrin in the 1976 adaptation of Aldrin's autobiographic Return to Earth, played a fictional character based on Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms in the 1977 adaptation of John Ehrlichman's Watergate novel The Company, and portrayed Henry Ford in the 1987 Ford: The Man and the Machine. His last well-known film appearances were in 2002 through 2007 as Uncle Ben in the Spider-Man film trilogy.
Robertson was born on September 9, 1923 in La Jolla, California, the son of Clifford Parker Robertson, Jr. (1902–1968), and his first wife, the former Audrey Olga Willingham (1903-1925). His Texas-born father was described as "the idle heir to a tidy sum of ranching money". Robertson recalled that his father "was a very romantic figure—tall, handsome. He married four or five times, and between marriages he'd pop in to see me. He was a great raconteur, and he was always surrounded by sycophants who let him pick up the tab. During the Depression, he tapped the trust for $500,000, and six months later he was back for more." The actor's parents divorced when he was one, and Robertson's mother died of peritonitis a year later in El Paso, Texas, at the age of 21. He was raised by his maternal grandmother, Mary Eleanor "Eleanora" Willingham (née Sawyer, 1875–1957), in California, and he and his father rarely saw each other. He graduated in 1941 from La Jolla High School, where he was known as "The Walking Phoenix". He then served in the United States Merchant Marine in World War II before attending Antioch College in Ohio and dropping out to work as a journalist for a short time.
Robertson had a bit part in Mr. Roberts (1950) in Boston, Massachusetts.
Robertson was President John F. Kennedy's personal choice to play him in 1963's PT 109 as a young Lieutenant PT boat captain. Kennedy chose Robertson over Edd "Kookie" Byrnes, Warren Beatty (Jacqueline Kennedy's choice), and Jeffrey Hunter.
The next year, Robertson played a presidential candidate in The Best Man.
A life member of The Actors Studio, Robertson won the 1968 Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of a mentally disabled man in Charly, an adaptation of the science fiction novel Flowers for Algernon.
Other films included Picnic (1955), Autumn Leaves (1956), Gidget (1959), Sunday in New York (1963),633 Squadron (1964), Devil's Brigade (1968), Too Late the Hero (1970), J. W. Coop (1972), Three Days of the Condor (1975), Obsession (1976), Star 80 (1983) and Malone (1987). Late in his life Robertson's career had a resurgence. He appeared as Uncle Ben Parker in the first movie adaptation of Spider-Man (2002), as well as in the sequels Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Spider-Man 3 (2007). He commented on his website: "Since Spider-Man 1 and 2, I seem to have a whole new generation of fans. That in itself is a fine residual." He was also in the horror film Riding the Bullet (2004).
In 1989, he was a member of the jury at the 39th Berlin International Film Festival.
Robertson's early television appearances include a starring role in the live space opera Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers (1953–1954), as well as recurring roles on Hallmark Hall of Fame (1952), Alcoa Theatre (1959), and Playhouse 90 (1958, 1960), The Outlaws (three episodes).
In 1958, Robertson portrayed Joe Clay in the first broadcast of Playhouse 90's Days of Wine and Roses, in what some critics cite as a superior version of this story about alcoholism.
In 1960, Robertson was cast as the con man with an unusual name, Martinus Van Der Brig, in the episode "End of a Dream" of the NBC western series, Riverboat, starring Darren McGavin and Noah Beery, Jr. In the story line, Van Der Brig persuades series character Grey Holden (McGavin) to transport a group of pioneers to "Rolling Stone", a tract of land which he recently purchased that cannot match the expectations of the settlers. Character actor Robert J. Wilke appeared in this episode as Red Dog Hanlon.
Other appearances included The Twilight Zone episodes "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim" (1961) and "The Dummy" (1962), followed by the NBC medical drama about psychiatry, The Eleventh Hour, in the role of Jeff Dillon in the 1963 episode, "The Man Who Came Home Late".
Robertson guest starred in 1963 in the ABC series, The Greatest Show on Earth, starring Jack Palance. He was also cast on ABC's Breaking Point (1964) and the ABC Stage 67 episode "The Trap of Gold" (1966).
He had starring roles in episodes of both the 1960s and 1990s versions of The Outer Limits. He was awarded an Emmy for his leading role in a 1965 episode, "The Game" of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre.
He appeared twice as a guest villain on ABC's Batman as the gunfighter "Shame" (1966 and 1968), the second time with his wife, Dina Merrill, as "Calamity Jan".
In 1976, he portrayed a retired Buzz Aldrin in an adaptation of Aldrin's autobiography Return to Earth. The next year, he portrayed a fictional Director of Central Intelligence (based on Richard Helms) in Washington: Behind Closed Doors, an adaptation of John Ehrlichman's roman a clef The Company, in turn based on the Watergate scandal. In 1987, he portrayed Henry Ford in Ford: The Man and The Machine.
Later, he appeared from 1983 to 1984 as Dr. Michael Ranson in Jane Wyman's CBS prime time soap opera, Falcon Crest.
In 1984, he narrated an AT&T promotional video documenting some of its technological improvements at the time. Robertson then became AT&T's national television spokesman for ten years, winning the Advertising Age award for best commercial. He was to have been the keynote speaker at an AT&T stockholders' meeting during a strike by AT&T workers, but he refused to cross the picket line and did not speak.
In 2003, he appeared on the short-lived series The Lyon's Den.
Columbia Pictures scandal
In 1977, Robertson discovered that his signature had been forged on a $10,000 check payable to him, although it was for work he had not performed. He also learned that the forgery had been carried out by Columbia Pictures head David Begelman, and on reporting it he inadvertently triggered one of the biggest Hollywood scandals of the 1970s. As a result of Robertson's whistle-blowing, Begelman was charged with embezzlement: he later was fired from Columbia. Robertson was subsequently blacklisted for several years before he finally returned to film in Brainstorm (1983). The story of the scandal is told in David McClintick's 1982 bestseller Indecent Exposure.
In 1957, Robertson married actress Cynthia Stone, the former wife of actor Jack Lemmon. They had a daughter, Stephanie, before divorcing in 1959; by this marriage he also had a stepson, Chris Lemmon.
In 1966, he married actress and Post Cereals heiress Dina Merrill, the former wife of Stanley M. Rumbough, Jr.; they had a daughter, Heather (1969-2007), before divorcing in 1989. By this marriage, he also had stepchildren Stanley Hutton Rumbough, David Post Rumbough, and Nedenia (Nina) Colgate Rumbough.
One of Robertson's main hobbies was flying and, among other aircraft, he owned several de Havilland Tiger Moths, a Messerschmitt Bf 108, and a genuine World War II era Mk.IX Supermarine Spitfire MK923. His piloting skills helped him get the part as the squadron leader in the British war film 633 Squadron. He even entered balloon races, including one in 1964 from the mainland to Catalina Island that ended with him being rescued from the Pacific Ocean. A certified private pilot, Robertson was a longtime member of the Experimental Aircraft Association, working his way through the ranks in prominence and eventually co-founding the EAA's Young Eagles program, which he chaired from its 1992 inception to 1994 (succeeded by former test pilot Gen. Chuck Yeager). He was flying a private Beechcraft Baron directly over New York City on the morning of September 11, 2001. He was directly over the World Trade Center, climbing through 7,500 feet, when the first Boeing 767 struck. He was ordered by air traffic control to land immediately at the nearest airport following a nationwide order to ground all civilian and commercial aircraft following the attacks.
On September 10, 2011, just one day after his 88th birthday, Robertson died of natural causes in Stony Brook, New York.
Robertson received an award from Antioch College Alumni in 2007 for his contributions to his field of work. In addition to his Oscar and Emmy and several lifetime achievement awards from various film festivals, Robertson has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6801 Hollywood Blvd. He was also awarded the 2008 Ambassador of Good Will Aviation Award by the National Transportation Safety Board Bar Association in Alexandria, Virginia, on May 18, 2008, for his leadership in and promotion of general aviation.