American actor Cliff Robertson died at the age of 88 on Saturday September 10 from natural causes.
To the younger generation (God…I sound like my Dad!) Cliff Robertson will be best remembered as Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, also seen in flashback in Spider-Man 2 and 3.
In my childhood, he was a very familiar face in the mid sixties and seventies. Many of the films that he appeared in probably won’t register with most people but he made a big impact with me. Maybe it was Robertson’s calming demeanour and intelligent delivery that made you believe in every character that he played. You also felt that you knew him like some favourite Uncle.
He played Mosquito pilot wing commander Roy Grant in the British war film 633 Squadron (64). At the time I didn’t think that it was at all strange for an American officer to fly with the RAF. But of course now I know how important it was for British films to feature popular American stars of the time to boost cinema audiences in the USA.
In a complete contrast Cliff Robertson won the best actor Academy Award in 1969 for the critically acclaimed Charly (68). In this emotional and heartbreaking story, Robertson plays Charly Gordon, a mentally retarded janitor who works in a bakery and although he struggles to read and write he is a happy go-lucky soul with a kind heart. He is given the opportunity to have a brain operation following recent successful experiments with mice. This results in Charly gaining a genius IQ and he falls in love with his teacher played by Claire Bloom. Unfortunately, all is not what it seems.
This type of role also secured an Oscar for Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (88) and a best actor nomination for Sean Penn in I Am Sam (2001) but lost out to Denzel Washington for Training Day (2001).
Following Charly he went back to helping us Brits to win the war, this time against the Japanese in Too Late The Hero (70) co-starring our very own Michael Caine and a plethora of British stalwarts such as Harry Andrews, Ian Bannen, Denholm Elliot and Ronald Fraser. Although the film was not a commercial hit, it’s worth a viewing to see Michael Caine on top form as cockney Private Tosh Hearne at loggerheads with Cliff Robertson’s ‘Yank’ officer.
My all time favourite Cliff Robertson character is the dodgy CIA executive Higgins in Three Days of the Condor (75). An intelligent conspiracy thriller with Robert Redford at his best as an innocent CIA book researcher (code name Condor) on the run from a cold and calculated hit man (Max von Sydow). Why does someone want Condor dead? What do they think he knows? Can he trust Higgins to bring him in safely? I thoroughly recommend that you watch the DVD.
Cliff Robertson was born in California so you would naturally assume that he would follow an acting career. However, at College he studied English Literature and wanted to be a playwright. He also spent time as a Merchant Marine and ironically he was later to play a certain Captain John F Kennedy in PT-109 (63). He found a job in the theatre working backstage but was eventually drawn to acting and he realised that he had a talent for it. After a spell in TV roles he landed a part in the sexual drama Picnic (55) starring William Holden and Kim Novak. I say sexual drama but these days a daytime soap would be more racy.
Unfortunately his life wasn’t without scandal. In 1977 Cliff Robertson did something that upset many of the big studios in Hollywood and Robertson didn’t work for quite a few years. A sex scandal? Drug abuse? No he exposed the head of Columbia studios David Begelman as a fraudster who forged Robertson’s signature on a $10,000 cheque which only came to light when the IRS came after the actor for non payment of tax. Despite Begelman being suspended and eventually convicted for fraud, the innocent Robertson came off far worse and was targeted with death threats which resulted in FBI protection.
His career never really recovered and he made a few duds in the 1980’s notably Class (83), Star 80 (83) as Hugh Hefner and Brainstorm (83) in which Natalie Wood died during the making of the film. He also went back to TV by agreeing to play Dr Michael Ranson in the American TV soap Falcon Crest (83-84).
This brings us full circle to 2002 and Sam Raimis Spiderman. Remember, “With great power comes great responsibility” and Cliff Robertson always gave 100%.