Sad news amidst all the film festival nonsense this morning, with the news breaking overnight that Cliff Robertson, the Oscar-winning star of “Charly,” who found a new lease of life in recent years after playing Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy, passed away yesterday at the age of 88. Robertson had a long and varied career, dating back to the 1950s, although thanks to his exposure of a embezzlement scam by Columbia Pictures boss David Begelman in the 1970s, faced brief black-listing from studios.
Robertson was born in California in 1923, and came to acting after a period in the merchant navy. He began as a theater actor in New York, making his Broadway debut in “Late Love” in 1953, before debuting in film in 1955 in “Picnic,” alongside William Holden and Kim Novak. TV work mostly followed, along with roles in the likes of “Gidget” (Robertson could be withering about some of his choices, saying “Nobody made more mediocre movies than I did”).
But his big-screen breakthrough came when Warren Beatty turned down the role of the young John F. Kennedy in the war-time drama “PT 109,” and Robertson took the part, winning the approval of the President in the process. More notable film roles followed, in particular the Gore Vidal-penned political drama “The Best Man,” although Robertson continued to keep his oar in the TV world, winning an Emmy in 1965 including a recurring villain spot on TV’s “Batman.” In 1968, however, he starred in “Charly,” the adaptation of Daniel Keyes‘ novel “Flowers For Algernon,” about a mentally disabled man given a genius IQ by a scientific experiment, and picked up the Academy Award for Best Actor for his trouble.
He made his directorial debut in 1972 with the rodeo drama “J.W. Coop,” in which he also starred, and played a memorable villain in “Three Days of the Condor” three years later, before top-lining Brian De Palma‘s “Vertigo” homage “Obsession” in 1976. But the following year, the IRS told him that he’d failed to declare a check for $10,000 from Columbia Picturse, a check that Robertson had never received. It eventually emerged that the studio boss David Beglelman had been forging checks to talent, which he then cashed himself. Begelman was fired, but the extent of the scandal was hushed up until Robertson went public (you can read about it in the excellent book “Indecent Exposure“). The actor believed that his whistleblowing caused him to be black-listed in Hollywood, with a number of years going by without major roles, until he returned as Hugh Hefner in Bob Fosse‘s 1983 drama “Star 80.”
He returned to TV for “Falcon’s Crest” in the 1980s, but continued to work in film, including the Burt Reynolds thriller “Malone,” Danny De Vito comedy “Renaissance Man” and the part of the President in John Carpenter‘s “Escape From L.A,” before becoming familiar to a whole new generation, and embodying the legendary line “With great power, comes great responsibility,” as Uncle Ben Parker in Sam Raimi’s 2002 mega-blockbuster “Spider-Man,” returning for flashbacks and dream sequences in its two sequels, the last of which, 2007’s “Spider-Man 3,” was Robertson’s last role. He also continued to try to create his own work, penning the script for horror film “13th Child,” and attempting to make a sequel to “Charly,” going as far as to shoot fifteen minutes worth, although sadly the film never came to pass.
He was also a keen pilot; indeed, his official website commemorates the actor with an image of him in the cockpit. He passed away yesterday in Long Island, the day after his 88th birthday, and is survived by his daughter, having been married twice. [New York Times]