He played leads – but never became a star. He played supporting parts – but was never considered a second-stringer. He moved between the big and little screen easily throughout much of his career without ever looking like he’d overreached (for the former), or was slumming (in the latter). The only thing that mattered – the one thing that was consistent whatever the vehicle, whatever the medium, whatever the size of the role – was the caliber of his work. By his own description, Cliff Robertson, who passed away this week one day after his 88th birthday, was a “utility player” who shone whatever his position.
Still in his 20s, he was already working regularly on TV during those early, hectic days of live broadcasting in the early 1950s, and just as immediately demonstrating the utility that marked his career. His range was limitless as he performed in everything from heavyweight drama anthology Hallmark Hall of Fame to Saturday morning kiddie sci fier, Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers, leading all those little junior Rocket Rangers out there with (in the words of Variety) “gee whiz enthusiasm” in pledging the “Rocket Ranger Code.”
He began to get his first major roles in film in the mid- and late 1950s, playing opposite – and losing Kim Novak to — William Holden in the steamy (for its time) Picnic (1955), playing a humanitarian platoon leader in the bowdlerized film adaptation of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1958), knocking the teen girls dizzy as The Big Kahuna surfing king in Gidget (1959), making them swoon again as one of an ensemble of dedicated young (and uniformly good-looking) wannabe doctors in The Interns (1962).
At the same time, he continued to maintain a heavy presence in TV, guest-starring on some of the most popular series of the day such as The Untouchables, Wagon Train, Ben Casey as well as drama anthologies like The United States Steel Hour.
Curiously, it was these anthologies, not his big screen work, which provided the best opportunities for Robertson to showcase just how strong and serious a dramatic actor he was. He racked up Emmy nominations for the TV versions of The Days of Wine and Roses and The Two Worlds of Charly Gordon, and copped a win for The Game.
TV also provided Robertson with the work for which most contemporary audiences probably remember him thanks to endless re-runs on cable, namely his appearances in two of the most memorable episodes of the classic sci fi/fantasy series, The Twilight Zone. In “One Hundred Yards Over the Rim,” Robertson plays a 19th century immigrant settler, his wagon stranded in the desert of the American southwest, who sets out for help for his ailing son and finds himself mysteriously transported to the 20th century. Even stronger is one of the all-time series classics, “The Dummy,” with Robertson as a tortured ventriloquist sure the little wooden figure on his knee has a malicious mind of his own.\
He finally seemed to break out of the junior film ranks with P.T. 109 (1963), a dramatized (highly dramatized) version of author Robert J. Donovan’s account of John F. Kennedy’s adventures aboard the eponymous torpedo boat during WW II. Robertson was the choice of Kennedy himself to play the lead (Jackie Kennedy wanted Warren Beatty). It’s not a particularly good movie, it’s lousy history, and it’s not even Robertson’s best work, but the high profile film boosted the actor’s visibility and improved the roles coming his way. Among the best of those which soon followed was that of the vicious, back-biting presidential candidate Joe Cantwell trying to out-maneuver nice-guy candidate Henry Fonda in the film version of Gore Vidal’s astute political drama, The Best Man (1964).
Robertson reached a professional peak of sorts a few years later with his Oscar-winning role in Charly (1968), a big screen redo of “The Two Worlds of Charly Gordon.” Robertson had already lost one juicy role in a film remake of his TV work when Jack Lemmon had been cast in the film version of The Days of Wine and Roses in the role for which Robertson had gotten an Emmy nom. Determined not to lose Charly as well, he bought the rights to the story himself and spent years trying to get the film made. It was worth it.
It’s a heart-breaking performance. Charly Gordon is an often teased mentally retarded adult who volunteers for an experimental surgical procedure which transforms him into a genius. But the effects of the procedure are short-lived, and Gordon – fighting the clock trying to use his new brain powers to solve the tragic puzzle of his come-and-go mental prowess – needs to face going back to his childish state.
Despite the commercial and critical success of Charly, despite the Oscar, Robertson never quite made the step up to marquee value star. But the actor seemed to understand the ephemeral nature of status in Hollywood. “The year you win an Oscar is the fastest year in a Hollywood actor’s life,” he would later observe. “Twelve months later they ask, ‘Who won the Oscar last year?’”
But if he was frustrated, he kept it to himself, and continued on as the valued utility player, showing up when called, always putting out the good work as he did as a well-meaning if prosaic CIA officer in Three Days of the Condor (1975), one of the signature exercises in political paranoia from the era.
His biggest career challenge came in 1977, not in a role, not in a film or TV project, but in the all-too-seamy all-too-real world of corporate Hollywood. Robertson found his name forged on a $10,000 check. Despite being advised by the power circles of moviedom to keep the issue to himself, the actor blew the whistle on what came to be known as “Hollywoodgate.” The forgery turned out to be one of several traced to Columbia studio chief David Begelman who lost his job, and was convicted and sentenced to probation. Hollywood, however, having the free-spinning moral compass it does, soon welcomed Begelman back and in 1980 he became the president of MGM. Robertson, on the other hand, was tacitly punished for going public on executive suite misdoings, and didn’t get another acting call for four years.
By the time the work started coming his way again, his leading man days were over, but Robertson hadn’t lost a step, always bringing his A game whether it was on a high profile feature (Brainstorm, 1983; Star 80, 1983), or a switch-off-the-brain time-killer (Escape from L.A., 1996), or a prime time TV soap like Falcon Crest where he had a recurring role in the mid-80s.
Youngsters discovered him – and oldsters were reminded about him – when he appeared as Uncle Ben in Spider-Man (2002), struggling to understand his young nephew’s angst, and unknowingly – through his own innate decency – giving the fledgling superhero his moral center. With all the gravitas of his years, and with a gravelly voice that sounded weighed down by the wisdom of the ages, Robertson gives his nephew his mandate and one of the all-time great lines in superhero flicks: “Remember, with great power comes great responsibility.”
To the mass public, Robertson was not well-known enough, not iconic enough to be missed, his many sterling performances too poorly remembered to still be appreciated. And if that’s the case for anyone reading this, than salute the survival of a quality performer who, in one of the most competitive and vicious of trades, maintained a career over six decades. That alone is worth commemorating in an arena Robertson once described thusly: “This isn’t exactly a stable business. It’s like trying to stand up in a canoe with your pants down.”
– Bill Mesce