CLIFF ROBERTSON DIES



CLIFF ROBERTSON, the handsome movie actor who played JOHN F. KENNEDY in PT 109, won an OSCAR for CHARLY and was famously victimized in a 1977 Hollywood forgery scandal, died on Saturday.

He was 88.

His assistant of 53 years EVELYN CHRISTEL said he died in Stony Brook of natural causes a day after his 88th birthday.

CLIFF ROBERTSON never elevated into the top ranks of leading men, but he remained a popular performer from the mid 1950s into the following century. His later roles included kindly UNCLE BEN in the SPIDER MAN movies.

He also gained attention for his second marriage to actor DINA MERRILL, daughter of financier E.F. HUTTON and MARJORIE MERRIWEATHER POST, heir to the POST cereal fortune and one of the world’s richest women.

His triumph came in 1968 with his ACADEMY AWARD winning role in CHARLY, as a mentally disabled man who undergoes medical treatment that makes him a genius — until a poignant regression to his former state.

“My father was a loving father, devoted friend, dedicated professional and honourable man,” daughter STEPHANIE SAUNDERS said in a statement.

“He stood by his family, friends and colleagues through good times and bad. He made a difference in all our lives and made our world a better place. We will all miss him terribly.”

CLIFF ROBERTSON had created a string of impressive performances in television and on Broadway, but always saw his part played in films by bigger names. His TV performances in DAYS OF WINE & ROSES and THE HUSTLER were filmed with JACK LEMMON and PAUL NEWMAN respectively.

Mr. Robertson first appeared in the CHARLY story in the TV version THE TWO WORLDS OF CHARLIE GORDON. Both were based on FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, a short story that author DANIEL KEYES later revised into a novel. Mr. Robertson was determined that this time the big screen role would not go to another actor.

“I bought the movie rights to the show and I tried for eight years to persuade a studio to make it,” he said in 1968.

“Finally I found a new company: ABC Films. I owned 50 percent of the gross, but I gave half of it to Ralph Nelson to direct.”

Critic ROGER EBERT called Mr. Robertson’s portrayal “a sensitive, believable one.” The ACADEMY agreed, although he was unable to get a break from an overseas movie shoot and was not on hand when his OSCAR was awarded.

In 1977 Mr. Robertson made the headlines again, this time by blowing the whistle on a Hollywood financial scandal.

He had discovered that David Begelman, president of COLUMBIA PICTURES, had forged his signature on a $10,000 salary check and he called the FBI and the Burbank and Beverly Hills police departments. Hollywood insiders were not happy with the highly negative publicity.

“I got phone calls from powerful people who said, ‘You’ve been very fortunate in this business. I’m sure you wouldn’t want all this to come to an end,”’ Mr. Robertson recalled in 1984.

Mr. Robertson pressed his complaint against the advice of many in Hollywood who did not want Mr. Begelman to become a liability to the movie industry. Mr. Begelman pleaded no contest to charges of grand theft and was fined $5,000 and sentenced to three years probation. He was first suspended and then fired.

David Begelman committed suicide in 1995.

Mr. Robertson, on the other hand, temporarily became a nonperson in Hollywood — essentially blacklisted, he said, by forces within his own industry.

“People told me I set a dangerous precedent,” he stated in 1994. “My ex wife said that if I had played the game I would have owned the town, but I was always too independent.”

Mr. Robertson said neither the studios nor the networks would hire him for four years.

He supported himself as a spokesperson for AT&T until the drought ended in 1981 when he was hired by MGM for BRAINSTORM, NATALIE WOOD’S final film.

Born SEPTEMBER 9, 1925 in La Jolla, California, Mr. Robertson was 2 when he was adopted by wealthy parents who named him CLIFFORD PARKER ROBERTSON III. After his parents divorced and his mother died, he was reared by his maternal grandmother, whom he adored.

Mr. Robertson studied briefly at Antioch College, majoring in journalism, then returned to California and appeared in two small roles in Hollywood movies. Rejected by the services in World War II because of a weak eye, he served in the Merchant Marine.

He set his sights on New York theatre and like dozens of other future stars profited from the advent of live television drama. His Broadway roles also attracted notice and after avoiding Hollywood offers for several years, he accepted a contract at COLUMBIA PICTURES.

“I think I held the record for the number of times I was on suspension,” he remarked in 1969.

“I remember once I turned down a B picture, telling the boss Harry Cohn I would rather take a suspension. He shouted at me, ‘Kid, ya got more guts than brains.’ I think old Harry might have been right.”

Mr. Robertson’s first performance for COLUMBIA in PICNIC was impressive, even though WILLIAM HOLDEN stole KIM NOVAK from his character. He followed with a tearjerker AUTUMN LEAVES as JOAN CRAWFORD’S young husband, then a musical, THE GIRL MOST LIKELY with JANE POWELL. In 1959 he endeared himself to GIDGET fans as THE BIG KAHUNA, the mature Malibu surf bum who takes SANDRA DEE’S GIDGET under his wing.

He remained a busy versatile leading man through the 60s and 70s.

“I’m not one of the Golden Six. I take what’s left over,” he commented in 1967, referring to the top male stars of that day.

“They all know me as a great utility player. ‘Good old Cliff,‘ they say. Someday I’d like to be in there as the starting pitcher.”

The chance came with CHARLY. But after the usual OSCAR flurry, he resumed his utility position.

Mr. Robertson appeared in a variety of different genres throughout his career. He was particularly memorable in SUNDAY IN NEW YORK (1963), THE HONEY POT (1967), THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975) and STAR 80 (1983).

He had a passion for flying and he poured his movie earnings into buying and restoring World War I and II planes. 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.

In 1957, CLIFF ROBERTSON married JACK LEMMON’S ex wife CYNTHIA STONE and they had a daughter STEPHANIE before splitting in 1960. In 1966, he married DINA MERRILL and they had a daughter HEATHER. They divorced in 1989.

Mr. Robertson’s funeral is set for Friday in East Hampton.

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