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Cliff Robertson: A Multi-Talented Man

Originally Posted: November 07, 2007

Tom Clavin

Another appropriate choice by the coordinators of the "Picture Show at Bay Street", this past Saturday at the theatre in Sag Harbor was "An Evening with Cliff Robertson." It was a weekend featuring the actor, who lives in Water Mill. On Friday, Bay Street screened "Obsession," made in 1976 and directed by Brian De Palma. The following night, "Charly" was shown, followed by a Q&A interview with Robertson who, by the way, is one of the most genial and interesting people you will ever meet.

Robertson is one of the few actors and directors still working who cut their teeth in live television. (Two others, also local residents, are Sidney Lumet and Sidney Pollack). The 1962 film version of J.P. Miller's "Days of Wine and Roses" with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick (directed by Blake Edwards, of Sagaponack) is well-known, but originally it was directed live on TV by John Frankenheimer in 1958 with Robertson and Piper Laurie. Robertson did his share of being a young actor in teen-aimed romantic comedies in his early days (such as in the "Gidget" series), then finally earned parts in films and TV productions that showed that his searing performance in "Days" was no fluke.

He is notable for fine performances in "PT 109" (reportedly chosen by John F. Kennedy to portray the then Lt. Kennedy), "The Best Man," "Charly" (an adaptation of "Flowers for Algernon" for which he won the 1968 Academy Award for Best Actor for playing the retarded title character), "Too Late the Hero," "J.W. Coop" (which he also wrote and directed), and "Star 80" (directed by Bob Fosse). Robertson is also one of the few actors who gets a late-in-life revival of his career, and that is thanks to being Uncle Ben Parker in "Spider-Man," as well as in that film's sequel.

"Since 'Spider-Man' 1 and 2, I seem to have a whole new generation of fans," he said. "That in itself is a very fine residual." For "Spider-Man 3" he shot his scenes in New York City with Tobey Maguire, and the film just came out on video this week.

It is pleasing to report that Robertson has experience as a newspaper reporter. While still in college in Antioch, Ohio, he worked for a daily newspaper. He was born in La Jolla, California and had no intention of becoming an actor, but that began to change when he was a radish.

"I learned in third grade at La Jolla Elementary School that if you volunteered to be in the school play about good vegetables versus bad vegetables, you didn't get punished when you were naughty," he recalled. "When I was in military school, if you volunteered for the school play, you didn't have to spend Saturdays marching with 40-pound packs. So I just kept volunteering to act to stay out of trouble, and eventually I had a career."

Writing remained a lifelong interest. During the filming of "Charly," the screenwriter, Sterling Silliphant, confessed to Robertson that he couldn't quite get on paper a pivotal speech the main character makes to a group of doctors and scientists at the end of the second act. Robertson spent the entire night in a hotel room in Boston writing and rewriting the scene. That turned out to be the speech in the picture, and its impact was certainly one reason why Robertson earned the Oscar.

"The writing has always been the most important reason for me to do a project," he said. "That outweighs who the director is or who else is in the cast. If the script isn't good, then the movie or show just won't work."

A remarkable accomplishment - and a way to keep working in this business - is that Robertson moved easily between appearances in television programs and feature films throughout his career. His television appearances include recurring roles on "Hallmark Hall of Fame" and "Playhouse 90" (in the 1950's), "Outlaws," "The Twilight Zone," and "Batman" (in the 1960's), "Falcon Crest" (in the 1980's), and most recently, "The Lyon's Den." He had starring roles in both the 1960's and 1990's versions of "The Outer Limits." And his Oscar for "Charly" came just three years after being awarded an Emmy for his leading role in a 1965 episode from "Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre" titled "The Game."

He is especially proud of "J.W. Coop." It was inspired by an uncle who was a Western rancher. He was the one, ironically, who had wanted to be an actor. Robertson enjoyed his anecdotes of the cowboy life, and he turned it into a screenplay, and then the studio, Columbia, asked him to direct it. "It's not a western necessarily," said Robertson. "It is about a man facing a world changing around him. It may not be an original theme, but I think it is a universal one."

Another film Robertson directed as well as starred in was "The Pilot," which makes sense because he is a licensed commercial pilot. He maintains and flies a stable of classic vintage aircraft, as well as his record-setting glider. He has won many aviation honors, including the Experimental Aircraft Association Award, the Soaring Society of America Award, the A.O.P.A. William Sharples Award for rescue flying in Africa, and the Veteran of the Year Award for his service during World War II. He continues to write a monthly column, "The Cliff Hanger," for Airport Journals magazine.

The event at the Bay Street Theatre last week could have been dubbed "Cliff's Notes." Its genesis was several years ago when Robertson wrote a one-act play, "The VIPs," which had a successful run at Guild Hall. Last summer, the "Evening with . . ." format was decided upon to bring Robertson back to the John Drew Theatre.

"I always look forward to the interaction with the audience," said Robertson. "That's the most exciting part because I have no idea what people will ask me. The evenings with audiences are not about one particular movie or show; they are about an entire career, so they can wind up being pretty wide open."

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