On September 10, 2011, Academy Award-winning actor Cliff Robertson died in his home in Stony Brook, New York. He had turned 88 years old the previous day.
He may not have been one of the most recognizable names in Hollywood, but he had a steady career for more than 50 years. He also won a Best Actor Oscar – an honor that eluded the likes of Cary Grant, Peter O’Toole and James Dean (whose career started and ended around the time Robertson began his full-fledged career).
These are some of Robertson’s best known and career-defining performances:
Picnic (1955) as Alan Benson
While he appeared as an uncredited extra in two 1940s films, Robertson began his career with a bang – starring opposite William Holden, Kim Novak and Rosalind Russell in Joshua Logan’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Robertson played Alan Benson, the best friend of despairing drifter Hal Carter (Holden) – and he finds his friend ultimately falling for his girlfriend (Novak). The film was a critical and box office hit, and Picnic would win two technical Oscars. With the exception of Arthur O’Connell (who reprised his Broadway role as the resident store owner), none of the other actors scored any nominations.
PT 109 (1963) as Navy Lieutenant John F. Kennedy
It was one of those rare films in which a biopic on a future U.S. President was shown while that same President was still alive. And it was also unique that the White House was involved in aspects of this adventure film, right down to the casting of Robertson as Navy Lieutenant Kennedy. The film showcases one of JFK’s most harrowing and most heroic moments – the bombing of the torpedo boat PT-109 and how the young lieutenant has to rescue the survivors while dealing with his own pain. The film ultimately was made with President Kennedy’s blessing, but with conditions: it had to be accurate, any profits went to the survivors and their families, and that Robertson was the man to play him. All was agreed.
The Best Man (1964) as Joe Cantwell
After playing Lieutenant JFK in PT 109, he continued along the political vein with this drama about the rigorous adventure of a political campaign. Robertson starred as a U.S. Senator determined to become a party’s presidential candidate, even if it means getting dirty in his competing with an ex-Secretary of State (Henry Fonda). The film boasted an Oscar-nominated performance from Lee Tracy as a former President, and legendary political mind Gore Vidal was behind the screenplay (and also the play the film was based on). This drama had a future Oscar-winning director in Franklin Schaffner, six years before winning the award for Patton. And Cliff’s Oscar future would also be fulfilled…
Charly (1968) as Charly Gordon
Robertson came to this film with some experience: he had played Charly in a television version of Daniel Keyes’ acclaimed novel Flowers for Algernon. He helped bring the story to the motion picture screen, and starred again as Charly, a mentally-disabled man who becomes a subject for testing human intelligence. Charly becomes a very smart man, surprising the nurse (Claire Bloom) who once cared for him. Yet when the rat behind the original tests loses his intelligence, the future may not appear well for Charly – or for the life he gained through his newfound smarts.
Robertson gained early appreciation with a Golden Globe nod and a National Board of Review win. Then at the 41st Academy Awards in 1969, he would defeat Alan Arkin (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter) and Peter O’Toole (The Lion in Winter) among others to win his only Oscar.
Star 80 (1983) as Hugh Hefner
This was the last film directed by legendary filmmaker-choreographer Bob Fosse (Cabaret, All That Jazz), and it was based on the tragic death of Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten – killed by her husband Paul Snider. Robertson was cast in the role of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, opposite Eric Roberts (as Snider) and Mariel Hemingway (as Stratten). The film received an extremely mixed reaction from critics, and failed at the box office. One person who was not happy with the film and possibly Robertson’s work was Hugh Hefner himself – he would later sue the filmmakers for what he felt was an inaccurate portrayal of him.
Spider-Man (2002) as Uncle Ben Parker
Playing the father figure of the title character’s real identity Peter Parker certainly opened Robertson to a whole new generation of fans. He also gets one of the film’s most important lines, when he gives advice to Peter (“With great power comes great responsibility”). Director Sam Raimi followed the comic books seriously, especially with regards to how Uncle Ben is killed. Even though the character would die, Robertson would reunite in small cameo appearances in the next two films of the series. His appearance in 2007’s trilogy-closing Spider-Man 3 would be the last time Cliff Robertson would ever be seen on any screen.