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EAST HAMPTON, N.Y. — Cliff Robertson was remembered Friday as much more than a movie star who won an Academy Award and spent a lifetime appearing on the silver screen, television and Broadway stages.
Nearly 100 friends and relatives paid tribute to a generous, kind-hearted and devoted family man and an accomplished aviator and writer whose missives to them often ended up as cherished mementos kept in frames and hung in places of honor in their homes.
Robertson, who won an Oscar in 1968 for his performance in Charly, died of natural causes on Sept. 10, a day after his 88th birthday.
His stepson Christopher Lemmon said during one of four eulogies at his funeral at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in East Hampton, on Long Island, that he “never lost sight of his humility.” “He was one of the greatest men I have ever known,” said Lemmon, also an actor.
Though Robertson once conceded he was never considered in the top ranks of leading men, he remained a popular actor from the mid-1950s into the following century. “I’m not one of the Golden Six,” he commented in 1967, referring to the top male stars of that day. “I take what’s left over.”
His Oscar-winning role came as a mentally disabled man who undergoes medical treatment that makes him a genius — until a poignant regression to his former state. He was so determined the big-screen role would not go to another actor, he bought the movie rights.
He also is remembered for his portrayal of future President John F. Kennedy in the World War II film PT 109. More recently, he played Uncle Ben in the Spider-Man movies. But friends and family also spoke of his love of aviation; in 2006, he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio. “It was very much a passion,” friend Dennis Ivans said of Robertson’s love of flying, which began as a child growing up near an airport that no longer exists in La Jolla, Calif. Robertson often would wash the small airplanes in hopes of being rewarded with a ride in the skies, Ivans said.
Robertson created a string of impressive performances in television and on Broadway but always saw his role played in films by bigger names. His TV performances in Days of Wine and Roses and The Hustler, for example, were filmed with Jack Lemmon and Paul Newman, respectively. Robertson’s role in Tennessee Williams’ play Orpheus Descending went to Marlon Brando in the movie.
Robertson had great success in war movies. His strong presence made him ideal for such films as The Naked and the Dead, Battle of Coral Sea, 633 Squadron, Up From the Beach, The Devil’s Brigade, Too Late the Hero and Midway.
In 1977, Robertson blew 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 weren’t happy with the ugly publicity. Robertson said neither the studios nor the networks would hire him for four years.
In 1957, Robertson married Jack Lemmon’s ex-wife, Cynthia Stone, and they had a daughter, Stephanie, before splitting in 1960. In 1966, he married actress and heiress Dina Merrill, and they had a daughter, Heather. The couple divorced in 1989.
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