Oscar-Winning Actor Cliff Robertson Dies at 88

UPDATED: The "Charly" and "Spider-Man" actor died Saturday, one day after his birthday.

Cliff Robertson, who won a Best Actor Oscar for Charly (1968), and who blew the lid off a check-forging scandal at Columbia Pictures in 1977, has died.

He died of natural causes Saturday, one day after his 88th birthday, at Stony Brook University Medical Center on Long Island, says Evelyn Christel, his personal secretary of 53 years, according to the Associated Press. 

Although he won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as the mentally-impaired Charly, Robertson’s best-know role was, perhaps, in real-life. He was touted as a “profile in courage” for reporting that Columbia studio head David Begelman had forged his name on a $10,000 check in the late ‘70s.  Begelman, who misappropriated more than $60,000 in studio funds, was later convicted in what the press deemed “Hollywoodgate.” Robertson was considered a hero by many for, essentially, putting his career on the line by taking on a powerful studio head. He was outspoken in his criticism of the whole situation, telling the Washington Post, “There’s a small percentage of corrupt people in Hollywood. Only one percent represents the pinnacle of power. They’ve been frightening people for years, and now they’re frightening others into `ipso facto’ blacklisting me… I hear there’s a very powerful person in Hollywood saying I’ll never work again.”

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Robertson also won an Emmy Award for his performance in The Game on Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, and was nominated for an Emmy for The Two Worlds of Charly Gordon. After performing in Charly Gordon, he bought the rights, and channeled it into an Academy Award-winning performance. 

He began his movie career as a contract player at Columbia in the 1950s.  Throughout a long acting career, Robertson mixed his acting between movies, TV and the stage, performing mainly as a character actor.  “I get bored playing the same type,” he said. Robertson’s most popular performance was as the young John F. Kennedy in PT-109. Kennedy, in fact, had suggested that he be cast to play the part. Robertson also starred as the chief executive  of a large U.S. corporation in Brainstorm. He also portrayed Playboy editor/publisher Hugh Hefner in Star 80. More recently, he starred in the Spider-Man films as Uncle Ben Parker. 

His other movie credits include:  The Naked and the Dead, Gidget, The Interns, The Best Man, Sunday in New York, The Honey Pot, 633 Squadron, The Devil’s Brigade, Too Late the Hero, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, Underworld U.S.A., Man on a String, Three Days of the Condor, Midway and Shoot. He also brought the radio drama J.W. Coop, a gritty yarn about a rodeo cowboy, and served as producer, director, writer and star of the film version.

Robertson’s TV credits were extensive. He starred in ABC’s The Man Without a Country, Washington: Behind Closed Doors and Two of a Kind. In all, Robertson appeared in more than 100 TV productions, beginning in the days of live TV. He played on such vaunted ‘50s programs as Philco, Goodyear, Studio One and Robert Montgomery Presents.

Clifford Parker Robertson III was born in La Jolla, California on September 9, 1923. Following high school, where he was active in the La Jolla High School Dramatic Club, he wanted to become a flier. Yet, his interests soon gravitated toward acting. He appeared at the Globe Theater in San Diego in 1940, playing in A World Elsewhere. He served during World War II in the Merchant Marine. Following his service, he supported himself with a series of part-time jobs and went back East to study acting. He performed in stock in Westboro, Sturbridge, Lakes Regions and other small towns in New England.

Robertson received his first processional acting job with the Stanley Woolf Players in upstate New York. On Broadway, he appeared in The Wisteria Trees with Helen Hayes, The Lady and the Tiger, Late Love and in Orpheus Descending. He also appeared on Saturday morning TV (Rod Brown and the Rocket Rangers). It was while appearing with Hayes in the New York production of Wisteria Trees that Robertson was spotted by Josh Logan’s wife, who alerted her husband, and who later cast Robertson in Picnic (1956), opposite Kim Novak.

His stately bearing lent well to commercials: He was for years the spokesman for AT&T. Athletic and active, Robertson was a strong tennis player and an avid aviator. He owned several aircrafts, including an original German WWII Messerschmitt 109-E, which he had on display at the Parker/O’Malley Museum in New York. He also competed in numerous air shows and balloon races.

Robertson was married to actress Dina Merrill from 1966 to 1986. Previously, he was married to Cynthia Stone Lemmon. He had one daughter from each marriage.