American actor whose career was blighted when he exposed a Hollywood studio head as an embezzler and forger
Published 18/09/2011 | 05:00
Cliff Robertson, the American film actor, who died on September 10, a day after his 88th birthday, was best known for his portrayal of square-jawed soldiers, sailors and airmen, but his career stalled in the Seventies when he exposed a Hollywood studio chief as an embezzler and forger. The ensuing scandal uncovered widespread "creative book-keeping" at Columbia Pictures and other studios and resulted in major changes in Hollywood's financial practices.
In February 1977, Robertson received a demand for income tax on earnings of $10,000 that he was certain he had not been paid. When he approached Columbia about the missing cheque, he discovered that his signature had been forged and the cheque cashed in Beverly Hills.
Despite death threats, Robertson pressed for a full investigation. More inquiries revealed that the culprit was the head of the Columbia studio, David Begelman. Bosses at Columbia closed ranks. They suspended Begelman after uncovering two more forgeries (totalling $60,000) but it was only because Robertson continued to complain about "cover-ups" that Begelman was finally sacked.
Pending Begelman's trial, Robertson was warned by the FBI that he was a marked man who should be "in fear of his life". When arriving or leaving the studios, where he was filming Morning, Noon And Night, he was smuggled through a back entrance, hidden under a blanket.
Immediately after his conviction for fraud, Begelman was offered the job of head of production at MGM.
Robertson fared less well. Shooting on Morning, Noon And Night stopped when its financial backers withdrew, and for the next seven years Robertson was boycotted in Hollywood. He returned to television, playing astronaut Buzz Aldrin in Return To Earth (1977) which chronicled Aldrin's nervous breakdown.
In a career spanning more than 50 years, Robertson had few starring roles. In his most successful film, for which he won an Oscar for best actor, he was cast against type as a mentally-retarded cleaner in Charly (1968).
Hollywood cynics complained that he had actually won the award because his agent had spent months publishing favourable press cuttings in Variety.
Clifford Parker Robertson III was born on September 9, 1923, at La Jolla, California, the son of a wealthy playboy. When his parents divorced, Cliff was brought up by his Scottish grandmother who, he claimed, instilled in him a strictly Calvinistic view of the world. Graduating from La Jolla High School, he studied English Literature at Antioch College in Ohio. In his free time he worked as a reporter for the Springfield Daily News, but his real ambition was to become a playwright.
After war service in the Merchant Marine, in 1947 Robertson moved to New York to pursue his writing career. He also took a $5-a-week backstage job with a repertory company touring the Catskill Mountains. When the tour ended, Robertson worked as taxi driver and docker before landing a role in a touring production of Mister Roberts (1948). In 1952 he had a small part in The Wisteria Trees (a stage adaptation of The Cherry Orchard), directed by Joshua Logan, who offered Robertson a role in his 1965 film Picnic, starring William Holden and Rosalind Russell.
Having signed a contract with Columbia to make two films a year, Robertson played Joan Crawford's insane husband in Autumn Leaves (1956). After a short break on Broadway, appearing in Orpheus Descending, Robertson returned to Hollywood to make the forgettable Girl Most Likely in 1957. He was more successful as the wealthy young lieutenant in The Naked And The Dead, adapted from Norman Mailer's novel about the war in the Pacific.
Hoping to escape being typecast in war films, Robertson embarked on a clutch of ill-fated projects, beginning with The Big Show (1961) in which he played a trapeze artist; Underworld USA (1962) playing a mobster; and The Interns in which he was cast as a young doctor. In My Six Loves (1963), he starred as a parson who helps Debbie Reynolds to adopt six orphans before marrying her in the final reel. In 1963 Robertson achieved national fame in the United States when he played President John F Kennedy in the war film PT-109. Kennedy had agreed to the making of the film in 1962, on condition that he could choose the actor who would play him. But PT-109 proved unpopular with audiences and lost money at the box office.
After an excellent, but largely ignored, performance opposite Henry Fonda in the political drama The Best Man (1964), Robertson again reverted to type, playing a series of soldiers and spies.
He played a stiff-upper-lipped RAF wing commander in 633 Squadron (1964), and co-starred with Jack Hawkins as an American soldier of fortune in Masquerade (1965).
On television in 1965 Robertson played the lead role in The Two Lives Of Charly Gordon, the story of a brain-damaged man who, after an operation, enjoys a short period of life as a genius before returning to his former childlike state.
Robertson was convinced the play would work as a film and was so determined not to lose the role to a bigger Hollywood name that he bought the film rights and spent two years financing the project.
When Charly opened in 1968 it was widely acclaimed and the following year won Robertson his only Academy Award, for Best Actor.
But if Robertson hoped to escape from what he called "the drudgery of making war pictures", he was mistaken. He worked in Too Late A Hero (1970), a war film starring Michael Caine. In the hope of keeping some control over his career, he decided to direct himself, and made the modern Western JW Coop in 1970. But it flopped and failed to cover its production costs.
After the Begelman scandal, Robertson did not act again until 1983 when he began working with the director Douglas Trumbell on Brainstorm, a science fiction thriller. Shooting was complicated by the sudden death of Robertson's co-star, Natalie Wood, and although the project was hurriedly finished using a body double, the film was a dud.
His teenage daughter then persuaded him to accept the role of Dr Michael Ranson in the television soap opera Falcon Crest, for which he was reputed to have earned more than $50,000 an episode.
In the course of his career, Robertson appeared in some 60 films. From 2002 he played Uncle Ben Parker in remakes of the Spider-Man series.
Cliff Robertson was twice married and divorced. He had two daughters.