A Tribute to Cliff Robertson

Good looking, versatile and almost impossible to pigeon hole, Cliff Robertson was the kind of actor who left himself behind when he slipped into a role.

Some actors tell us what they are really like (or what they want us to think they are really like) with every performance.

Not Robertson, who died Sept. 10 at his home in Stony Brook, NY at age 88. This native of Los Angeles had a long career in movies and television, yet it was his ability to adapt, to assume the qualities each role required that made him stand apart.

He won the best actor Oscar in 1969 for Charly (he’d picked up an Emmy a couple of years earlier), but his years as a leading man were relatively short. For the last three decades Robertson had kept as busy as he wanted to be with character work, including a recurring role in the hugely popular Spider-Man franchise.

The Kansas City Public Library has on its shelves several noteworthy DVDs of films featuring Robertson. I’d recommend:

Picnic (1955): This William Inge-penned drama, shot in Independence, KS and starring William Holden and Kim Novak, marked Robertson’s big-screen debut. He played the well-groomed college boy wooing Novak’s small-town girl...at least until Holden’s hunky drifter shows up.

Charly (1968): Robertson won his only Oscar for playing Charly Gordon, a mentally challenged man who, thanks to a new drug therapy, becomes a genius and wins the hand of Claire Bloom. And then the effects of the drug begin wearing off.

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972): Robertson showed his scuzzy, macho side as legendary outlaw Cole Younger, who with a clearly deranged Jesse James (Robert Duvall), rides north to rob a bank in Minnesota. Under Phil Kaufman’s direction this “revisionist” Western often reminds of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.

Three Days of the Condor (1975): Here Robertson is slick and insidious as a spymaster who may (or may not) be ready to protect a CIA analyst (Robert Redford) who has been on the run since surviving a massacre at his government-run think tank.

Star 80 (1983): In Bob Fosse’s excellent retelling of the tragic story of Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratton, Robertson is clearly having great fun as Hugh Hefner. With Eric Roberts and Mariel Hemingway.

Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken (1991): In this Disney drama Robertson plays the long-haired, moustachioed proprietor of a Wild West show. Think Buffalo Bill.

Spider-Man (2002): Robertson plays Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, whose murder in a street robbery motivates our hero to fight crime. Robertson became such a part of the mythology that he was resurrected (in flashbacks) for two sequels.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.