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September 12, 2011

Cliff Robertson, Primetime Emmy and Oscar Winner, Dies at 88

In addition to a lengthy film career, Robertson, who won an Oscar for the 1968 release Charly, worked extensively in television, and won a Primetime Emmy for Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre in 1966

Cliff Robertson, an actor whose career spanned more than 50 years, during which he won both a Primetime Emmy and an Oscar, died September 10, 2011, a day after his 88th birthday, in Stony Brook, New York.

According to news reports, Robertson died of natural causes.

In addition to his distinguished career as a performer — which extended into the 2000s, when he appeared in the Spider-Man trilogy — Robertson made news in the late 1970s when he exposed former Columbia Pictures executive Davd Begelman as a check forger.

In addition to Charly, Robertson garnered acclaim for his performance as President John F. Kennedy, who handpicked the actor to play him in the film version of PT 109, about Kennedy’s World War II service.

Born Clifford Parker Robertson III on September 9, 1923, he grew up in La Jolla, California, where he was raised primarily by his maternal grandmother. His parents divorced shortly after his birth, and his mother died when he was a toddler.

He graduated from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and worked at a newspaper and radio station in nearby Springfield, Ohio. Although he had decided to pursue acting, he tried to enlist in the military to serve in World War II. Due to vision problems he was declined; instead, he joined the Merchant Marines for the remainder of the conflict.

Following the war he moved to New York, where he eventually found work touring with the Stanley Woolf Players. In 1948 he was cast in the Chicago company of Mister Roberts and toured with the play for the almost two years.

In the early 1950s he broke into television with roles in such shows as Short Story Dramas, Hallmark Hall of Fame, Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers and Robert Montgomery Presents.

After further stage work, including director Joshua Logan’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Logan cast him in a supporting role in the film version of Picnic in 1955.

His Broadway career sparked after he broke into films, and in 1957, he appeared in the original production of the Tennessee Williams play Orpheus Descending.

During the 1950s and ‘60s he worked frequently on the big screen, logging credits such as The Naked and the Dead, The Girl Most Likely, Gidget, All in a Night’s Work and Underworld U.S.A.

At the time, however, much of his strongest work was done in television. Notable projects included the lead in Days of Wine and Roses (which later became a film starring to Jack Lemmon), The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon (which became his Oscar-winning film Charly) and The Game, for which he won his Primetime Emmy.

Other TV appearances during the period included Playhouse 90, Wagon Train, The U.S. Steel Hour, The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, The Outer Limits and Batman, in which he played the craven villain Shame.

His film career sparked in 1963, with PT 109. Movies that followed included Sunday in New York, 633 Squadron, Masquerade, Love Has Many Faces, Up from the Beach, The Honey Pot and The Best Man.

He peaked in 1968 with the feature film adaptation of his television triumph as Charlie Gordon, a mentally challenged man whose IQ is temporarily elevated through a medical procedure. For his performance, he won an Academy Award for best actor.

In the ensuing years he worked regularly in both film and television.

Movies of note included The Devil’s Brigade, Too Late the Hero, Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies, Shoot, Midway, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, Three Days of the Condor, Obsession, Star 80, Renaissance Man and Escape from L.A. He also directed two films, J.W. Coop and The Pilot.

In the first Spider-Man film, released in 2002, Robertson played Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, whose murder is key event in the young superhero’s life. Robertson appeared in the second and third installments of the franchise, as part of flashback scenes.

Later television projects included Washington: Behind Closed Doors, My Father’s House, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Man Without a Country, Two of a Kind, Ford: The Man and the Machine and a regular role on the CBS drama Falcon Crest.

He also worked in commercials and for many years was a spokesman for AT&T.

Robertson made the news for other reasons after he received a W-2 tax statement for $10,000 from Columbia Pictures for money he had never received.

When inquiries to the studio did not prove satisfactory to Robertson, he pursued the matter until it was revealed that Begelman had forged the check to Robertson and others totaling $40,000. Begelman left Columbia. But later became an executive at MGM and head of his own production company. Begelman committed suicide in 1995.

Robertson, who at the time was a board member of the Screen Actors Guild, told journalists that his career lost momentum because exposing Begelman’s transgressions disrupted an old guard within the Hollywood executive ranks.

He was a member of the Screen Actors Guild board for 30 years, beginning in 1962 with a three-year tenure in Hollywood. From 1978 to 2005 he served as a national board member from the New York division.

Robertson’s first wife was actress Cynthia Stone, the ex-wife of actor Jack Lemmon. In 1966 he married actress and heiress Dina Merrill. They had a child who died from cancer, and they divorced in 1989.

He is survived by his daughter by Stone.

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