Cliff Robertson

Cliff Robertson

Cliff Robertson in 1981.
Born Clifford Parker Robertson III
(1923-09-09)September 9, 1923
La Jolla, California, United States
Died September 10, 2011(2011-09-10) (aged 88)
Stony Brook, New York, United States
Occupation Actor
Years active 1942–2008
Spouse(s) Cynthia Stone (m. 1957; div. 1959)
Dina Merrill (m. 1966; div. 1989)
Children 2

Clifford Parker "Cliff" Robertson III (September 9, 1923 – September 10, 2011) was an American actor with a film and television career that spanned half a century. Robertson portrayed a young John F. Kennedy in the 1963 film PT 109, and won the 1968 Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the movie Charly. On television, he portrayed retired astronaut Buzz Aldrin in the 1976 adaptation of Aldrin's autobiographic Return to Earth, played a fictional character based on Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms in the 1977 miniseries Washington: Behind Closed Doors, and portrayed Henry Ford in the 1987 Ford: The Man and the Machine. His last well-known film appearances were in 2002 through 2007 as Uncle Ben in the Spider-Man film trilogy.

Early life

Robertson was born in La Jolla, California,[1][2][3] the son of Clifford Parker Robertson, Jr. (1902–1968), and his first wife, Audrey Olga Robertson (née Willingham; 1903–1925).[4][5] His Texas-born father was described as "the idle heir to a tidy sum of ranching money".[6] Robertson once said, "[My father] was a very romantic figure – tall, handsome. He married four or five times, and between marriages he'd pop in to see me. He was a great raconteur, and he was always surrounded by sycophants who let him pick up the tab. During the Depression, he tapped the trust for $500,000, and six months later he was back for more."[7]

Robertson's parents divorced when he was one, and his mother died of peritonitis a year later in El Paso, Texas, at the age of 21.[1][7][8] He was raised by his maternal grandmother, Mary Eleanor "Eleanora" Willingham (née Sawyer, 1875–1957), in California, and rarely saw his father.[1][7][9] He graduated in 1941 from La Jolla High School,[10] where he was known as "The Walking Phoenix".[11] He served in the U.S. Merchant Marine in World War II,[1] before attending Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio and dropping out to work as a journalist for a short time.[12][13]



Robertson was President John F. Kennedy's personal choice to play him in 1963's PT 109 as a young Lieutenant PT boat captain.[14] The next year, Robertson played a presidential candidate in The Best Man. A life member of The Actors Studio,[15] Robertson won the 1968 Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of a mentally disabled man in Charly, an adaptation of the science fiction novel Flowers for Algernon.

Other films included Picnic (1955), Autumn Leaves (1956), Gidget (1959), Wild River (1960), Underworld USA (1961), The Interns (1962), Sunday in New York (1963), 633 Squadron (1964), Devil's Brigade (1968), Too Late the Hero (1970), J. W. Coop (1972), Three Days of the Condor (1975), Obsession (1976), Class (1983), Star 80 (1983), Malone (1987), Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken (1991), and John Carpenter's Escape from L.A. (1996). Late in his life Robertson's career had a resurgence. He appeared as Uncle Ben Parker in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man (2002), as well as in the sequels Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Spider-Man 3 (2007; his last acting role). He commented on his website: "Since Spider-Man 1 and 2, I seem to have a whole new generation of fans. That in itself is a fine residual."[16] He was also in the horror film Riding the Bullet (2004).

In 1989, he was a member of the jury at the 39th Berlin International Film Festival.[17]


Robertson's early television appearances included a starring role in the live space opera Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers (1953–1954), as well as recurring roles on Hallmark Hall of Fame (1952), Alcoa Theatre (1959), and Playhouse 90 (1958, 1960), The Outlaws (three episodes). Robertson also appeared as a special guest star on Wagon Train for one episode, portraying an Irish immigrant.

In 1958, Robertson portrayed Joe Clay in the first broadcast of Playhouse 90's Days of Wine and Roses. In 1960, he was cast as Martinus Van Der Brig, a con man, in the episode "End of a Dream" of Riverboat.[18]

Other appearances included The Twilight Zone episodes "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim" (1961) and "The Dummy" (1962), followed by the The Eleventh Hour in the 1963 episode, "The Man Who Came Home Late". He guest-starred on such television series as The Greatest Show on Earth, Breaking Point and ABC Stage 67. He had starring roles in episodes of both the 1960s and 1990s versions of The Outer Limits. He was awarded an Emmy for his leading role in a 1965 episode, "The Game" of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre. He appeared twice as a guest-villain on ABC's Batman as the gunfighter "Shame" (1966 and 1968), the second time with his wife, Dina Merrill, as "Calamity Jan".

In 1976, he portrayed a retired Buzz Aldrin in an adaptation of Aldrin's autobiography Return to Earth. The next year, he portrayed a fictional Director of Central Intelligence (based on Richard Helms) in Washington: Behind Closed Doors, an adaptation of John Ehrlichman's roman a clef The Company, in turn based on the Watergate scandal. In 1987, he portrayed Henry Ford in Ford: The Man and The Machine. From 1983-84, he played Dr. Michael Ranson in Falcon Crest.

Young Eagles initiative

A certified private pilot, he was a longtime member of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), working his way through the ranks in prominence and eventually co-founding the Young Eagles Program with EAA president Tom Poberezny. Robertson chaired the program from its 1992 inception to 1994 (succeeded by former test pilot Gen. Chuck Yeager). Along with educating youth around aviation, the initial goal of the Young Eagles was to fly one million children (many of them never having flown before) prior to the 100th Anniversary of Flight celebration on December 17, 2003. That goal was achieved on November 13, 2003. On July 28, 2016, the two millionth Young Eagle was flown by actor Harrison Ford.[19]

Columbia Pictures scandal

In 1977, Robertson discovered that his signature had been forged on a $10,000 check payable to him, although it was for work he had not performed. He also learned that the forgery had been carried out by Columbia Pictures head David Begelman, and on reporting it he inadvertently triggered one of the biggest Hollywood scandals of the 1970s.[20] Begelman was charged with embezzlement, convicted, and later fired from Columbia. Despite the pressure to remain quiet Robertson and his wife Dina Merrill spoke to the press. As a result, Hollywood producers blacklisted him. He finally returned to film five years later, starring in Brainstorm (1983).[13][21] The story of the scandal is told in David McClintick's 1982 bestseller Indecent Exposure.

Personal life

In 1957, Robertson married actress Cynthia Stone, the former wife of actor Jack Lemmon. They had a daughter, Stephanie, before divorcing in 1959; he also had a stepson by this marriage, Chris Lemmon. In 1966, he married actress and Post Cereals heiress Dina Merrill, the former wife of Stanley M. Rumbough, Jr.; they had a daughter, Heather (1969-2007), before divorcing in 1989.[1] By this marriage, he also had stepchildren Stanley Hutton Rumbough, David Post Rumbough, and Nedenia Colgate Rumbough. He resided in Water Mill, New York.[22]


One of Robertson's main hobbies was flying and, among other aircraft, he owned several de Havilland Tiger Moths, a Messerschmitt Bf 108, and a genuine World War II - era Mk.IX Supermarine Spitfire MK923.[23][24] His piloting skills helped him get the part as the squadron leader in the British war film 633 Squadron. He entered balloon races, including one in 1964 from the mainland to Catalina Island that ended with him being rescued from the Pacific Ocean. Robertson organized flights of supplies to the ravaged country of Ethiopia when it experienced famine in 1978.[23] His first plane ride was in a Lockheed Model 9 Orion. As a 13-year-old he would clean hangars for airplane rides. He met Paul Mantz, Art Scholl, and Charles Lindbergh while flying at local California airports.[25]

Robertson was flying a private Beechcraft Baron over New York City on the morning of September 11, 2001. He was directly over the World Trade Center, climbing through 7,500 feet, when the first Boeing 767 struck. He was ordered by air traffic control to land immediately at the nearest airport following a nationwide order to ground all civilian and commercial aircraft following the attacks.[26]


On September 10, 2011, one day after his 88th birthday, Robertson died of natural causes in Stony Brook, New York.[27][28] His body was cremated, and a private funeral was held at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in East Hampton, New York.[29]


Year Film Role Notes
1943 We've Never Been Licked Adams Uncredited
Corvette K-225 Lookout Uncredited
1955 Picnic Alan Benson
1956 Autumn Leaves Burt Hanson
1958 The Girl Most Likely Pete
The Naked and the Dead Lieutenant Robert Hearn
Days of Wine and Roses Joe Clay Part of the Playhouse 90 anthology series
1959 Gidget The Big Kahuna
Battle of the Coral Sea Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Conway
As the Sea Rages Clements
1960 Riverboat Martinus Van Der Brig Episode: "End of a Dream" (NBC-TV)
1961 The Twilight Zone Christian Horn, Sr. Episode: "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim"
All in a Night's Work Warren Kingsley, Jr.
Underworld U.S.A. Tolly Devlin
The Big Show Josef Everard
1962 The Twilight Zone Jerry Etherson Episode: "The Dummy"
The Interns Dr. John Paul Otis
1963 My Six Loves Reverend Jim Larkin
PT 109 Lt. (j.g.) John F. Kennedy
Sunday in New York Adam Tyler
1964 The Best Man Joe Cantwell
633 Squadron Wing Cmdr. Roy Grant
1965 Love Has Many Faces Pete Jordon
Masquerade David Frazer
Up from the Beach Sgt. Edward Baxter
1966-1968 Batman Shame Two-part episode: "Come Back, Shame"/"It's How You Play the Game"
1967 The Honey Pot William McFly
1968 The Devil's Brigade Maj. Alan Crown
Charly Charlie Gordon Academy Award for Best Actor
National Board of Review Award for Best Actor
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
Nominated—Laurel Award for Best Male Dramatic Performance
1970 Too Late the Hero Lt. (j.g.) Sam Lawson
1971 J. W. Coop J. W. Coop
1972 The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid Cole Younger
1973 The Men Who Made the Movies: Alfred Hitchcock narrator
Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies Ace Eli Walford
1974 Man on a Swing Lee Tucker
1975 Out of Season Joe Tanner Entered into the 25th Berlin International Film Festival
Three Days of the Condor J. Higgins
1976 Return to Earth Buzz Aldrin
Shoot Rex
Midway Cmdr. Carl Jessop
Obsession Michael Courtland
1977 Fraternity Row Narrator
Washington: Behind Closed Doors William Martin Adaptation of The Company; character based on Richard Helms
1979 The Little Prince
Martin the Cobbler
Rip Van Wynkle
The Diary of Adam and Eve
Host; The pilot (Little Prince) Package of Claymation shorts by Will Vinton
Dominique David Ballard
1980 Charly II Charly Gordon
The Pilot Mike Hagan
1983 Falcon Crest Dr. Michael Ranson Season 3
Star 80 Hugh Hefner
Class Mr. Burroughs
Brainstorm Alex Terson
1985 Shaker Run Judd Pierson
1987 Malone Charles Delaney
Ford: The Man and the Machine Henry Ford
1990 Dead Reckoning Daniel Barnard TV movie
1991 Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken Doctor Carver
1992 Wind Morgan Weld
The Ghosts of '87 Host
1994 Renaissance Man Colonel James
1995 Waiting for Sunset or The Sunset Boys (Pakten) Ted Roth
1996 Escape from L.A. President
1998 Melting Pot Jack Durman
Assignment Berlin Cliff Garret
1999 Family Tree Larry
The Outer Limits (1995 TV Series) Theodore Harris Episode: "Joyride"
2001 Falcon Down Buzz Thomas
Mach 2 Vice President Pike
2002 Spider-Man Ben Parker
13th Child Mr. Shroud Robertson was one of the writers of this film
2004 Spider-Man 2 Ben Parker Cameo
Riding the Bullet Farmer
2007 Spider-Man 3 Ben Parker Cameo; (Last movie appearance)


Robertson was inducted in to the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006. He received an award from Antioch College Alumni in 2007 for his contributions to his field of work. In addition to his Oscar and Emmy and several lifetime achievement awards from various film festivals, Robertson has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6801 Hollywood Blvd. He was also awarded the 2008 Ambassador of Good Will Aviation Award by the National Transportation Safety Board Bar Association in Alexandria, Virginia, on May 18, 2008, for his leadership in and promotion of general aviation.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Keepnews, Peter (September 11, 2011). "Cliff Robertson, Oscar-Winning Rebel, Dies at 88". The New York Times. Retrieved September 11, 2011.
  2. IMDb
  3. California Births, 1905–1995
  4. Several obituaries have stated that Robertson was adopted by his parents. However, the California Birth Index of 1905–1995 states that Clifford P. Robertson was born to a mother whose maiden name was Willingham, in Los Angeles County, California, on September 9, 1923.
  5. Mother's birth and death information per records accessed on on September 12, 2011
  6. Father's birthplace accessed on on September 12, 2011
  7. 1 2 3 Green, Michelle (December 5, 1983). "Cliff Robertson profile at". People. Retrieved November 25, 2011.
  8. Mother's death information per records accessed on on September 12, 2011
  9. Grandmother's name and dates accessed on on September 12, 2011
  10. Cliff Robertson biodata,; accessed April 26, 2015.
  11. "Cliff Robertson/Hollywood Walk of Fame". Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Retrieved September 11, 2011.
  12. "Cliff Robertson".
  13. 1 2 Cliff Robertson biodata,; accessed April 26, 2015.
  14. Hoberman, J. (August 26, 2003). "Lights, Camera, Exploitation". Village Voice. Archived from the original on June 30, 2008. Retrieved November 25, 2011.
  15. Garfield, David (1980). "Appendix: Life Members of The Actors Studio as of January 1980". A Player's Place: The Story of The Actors Studio. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc. p. 278. ISBN 0-02-542650-8.
  16. "Cliff Robertson's Career Achievements". Retrieved November 14, 2007.
  17. "Berlinale: 1989 Juries". Retrieved March 9, 2011.
  18. ""End of a Dream", Riverboat, September 19, 1960". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved February 21, 2013.
  19. "Harrison Ford Flies 2 Millionth Young Eagle". Retrieved 25 August 2016.
  20. "Cliff Robertson". The Telegraph. London. September 11, 2011.
  21. McClintick, David. Indecent Exposure: A True Story of Hollywood and Wall Street, William Morrow and Company, 1982.
  22. "Career Achievements". Official Website of Cliff Robertson. Retrieved October 15, 2011.
  23. 1 2 Hall, Bob. Southeastern Antiquing and Collecting Magazine. Cliff Robertson Collects Vintage AircraftArticle on Robertson's private aviation collection. 2004.
  24. First Cross-Country Soaring or (You Ain't John Wayne – Robertson)
  25. Gene Smith (December 1987). "Real Airport Kids Never Grow Up". Air Progress.
  26. Official Cliff Robertson site
  27. "Cliff Robertson, who played JFK in 'PT-109', dies". Yahoo! News. September 11, 2011. Retrieved November 25, 2011.
  28. "US film actor Cliff Robertson dies aged 88". BBC. September 11, 2011. Retrieved September 11, 2011.
  29. "'He was one of the greatest men I've ever known:' Oscar winning actor Cliff Robertson remembered at funeral service". The Daily Mail. September 18, 2011.
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