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American actor Cliff Robertson (as Joe Clay) stands with his arm braced against a closed door in a still from episode ‘The Days of Wine and Roses’ of the CBS Television series ‘Playhouse 90,’ September 2, 1958. The episode originally aired on October 2, 1958. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

A recent and long conversation that I had with Producer and Showrunner Simon Mirren (Criminal Minds, Versailles, Without A Trace), about the life and times of Cliff Robertson, left me thinking about how his journey evokes and offers inspiring and motivating life lessons.

Born Clifford Parker Robertson III (September 9, 1923 – September 10, 2011), he was an American actor and aviator born in La Jolla, California, whose career in film and television spanned over half a century. Robertson, portrayed a young John F. Kennedy in the 1963 film PT 109 (He was personally chosen by the President himself), and won the Academy Award in 1969 for Best Actor for his role in the film Charly.

President John F. Kennedy with actor Cliff Robertson; Mr. Robertson portrayed then-Lieutenant John F. Kennedy in the film, “PT 109.” Oval Office, White House, Washington, D.C.
(Image Courtesy : https://www.jfklibrary.org/ )


1.Money isn’t everything, do good

In what is considered to be one of his last interviews, in 2009 Cliff Robertson spoke exclusively to Actor, Tv host, Producer and Writer Ron Russell, and talked about his childhood.  Born into an affluent family, he considered his father “damned by wealth”  and his attitude to his frivolous lifestyle was that it left him embarrassed to the extent that, he would have to say his father had no other occupation but simply that of a “playboy”.  Robertson was also married, for a time to actress and heiress Dina Merrill, who on her death in 2017, was said to leave an estate worth $5 Billion.

22 December 1966, Dina Merrill and Cliff Robertson (Courtesy https://www.villages-news.com/)

In spite of being able to live a life of extreme luxury, he was the most humble of men, hardworking and someone who always gave back.

Cliff Robertson (Courtesy http://airportjournals.com/)

For example, in 1969, as Nigeria was ravaged by civil war, Robertson helped organize flights bringing food and medicine into the area, also in 1978, when Ethiopia was hit by famine, Robertson again organized incoming supply flights for charity.  He later served as Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) Young Eagles program’s first honorary chairman in 1992, and within the EAA, he founded the Cliff Robertson Work Experience, in 1993, offering youths the chance to work for flight and ground school instruction.

2.Faliure, can motivate you to create your own win

Mr. Robertson found compelling work on live television. He played a pool shark in “The Hustler” and a married alcoholic in “Days of Wine and Roses.”, however when it came time to cast the film versions, he was overlooked in favor of bigger stars: Paul Newman and Jack Lemmon, respectively.

Cliff Robertson received a belated Best Actor ‘Oscar’ for his film ‘Charly’. It was presented by Gregory Peck, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, after Robertson returned from filming on location in the Philippines. June 2, 1969 (Courtesy https://www.agefotostock.com/ )

Then came his Oscar-winning role in Charly, which he had firstly played again on TV as ‘The Two Worlds of Charley Gordon’, a TV adaptation of Daniel Keyes’ story ‘Flowers for Algernon’ ( the role here was the poignant portrayal of a mentally disabled man who undergoes medical treatment that makes him a genius — until a devastating regression to his former state).  On this occasion, he was so determined the big-screen role would not go to another actor that he bought the movie rights, and went on to win an Oscar.

3.Always do the right thing

At one time, Cliff Robertson was completely blacklisted by Hollywood for simply doing the right thing. In 1977, the IRS informed him that he had not declared a $10,000 payment from Columbia Pictures, but he was certain he never received any money from them. Robertson soon uncovered a $10,000 check from Columbia with his forged signature on it. When studio head David Begelman was confronted about this, he claimed that a lower-level employee was responsible. Robertson did not believe this story and decided to contact the authorities. An investigation revealed that Begelman had forged Robertson’s signature on the check and was using this same scheme to embezzle thousands of dollars from the studio. Begelman was fired and charged with grand theft but was only sentenced to community service. Robertson was pressured to keep quiet by Columbia studios, but he went public with the crime.  As a result, he was blacklisted by Hollywood for several years and found very little work. After the scandal was exposed in the Wall Street Journal and also via a best-selling book ‘Indecent Exposure‘ , Robertson finally started getting roles again and resurrected his career.

In 2003, the ACFE ( Association of Certified Fraud Examiners) awarded its first Sentinel “Cliff Robertson Award” to its namesake, Cliff Robertson, “For Choosing Truth Over Self.” Since then, the ACFE has presented the award to sentinels who’ve exposed fraud at corporations, hospitals, banks and government agencies.

4.Personal Loss happens to us all, appreciate each day

Cliff Robertson sadly lost his youngest daughter Heather Merriweather Robertson to Cancer in 2007, a fate no parent wants to ever go through.  He never showed bitterness and is forever remembered as a generous, kind-hearted and devoted family man, who treasured and made the most of his last days by continuing to share his time and give to others.

5.You can be the comeback kid

Cliff Robertson pictured with Tobey Maguire in Spiderman (Courtesy Marvel.com )

Cliff Robertson had a very late high profile stride in his career when he starred opposite Tobey Maguire ( who portrayed Peter Parker) – with Robertson playing his earnest, inspirational and much loved Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.  He was to comment, “Since Spider-Man , I seem to have a whole new generation of fans. That in itself is a fine residual.”

Thank you Cliff Robertson, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

***A very special thank you to Stephen C. Thompson, who worked as Cliff Robertson’s Publicist for the last 10 years of his life.

Find out more about Cliff Robertson’s work