Remembering Cliff Robertson: An actor of power, integrity

by Mark Burger

Cliff Robertson was a great actor and a great pal.

We weren’t close friends, but we corresponded, and that is a high point in both my professional and personal life.

The actor who won the 1968 Academy Award aas Best Actor for Charly died at age 88 on Sept. 10 in New York. It was reported a day later, the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, and lent further sorrow to that day. Cliff was one of the great ones.

The connection began in 2003, when he appeared in a low-budget shocker, The 13th Child: Legend of the Jersey Devil. It’s no great movie, but it’s a better movie for his presence. There was an interview opportunity, and I jumped.

Naturally, I was a fan of his work: The Best Man, Too Late the Hero, Star 80, Three Days of the Condor, Obsession, Man on a Swing, the Spider-Man films….

Come interview time, however, I was home with pneumonia. Did I still want to interview him? Absolutely.

The interview went well and, when published, I mailed him a copy. A few days later, there was a message from Cliff. He loved the story. He’d had a great time talking to me and, if I felt like it, give him a call — here was his home number.

So I called. And we talked. And we talked some more. And we talked again. If I mentioned a movie of his he hadn’t seen in a while, I’d send him a copy. Some were, and are, impossible to find. But I found them. It was my privilege.

I admired him for another reason: In 1977, Columbia Pictures executive David Begelman forged Cliff’s signature on a $10,000 check.

The analogy Cliff gave me was of seeing a bank being robbed, telling the bank, and the bank tries to cover up for the robber. Begelman was stealing the studio’s money. After an inordinate amount of time, Columbia suspended Begelman (with pay) and then reinstated him as studio chief. After considerable and hugely negative public reaction, Begelman was fired — with a production deal, of course. Showbiz wags dubbed it “HollywoodGate,” and they weren’t far from the truth.

Cliff was basically blackballed from the industry, labeled a troublemaker. David McClintick’s 1982 bestseller Indecent Exposure is a superb telling of the case, and when asked asbout it, Cliff said it was “pretty damned close.”

In 2004, I was covering RiverRun in Winston-Salem, the first year the festival decided to present the Master of Cinema award. I lobbied for Cliff. He was an Oscar winner and he was coming off Spider-Man, at the time the biggest hit in its studio’s history. The studio? Columbia. (Cliff recognized the irony.)

Not a bad idea, the festival said, but they’d already landed a celebrity. Thanks anyway.

Then came a moment I’ll never forget. Sitting at my desk, the phone rang. “Do you still have Cliff Robertson’s phone number?”

The actor who had agreed to attend was tied to a project whose schedule had unexpectedly changed, and now they had nobody.

They did now.

That was the only time we met face to face, and I was again proud to provide a tall stack of DVDs for the presentation’s ’s highlight reel. I wish I still had a copy of that reel, but you can guess who I sent it to.

After RiverRun, we still talked on the phone. Once I asked how things were and he said that his younger daughter Heather had been diagnosed with cancer. This was not a time to talk movies. This was the time to be a friend. A few years later, when Heather lost that battle, I called to express my sympathies.

“You get lemons, you make lemonade,” Cliff used to say. A simple adage, but no less worthy a sentiment.

More recently I’d call and he’d answer “Robertson Rehab” — but still cheerfully. The conversations were shorter but no less treasured.

On Sunday, Sept. 11, I dialed that number one last time and his friend Barbara answered. “They’re not going to make another one like him,” I said. “He was a one of a kind.”

She chuckled warmly. “No, they’re not going to make another one like him,” and thanked me for the calls and packages over the years. “Cliff always enjoyed hearing from you,” she said.

He used to sign his letters “Bless you, dear friend” — and I cannot think of a better way to sign off. I’m grateful to have known you, Cliff, and I’ll miss you. Bless you, dear friend.