Cliff Robertson was 88-years-old when he passed away Saturday, September 10, 2011. Although the handsome veteran actor had more than 100 credits to his resume reaching back across six decades, it is likely that most modern movie-goers will only remember Robertson for his portrayal of Tobey Maguire’s Uncle Ben in the 2002 version of Spider-man.
Oddly enough, it’s likely that these same people have no idea Robertson received an Academy Award as Best Actor of 1968 for his acclaimed performance in Charly, a film about a mentally challenged man who experiences a brief moment of genius only to return to his former state. But I suppose it’s not too surprising that Robertson’s notable achievement is often overlooked. After all, other than Charly, Robertson usually approached his roles with a tremendous amount of restraint, often underplaying to noble perfection.
This style of acting served Robertson well for most of his career, for although he had leading man good looks, he seldom fulfilled that role, so he had to be strong without being overbearing or intrusive. I think this is demonstrated extremely well in both Picnic and The Best Man. In the former, Robertson plays best friend to William Holden who tended to be broad and explosive with his acting technique. Robertson compliments Holden’s bravado with a quiet brooding. The contrast is so strong it’s impossible not to notice the newcomer silently emoting from the sidelines. In the latter, Robertson faces Henry Fonda as a competitor for the Presidential nomination. Fonda was certainly known for his powerful, but demure nature on screen. Robertson’s fierce, but even temperament stands up to the challenge of sharing the screen with the Hollywood legend. The scenes these two men share together are absolutely gripping, revealing a glimpse into the possibilities to come in Robertson’s future career.
My personal favorite Robertson film is a light comedy called Sunday in New York. It stars Rod Taylor and Jane Fonda as strangers who fall in love over the course of one day. Robertson plays Fonda’s philandering brother who performs some amazing acts of physical comedy. Along with his brilliant timing and deadpan delivery it’s truly surprising Robertson did so little comedy. There’s one scene in particular where Robertson silently calculates in his head exactly what’s happening between his sister and the stranger where his performance is comparable to that of Cary Grant. No kidding. If you enjoy a good Romance/Comedy, skip the movie theater this week and see Sunday in New York instead. It’s everything today’s attempt at a Rom/Com wants to be, but just can’t seem to figure out, and Robertson is a strong contributing factor to that success.
If you’re getting an itch to see some of Robertson’s best work, then tune in to Turner Classic Movies Monday, September 19th. TCM will remember the life and career of the Oscar®-winning actor with a 10-hour memorial tribute beginning at 3 a.m. (PST). The schedule covers a wide spectrum of Robertson’s work including the May-December romance Autumn Leaves from 1956 with Joan Crawford, and the hit teen romance Gidget, in which he plays “The Big Kahuna,” the leader of a group of surfers. Undoubtedly, that’s about as wide a spectrum as any actor can get. But Robertson had the talent to meet the challenge with a grace and quiet dignity that audiences will have to wait a long time to see its like again. The following is a complete schedule of TCM’s memorial tribute to Cliff Robertson (all times PST): 3a.m. – Picnic (1955), with William Holden & Kim Novak. 5 a.m. – Autumn Leaves (1956), with Joan Crawford & Vera Miles. 7 a.m. – Underworld U.S.A. (1961), directed by Samuel Fuller. 8:45 a.m. – Gidget (1959), with Sandra Dee & James Darren. 10:30 a.m. – Sunday in New York (1963), with Jane Fonda & Rod Taylor. 12:30 p.m. – The Best Man (1964), with Henry Fonda & Edie Adams. 2:30 p.m. – PT 109 (1963), with Robert Culp.