Walter Mencken 2:37 p.m., March 1
Cliff Robertson is my hero.
In 1977, an IRS statement for unreported funds brought the actor's attention to a $10,000 payment from Columbia Pictures he had never received. Closer inspection revealed that his signature was a forgery -- the handwriting belonged to Columbia Pictures President, David Begelman -- and Mr. Robertson turned the case over to the authorities.
This wasn't the first time David Begelman was caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Sid Luft, the former Mr. Judy Garland, hired an attorney to investigate Begelman, his estranged wife's then agent, after noticing that several hundred thousand of her dollars "got legs." Begelman was able to dance his way around Sid and Judy (the financially strapped icon was forced to settle for pennies on the dollar), but he proved no match for Cliff Robertson's dogged persistence.
This wasn't about the money -- neither Roberston nor Begelman would be forced to dumpster-dive over the loss of ten grand. It was a matter of principle, and all the Oscars and plum roles didn't matter in light of a working actor being worked over by a corrupt system. Advised by many to keep quiet, Mr. Robertson and former wife Dina Merrill went public with their findings.
The studio stood beside the well-liked Begelman and, after a perfunctory two-month suspension to conduct their own investigation, returned him to his executive position at full salary!
Cliff Robertson was blacklisted and didn't work for years.
In his Oscar-winning role as Charly
We spoke of the actor's heroics back in 2003 while strolling the Prado in Balboa Park and waiting for Mr. Robertson's car to come claim him. He was living in La Jolla at the time and I was a film curator three years on the job, delighted that an actor of his magnitude took the time to pay a visit to the Museum of Photographic Arts.
We had formed a high-end group of donors and it was my duty to attract a celebrity or two each year to hold an up-close and personal with. Mr. Robertson was guest #2, sandwiched between Ed Asner and Robert Stack. There was a to be a lox and bagel spread held in the museum library followed by a Q&A. I was surprised how many had forgotten the Begelman imbroglio, and that I was the only one in the room familiar with Indecent Exposure, David McClintick's 1982 best-seller that brought the incident to the world's attention.
Moondoggie (James Darren), Gidget (Sandra Dee), and the Big Kahuna (Cliff Robertson)
After breakfast, we retired to the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Theatre for a screening of a personal deity. A 35mm print of Aldrich's Too Late the Hero (my second favorite of Mr. Robertson's performances) with stable color was nowhere to be found, so I instead opted for the obvious. No, not Charly, a made-for-TV stiff that houses his superb Oscar-winning performance, or the beautifully photographed (by James Wong Howe) and highly overrated Picnic. Frankly, I'd have preferred a 'Scope print of Gidget, a film that you still can't find a letterbox copy of! Alas, I decided to pass on the Big Kahuna in favor of a shark, Tolly Devlin.
With Richard Rust in Sam Fuller's remarkable Underworld U.S.A.
There was a recently-struck copy of Sam Fuller's Underworld, U.S.A. nesting in the Columbia Pictures archive that was in desperate need of the group's attention. ("Underworld who?" I remember one of our members asking.) I had screened the film the day before just in case...well, just in case I didn't get a chance at an uninterrupted viewing.
"How long's it been since you've seen it?" I asked.
"Ages," Mr. Robertson replied, "but it's a damn good show and one I'm proud of. Odd choice of a movie to show this crowd."
I had to laugh. "It's a brand new print," I threw in as bonus incentive.
He thought for a second and said, "Sure, why not? At least for a reel or two."
We sat in the last row and I remember him flinching when young Tolly, played by David Kent, drops a lead pipe in a cemetery-still alley only to catch it on the first bounce. It's one of those great Sam "Cinema Fist" Fuller moments that still manages to move audiences in their seats as evidenced by the nervous laughter Mr. Robertson issued after the jolt.
About an hour into the film, he consulted his watch and made a motion for the exit. He signed a couple of Underworld U.S.A. lobby cards and asked if I would accompany him to his car.
With Michael Caine in Robert Aldrich's Too Late the Hero
It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and Spider-Man was still fresh in everyone's mind. It's always fun to stroll with a movie star through a sea of double-takes from folks on the street who can't believe their eyes. He took on all comers, stopping to shake hands, take pictures, and sign autographs for any who asked.
He thanked me for my recognition of his work and more important, the Begelman affair. It had been a long time, and what with all the recent talk of Peter Parker's Uncle Ben, it was a subject that didn't come up too often in conversation.
Cliff Robertson died from natural causes in New York on September 10, just one day after his 88th birthday. In a career that spanned almost 70 years (!), Robertson was capable of playing a wide range of character types, from J.F.K. to Hugh Hefner. Come to think of it, that's not much of a stretch.
In his memory, may I suggest you track down copies of The Naked and the Dead, Underworld U.S.A., Too Late the Hero, The Best Man, The Honey Pot, and J.W. Coop, a western Mr. Robertson directed and was rightfully very proud of.
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