It’s a refrain you’ll read in many recent news reports about the passing of actor Cliff Robertson: to this generation he’s best known as Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben.
But Robertson was also a distinguished Academy Award winning actor who paid a terrible price for trying to do the right thing in Hollywood, which will probably be his greatest legacy.
Robertson played several of my favorite roles including a disturbed ventriloquist in the Twilght Zone episode “The Dummy,” the lead role in one of my favorite Brian DePalma films Obsession, and Hugh Hefner in Star 80.
His most distinguished role was as a mentally challenged man in Charly, and he also played President Kennedy in PT – 109. (If you can find a copy of Man on a Swing, directed by Frank Perry, I highly recommend it, a great lost ‘70’s gem starring Robertson and Joel Grey).
It was from DePalma’s Obsession that Columbia executive David Begleman embezzled $10,000 from the studio, forging Robertson’s name on the check. When the check arrived in Robertson’s mail for tax records, he looked into it, more Begleman forgeries where uncovered, and it created one of the biggest scandals in Hollywood history that nearly destroyed Columbia. Because Robertson wouldn’t look the other way when Columbia tried to cover it up, he was blacklisted for five years.
In hindsight, it makes sense that this revolved around a DePalma film, and a theme that often runs through his work is no good deed goes unpunished, but like the famed, blacklisted screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. said when he went to jail instead of naming names in the communist witch hunt, “I’d hate myself in the morning.” (It’s even the title of his autobiography).
Robertson had one of the most memorable lines of the Spider-Man films, a strong lesson he tried to teach Peter Parker: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
In a town full of cowards where everyone’s first interest is to cover their ass, Robertson never ducked responsibility for reporting a crime, and even when he was punished for trying to do the right thing, he never flinched, or compromised his ethics. Sam Raimi definitely cast the right guy to mentor a superhero.