Cliff Robertson, Actor, Pilot, Whistleblower

Cliff Robertson

    St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in East Hampton will celebrate the life and mark the death of Clifford Parker Robertson III, known professionally as Cliff Robertson, tomorrow. A Water Mill resident, he died on Saturday at Stony Brook University Medical Center, a day after his 88th birthday.
    Mr. Robertson was known as an Academy Award-winning actor, a pilot, and a whistleblower, who ended up being blackballed in Hollywood for several years for reporting a studio executive’s misdeed to local and federal authorities.
    In 1963, he was chosen by President John F. Kennedy to play him as a torpedo boat captain in the film “PT 109,” based on the president’s World War II experiences. His Oscar, in 1969, was for his role as a mentally disabled man in “Charly.” He also won an Emmy Award, Theater World Award, and Advertising Age Award. In addition to acting, Mr. Robertson had been a screenwriter and director. In all, he had a hand in more than 70 films. Other titles included “The Best Man,” “Devil’s Brigade,” “633 Squadron,” “Too Late The Hero,” “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid,” “Three Days of the Condor,” and “Obsession.” More recently, he was in “Escape from L.A.” and the first two “Spiderman” movies.
    Mr. Robertson was no stranger to the South Fork, where he participated in many programs and was seen at many events during the years he lived in East Hampton with Dina Merrill, his second wife. They were divorced in 1988.
    Mr. Robertson was born in La Jolla, Calif., on Sept. 9, 1923. His mother, Audrey Winningham Robertson, died when he was only 2. She and his father, Clifford Parker Robertson II, had been divorced the previous year, and he was raised by his maternal grandmother.
    After high school, he served in the merchant marine and then attended Antioch College in Ohio. He worked for a time as a stringer for a paper in Springfield, Ohio, but soon tried his hand at acting and went to New York with the initial intent of becoming a playwright. He studied at the Actors Studio, and, as a young man, had some success on the stage. This led to a string of parts in plays produced for early television. He often noted that he had lost many television roles that were made into films to other actors, and that he then wound up in a number of movies that were mediocre.
    Mr. Robertson is remembered here for his passion for flying, which began at age 14. In East Hampton, Jim Brundige, the airport manager, said Mr. Robertson piloted his own twin-engine plane and restored and collected antique planes. In an interview with The East Hampton Star in the 1970s, Mr. Robertson said, “There’s a hangar in Santa Paula, Calif., about 60 miles north of Los Angeles. It’s a haven for nuts like me. . . .  It’s my Walden Pond. I say the blooming words in a film or work on a script, and get out there and fly those old birds.”
    The whistleblowing affair began in 1977 when his accountant discovered that a $10,000 check in Mr. Robertson’s name had been reported to the government by Columbia Pictures. Mr. Robertson had not worked for the studio that year. It was soon discovered that the studio president, David Begelman, had cashed the check, one of a series of financial misdeeds he later admitted were committed to support a drug habit. Mr. Begelman was fired, paid a fine, and was sentenced to three years’ probation. He was subsequently hired at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer while Mr. Robertson could not find film or television work for several years. His return to the screen was in the film “Brainstorm” in 1981.
    Mr. Robertson was married first to Cynthia Stone, an actress who had previously been married to Jack Lemmon. A daughter, Stephanie Robertson Saunders of Charleston, S.C., survives from that marriage as does a granddaughter. A daughter from his marriage to Dina Merrill, Heather Merriweather Robertson, died in 2007.
    The St. Luke’s service will begin at 5:30 p.m. tomorrow. Burial with full military honors will follow at Cedar Lawn Cemetery in East Hampton. Additional memorial events will be held in New York City and Los Angeles on dates to be announced.
    Memorial contributions have been suggested to the Experimental Aircraft Association, Young Eagles Academy, “Cliff Robertson Work Experience Program,” P.O. Box 3086, Oshkosh, Wisc. 54903-3086, or to the Lance Armstrong Foundation, Livestrong, in memory of Heather Merriweather Robertson. Its address is 2201 East Sixth Street, Austin, Tex. 78702.