By Di Freeze
When is enough “enough” when it comes to flying, or for anything you like to do?
“There’s never enough time,” says actor Cliff Robertson, who recently appeared in his 62nd starring film, as the kind Uncle Ben in “Spider-Man.” “I remember reading a book years ago called ‘Time Must Have a Stop.’ I never knew what the author (Aldous Huxley) meant, but I’m beginning to realize now. We need more time.”
Robertson says it’s “once around the merry-go-round and no gold ring.” That’s why he’s not interested in yesterday.
“I’m more interested in today and I’m more interested in tomorrow and that glider I’m going to get to fly, or a friend who wants a new one,” he said.
Friendship. That’s something to which Robertson devotes much time. Outside of his immediate family—his oldest daughter Stephanie, who lives in Charleston, and Heather, who lives in New York City—Robertson’s closest friends are his “aviation buddies.”
When he says he’s interested in the glider a friend wants, he’s referring to Barron Hilton, chairman of the board of Hilton Hotels Corporation, who’s talking about getting a new glider.
“He has a ranch and he keeps his gliders there close to where mine is,” he said.
Robertson keeps his Grob Twin Astir at High Country Soaring in Minden, Nev., on the eastern side of the High Sierras. He’s glided in and out of a few other places, but says that High Country, 38 miles south of Reno, run by Tom and Janice Stowers and Bill Stowers, is the best place to soar in the world.
“They’re good people; they’re like family to me,” Robertson said. “When I go up there, they put me in the back room. I spend two, three or four days. That’s my Walden’s Pond.”
Robertson’s been gliding for 15 years, and has his diamond altitude, for over 26,000 feet. A few years back, he and a friend set a Nevada state record for distance, by going 240 miles, from Tonopah to Parowan.
But gliding is only a part of his aviation “obsession.”
“I have a big hole in my head and a stable of planes,” he says. Those planes include a Messerschmitt 108 and a Stampe SV4, a French fully aerobatic biplane. In the past, he also owned three Tiger Moths, as well as a Spitfire Mark IX.
With single-engine land and sea, multiengine, commercial, instrument, balloon, gliding and seaplane ratings, Robertson also owns a seaplane and a Beechcraft Baron.
Robertson became aware of aviation when he was five years old, living in La Jolla, Calif.
“I saw a little yellow airplane doing aerobatics over our house,” he said. “My uncle and another man were standing there watching the aerobatics, wagging their heads sagely, and one said, ‘You’ll never get me up in one of those little airplanes.’ And then the little airplane turned southward and started to hum its way home. We got into the Ford alongside the curb and it wouldn’t start. In my little mind, I was thinking, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ I think I began to become a partisan for aviation at an early age. I was defending it then, and I still am defending it.”
As for aviation preferences, Robertson said that to name one form of flying as his favorite would be like naming a favorite child. However, he does say that there’s nothing “purer than pure glider flight.”
“To be environmentally sensitive for a moment, that’s because you’re not burning fossil fuels and you’re not bruising or abusing the environment,” he said. “You’re working with nature, so there is purity there. There’s also a sense of pride that once you’re up there you’re on your own. You don’t have an automatic pilot and if you go as I did, for six hours and 20 minutes, on that attempt for distance record, you know, you have a sense of, ‘Well, I did something kind of special.'”
As for gliding, he goes “as often” as he can. He also does a little aerobatics, but says it’s “nothing to write home about.” On the other hand, said Robertson, flying his Baron across the country solo makes him feel good, because he can give himself two days, taking time to stop along the way at “a little pokey airport” to reacquaint himself with his country.
It’s not unusual for Robertson, who has a home on Long Island and one in his hometown of La Jolla, to fly across country. When he needs to get somewhere in a hurry, he takes one of the “big aluminum tubes,” like American. However, when he’s not in a hurry, he prefers his twin-engine Baron, which he’s had for over 20 years. He happened to be flying the Baron on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I was the one guy up there above the whole bloody thing,” he said. “I was flying alone, on the way to the West Coast. I got right over the World Trade Center, climbing at 7,000 feet. I looked down and suddenly saw this great big column of smoke puff up. I didn’t see the plane, because by that time it was inside the building. But I just thought it was an explosion of some kind.”
Robertson said that after he had climbed to 8,500 feet, and leveled off, the other plane hit.
“Again, I didn’t see what caused it, but the air traffic controller came on and I gave my call number,” he said. “They said, ‘We have a national emergency. Land at the nearest available airport.’ I’d never heard that in all the years I’d been flying. I heard a Learjet say, ‘Is it all right if I turn around and go home?” The guy says, ‘Is home your nearest airport?’ He said, ‘No Sir.’ The guy said, ‘Land.’ I was hermetically sealed for three and a half days in beautiful downtown Allentown.”
One of Robertson’s most recent trips was to La Jolla, over Veterans Day, where he spoke at Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial, and read some of his prose.
“It’s on a top of the mountain overlooking La Jolla,” he said. “They built a beautiful memorial up there. They’ve done permanent tablets and pictures of all the veterans.”
Robertson was born Clifford Parker Robertson III, on Sept. 9, 1925, in a “beautiful village by the sea.”
“When my grandmother arrived here in 1912, there were less than 1,000 people,” he said. “A lot of English came there because they loved the fact that the climate was so good to their flowers. Also, it was kind of an artist’s colony way back at the turn of the century. When I was a boy, there were 4,000 people. Now, alas, there are probably 40,000 and probably 35,000 BMWs. It’s lost its innocence.”
After his mother died when he was two and a half, his grandmother, as well as an uncle, raised him.
“He was like a father figure,” he said of that uncle. “My grandmother had a daughter who was widowed at 28, and had two children, so they came to live with us.”
When asked about his “roots,” Robertson laughs and says they don’t “admit to the English,” but accept “the Scottish with great alacrity.”
“I’m pretty active with the American Scottish Society in New York as well as the St. Andrew’s Society,” he says.
Being “active” is something Robertson has been all his life. That includes a healthy appetite for working, which he enjoys, that began at an early age.
“When I was 10, I lied and said I was 11, to get a job selling magazines,” he said. “I had a newspaper route and then I had a little skiff. I’d get up in the morning and go out and get my lobsters, at 5:30 in the morning.”
One of the reasons he was obsessed with always having a job was that his father was “to the manner born.”
“He never worked a day in his life,” he said. “I mean, he did a lot of things, but he never worked.”
Living 13 miles from San Diego, when Robertson was 14, during the summer, he began riding his bicycle, six days a week, into a “little sleepy airport.”
“Speer Airport had one little sandy runway,” he said. “I would go and work eight hours a day cleaning airplanes and engine parts and never got paid a nickel, but every third or fourth day, the chief pilot would say, ‘Cliff, go get your cushion.’ I was short for my age. I’d take my cushion out to a little red Piper Cub and he’d take me up for 15 minutes and let me at the controls once we took off. I thought I was the ace of aces. It was a magic time. I thought I was the luckiest kid on the block, and I was.”
Years after becoming involved with the Experimental Aircraft Association, Robertson decided to give other children the opportunity to feel that same way. Within EAA, he founded the Cliff Robertson Work Program in 1993.
“We have a contest where young people (at least age 16) submit their desires to come to Oshkosh and work for 12 weeks, in hangars, doing all the dirty work that we used to do as kids,” he said. “In exchange, they not only get their room and board and a little bit of allowance money, but they also get flying lessons. The work ethic is not dead yet. We’ve had wonderful success with it. Some of our graduates, if you will, have gone on to West Point and the Air Force Academy and some have gone on to fly with airlines. It’s been very productive.”
Robertson’s affiliation with EAA began a long time ago.
“I pull a long bow, back over 30 years ago,” he said. “It was back in the days when it was at Hale’s Corners (Wisconsin). I had heard about this remarkable guy named Paul Poberezny and his lovely wife and their young son, Tom. So, I went back there. It was snowing. All we had was an indoor showroom, and she made us chili. It was a very simple operation. Now, you get almost a million people.”
A recipient of the Sharples Aviation Award and the prestigious Heritage of Freedom Award, in 1987, Robertson was presented EAA’s highest honor, the “Freedom of Flight Award,” for his role in EAA’s “In Pursuit of Dreams” presentation. He helped launch EAA’s Young Eagles program, organized in 1992, which has a goal of giving one million youth, ages 8-17, a demonstration ride by December 2003. The first national honorary chairman of the program, he served in that role from 1992 through 1995. EAA President Tom Poberezny flew the first Young Eagles flight, and Robertson flew the next two, on the first day, and has flown many others.
Presently on EAA’s President’s Council, he was an active supporter of the recent “Save Meigs Field” campaign. At EAA AirVenture 2002, he was presented with the inaugural “Key to the City” Award, created by EAA and the City of Oshkosh to honor distinguished personalities for significant contributions to the promotion and support of EAA AirVenture Oshkosh and the aviation community.
As many do who flirt with aviation in their youth, Robertson abandoned it for a period while sorting out what to do with his life.
He served in the military for three and a half years. He was in the Navy and active in the Maritime Services, obtaining lieutenant junior grade.
Then, he attended Antioch College, and entered a program that allowed him to work at the same time. He began writing for the “Springfield Daily News.”
While working for the paper, it was suggested that he write for the theater “instead of a deadline.” Robertson says that it wasn’t because he was bad at deadlines, but because those he worked with thought he had talent that would be more suited for the theater than for writing general assignments for a newspaper.
“I said, ‘I don’t know. We’ll see,'” Robertson said. “Ultimately, I fell in with bad companions, and did off-off Broadway and Broadway and all that stuff.”
When he arrived in New York, he knew nothing about the theater.
“They said, ‘You have to go out and do the husking, go out into the regions, the provinces and learn about the theater, if you’re going to write for it,'” he said. “So, I went out and learned to drive a truck and build flats, and I didn’t take it very seriously. They looked at this callow kid. It teed off my fellow actors who took it and themselves very seriously.”
Robertson said he acted because everybody else in the company did.
“I had the audacity, in spite of myself, to get good reviews, which really ticked them off,” he said. “I was actually kind of hovering over making a living. I was kind of hanging in there in New York. I did a lot of things, but eventually I was making a living in the theater and then in early television and then finally Hollywood.”
After two years with a touring company, Robertson appeared in a few small un-credited roles in films in the late forties, and in television installments of “Kraft Television Theatre” in 1947, “Robert Montgomery Presents” in 1950, and “Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers” in 1953 and 1954. His first credited film role was in “Picnic,” in 1955, directed by Joshua Logan, after starring in the Broadway production in 1952. That same year, he played Joan Crawford’s schizophrenic boyfriend in “Autumn Leaves.”
Over the next years he switched back and forth between TV and motion pictures, receiving accolades for his performance as an alcoholic in the 1958 Playhouse 90’s “Days of Wine and Roses” and in “Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” installments, and playing roles including the original Big Kahuna in “Gidget,” in 1959.
In 1961, Robertson took a completely different role—that of Charly Gordon, a mentally retarded bakery worker who becomes a genius after undergoing experimental brain surgery, in an hour-long Theater Guild television adaptation of Daniel Keye’s short story, “Flowers for Algernon.”
Collaborating with the screenwriter hired by the Theater Guild, Robertson wrote most of the second act of “The Two Worlds of Charly Gordon.”
“It got such recognition that I secured the film rights, thinking, well, now I can think of a movie,'” he said. “Up to that time, I was sort of always a bridesmaid and never a bride.”
Securing film rights was something Robertson hadn’t been able to do with “Days of Wine and Roses.” Jack Lemmon did that, and cast himself in the starring role in the film released in 1962.
“I can’t blame him,” said Robertson. “If I’d had his money, I would have probably done the same thing.”
Seven years would go by before “Charly” would be released as a motion picture. In the meantime, while working on a movie at Paramount, Robertson received a call from a White House representative, requesting that he go to Warner Brothers the following day to tape some scenes, learn the lines and do a test for “PT 109,” the story of Navy Lieutenant John F. Kennedy’s fight to keep his crew alive when their boat sunk in the South Pacific.
“I said, ‘You’re kidding me,'” Robertson said. “They said, ‘No,” and I said, ‘I’m working on this picture.’ The key words were, ‘It’s been arranged.’ When I heard it had been arranged, I knew it was by somebody big.”
That somebody big was none other than President Kennedy, who, upon hearing that a book written about his WWII South Pacific experiences was to be made into a movie, made three requests.
“One was that it be historically accurate, because Hollywood is not known for its accuracy; they have a tendency to exaggerate,” Robertson said. “Two was that any monies that would be coming to him, since it was a story about him, would be directed to the survivors of PT 109, which he commanded, or if they were no longer alive, to their families. Three was that he be allowed to pick the actor.”
Robertson said that at that time there was a lot of talk about who was going to play the young Kennedy.
“I remember Warren Beatty was rumored, and Peter Fonda,” he said. “I never thought in my wildest dream…”
Robertson did the test, and three days later learned he would be playing Kennedy when he received a call from a friend in New York, who had seen his picture, alongside that of President Kennedy, in the “New York Times.”
While doing “Sunday in New York” with Jane Fonda, Robertson received a call from the president.
“He asked me if I’d like to come down and visit, so I did,” he said. “It turned out he’d seen things that I’d done.”
“PT 109” and “Sunday in New York” were released in 1963. By that time, Robertson had traveled to England for filming. There, he found the opportunity to “seriously” get involved in aviation.
“Being involved in aviation is like meeting a beautiful woman you never forget,” he said.
Robertson joined the Fairoaks Flying Club in Chobham, Surrey. There, he soloed in a Tiger Moth, a de Havilland biplane that the English used in the late thirties to train young RAF pilots. He had decided that if he could land a biplane, in a crosswind, he could land anything. He later joined other aero clubs.
He also acquired a Tiger Moth, and flew it across the Channel to Normandy, France, to film “Up From The Beach,” released in 1965.
“I had it over there for a while during filming, and then shipped it over,” he said. “Then I worried about parts, so I ended up looking around and finding another Tiger Moth on the other side of the globe out at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. It was for sale for virtually nothing. I bought it thinking I could cannibalize it when I needed parts. When it arrived in San Pedro, we cracked open the case and it was in better shape than the first one. I ended up getting a third for the same reason. So, for a number of years, I was the proud owner of three Tiger Moths.”
Emmy and Oscar Winner
In 1965, Robertson received an Emmy for Best Actor for a guest appearance for the Bob Hope Chrysler Theater’s “The Game.” Three years later, with ABC Pictures, Robertson co-produced “Charly,” at the modest cost of $1 million. His intense performance earned him the 1968 Oscar for Best Actor, over nominees Alan Arkin for “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter”; Alan Bates for “The Fixer”; Ron Moody for “Oliver!”; and Peter O’Toole for “The Lion in Winter.”
At the time the winner was announced, Robertson, who didn’t think he had a chance, was over 7,000 miles away, in his trailer in the Philippine jungle, working on “Too Late The Hero.”
Robertson wasn’t even listening for the announcement, but Michael Caine and several other fellow actors were hovering over a short-wave radio outside. Then, Caine burst into the trailer, exclaiming, “You son of a b——! You won the damn award!”
Robertson thought he was joking. When someone with a camera took a picture of him being thrown up in the air in celebration, in his military outfit and Scottish tam, it was sent around the world.
Even with winning an Oscar for “Charly,” Robertson says that he’s never been fully satisfied with his Hollywood career, or with any of his other achievements, for that matter. He says he has been “reasonably” satisfied, but it could be better stated that he looks at his accomplishments with “a degree of dissatisfaction,” and, when it comes to his movies, he is “less dissatisfied with some than others.”
“You always feel like you could do better if you could do it over,” he said. “Once you cross the Rubicon of a certain age, you don’t get satisfied, but you get a little more mature. You say I guess I did the best I could, given what I was given, and given the time limitations and some of the questionable characters you’re working with.'”
Robertson said he kind of liked “J.W. Coop,” released in 1971, which he co-wrote and directed, because he was able to write about what he knew something about. “It was about a rodeo rider and man’s confrontation with change, which is the antagonist in everybody’s life,” he said.
Besides flying one of his Tiger Moths in the film, he also did some bull riding. He says his experience in that arena was “genetic.”
“On my father’s side, there were a lot of horse people going way back,” he said. “I think when you have a genetic predisposition it gives you kind of an ill-deserved confidence. I had an uncle who had a big ranch in Colorado, about 25 miles from Walsenburg, in a little town called Red Wing. He had 55,000 acres. It was unbelievable. It was beautiful, like a little Switzerland. I was married at the time and I’d take my former wife (actress Dina Merrill) and my two daughters out there in the summertime.”
Robertson had the chance to fly in other movies, including flying a DC-8 in “The Pilot,” which he directed, and taking to the air in “633 Squadron.”
His film credits include “Three Days of the Condor,” released in 1975, and “Midway,” released in 1976, in which Robertson appeared as a pilot in a bar scene that he wrote.
The following year, his Hollywood career came to a temporary halt when he blew the whistle on David Begelman, Alan Hirschfield’s right hand man at Columbia Pictures, in an embezzlement scam that became known as Hollywoodgate, after Columbia’s accounting department sent him a 1099 saying he owed taxes on money that he never received.
“I hadn’t even worked for Columbia,” he said. “This old Scot’s not going to pay taxes on money he didn’t earn.”
After Robertson and his secretary began investigating the statement of earnings a supervisor at Columbia looked up the Robertson file and found an endorsed check made out to him. However, the signature on the back wasn’t Robertson’s.
“In spite of a lot of sage advice and people warning me, I went ahead and gave it to the FBI,” said Robertson.
Law enforcement agencies initiated further investigations. More improprieties came to light and Begelman “resigned.” For Hirschfield, the Columbia crisis ultimately came to a head at a July 1978 board of directors meeting, when the board voted not to renew his contract. However, Begelman and Hirschfield were soon back at work in one capacity or another. Robertson wasn’t.
“After they broke open Hollywoodgate, I was blackballed and didn’t work for three and a half years,” Robertson said. “They were trying to send a message to other would-be Don Quixotes. The FBI told me that the unwritten covenant in Hollywood for 75 years has been, ‘Thou shalt never confront a major mogul on corruption,’ or ‘Thou shalt not work.'”
Even with that outcome, Robertson said that is one of the things of which he is most proud.
“They wrote me up in that congressional record,” he said. “I was given a lot of citations. All the writers and the creative people were delighted.”
Within two years, several other actors began confronting corporate corruption and “creative bookkeeping.”
The curse on Robertson was finally removed when a “courageous director” named Doug Trumbull cast Robertson in “Brainstorm,” Natalie Wood’s last film.
“He said he wouldn’t listen to those bastards,” Robertson said. “He said, ‘He’s right for this role and I’m going to hire him.’ As soon as he did, it broke the cycle.”
Over the last decade or so, Robertson has appeared in films including “Dead Reckoning” (1990), “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken” (1991), “Escape From L.A.” (1996), “Family Tree” (1999), and the 2000 release of “Falcon Down.”
Although Uncle Ben Parker met a sad demise in “Spider-Man,” Robertson isn’t ruling out a resurrection.
“When Marlon Brando did his small piece in ‘Superman,’ as the father, he died, but they resurrected him in the sequel,” he said. “And when Alex Guinness did his little bit in the Lucas pictures, ‘Star Wars,’ he died and subsequently, he was resurrected. We know what happened to the Dear Lord Jesus Christ, so maybe there’s a chance for Uncle Ben. Keep your fingernails crossed, would you?”
In recent years, Robertson has prepared a sequel for “Charly,” but has yet to see it produced.
“I don’t live in LaLa Land and I don’t embrace the lifestyle or network,” he says, “so I probably don’t get some of the things done I’d like to get done.”
He adds that he has a lot of friends in Hollywood—it’s just not his preferred lifestyle.
“I prefer living in the country away from some of the glitz,” he said. “I’m happy to run out here, spit out the words, pick up the check and run, to go back to my cat and make apologies.”
“Halsey,” says Robertson, named after the apple farmer down the road, John Halsey, who “hoisted” the cat off on him, doesn’t usually make the trip from Long Island to La Jolla with him, although he would like to tag along.
“He’s pissed off at me as we speak, because I’ve been away for a few days,” he says. “Every time he sees the suitcase open, he plants himself there, and says, ‘This time it’s me as well as the luggage.'”
Married for 20 years before getting divorced years ago, Robertson said he and Halsey have been “bach’ing it.”
“We’re two grumpy old bachelors,” he said.
The house in La Jolla, he says, is actually too big for him and Halsey.
“I keep a little gatehouse,” he says. “When I’m down here, I can go down, restore the hometown roots, and argue with the gardener.”
When Robertson talks about dissatisfaction, it also applies to his aviation career.
“I want to fly more gliders,” he said. “I play hooky.”
Playing hooky could mean his annual visits to EAA AirVenture, or traveling with Hilton to Alaska. Robertson is a regular visitor as is Carroll Shelby.
“Barron flies us up in his Citation,” he says. “We go up there regularly in the summer, and sometimes in late spring. We all go fishing on Barron’s boat.”
Still, Robertson doesn’t talk about permanent hooky. He has too much of a work-instilled ethic to do that. He attributes some of that ethic, as well as his many contributions to myriad charities, to “Calvinist guilt.”
“I was brought up Presbyterian,” he said. “A lot of the old verities still hang in. You know, when you’re a very young dude, you kind of wander away, and think you’ve got it all figured out. You flirt with being agnostic, atheist, or whatever. Then, when you’ve been around the pike a few times, certain things begin to stack up, and you think that maybe some people had it right.”
Having a Calvinist conscience, says Robertson, also gets in the way of taking himself too seriously. To be Calvinist, says Robertson, isn’t as simple as believing in predestination, or that all has been planned.
“That’s not quite right, but that’s part of it,” he says. “There is a pattern. But the kind of perverse aspect is if the medicine tastes good, it couldn’t be good. If it tastes bad, it’s got to be good. It’s a perpetual hair shirt, but it does kind of give you a work ethic, and kind of a good ethos.”
Since Robertson does work so hard, he says he’s never found it necessary to throw away any of his money on press agents.
“My former wife had them on both coasts,” he said. “She used to say, ‘You’re nuts. You’re an Emmy award winner, Oscar winner and stage winner; you should have a press agent.’ I said, ‘Nope. Work begets work, and I’m not going to pay a lot of hard-earned money to get my name in a column. I’d rather give it to charity.'”
Between everything he devotes his time to, Robertson has managed to write 300 pages about his life, for a book that he might eventually finish. However, he has two problems with it. One is that he gets bored with it, probably since he’s been asked to tell it so many times. The other problem?
“I don’t know how it ends, and I don’t want to know,” he says.