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Cliff Robertson, 88; Oscar-winning actor had success in theater, television

Cliff Robertson in a scene featuring a mouse and a maze in the Boston-made movie ‘Charly,’ released in 1968. Cliff Robertson in a scene featuring a mouse and a maze in the Boston-made movie ‘Charly,’ released in 1968.
By Karen Zraick
Associated Press / September 11, 2011

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NEW YORK - Cliff Robertson, the handsome movie actor who played John F. Kennedy in “PT-109’’ and won an Oscar for “Charly,’’ died yesterday. He was 88.

His secretary of 53 years, Evelyn Christel, said he died in Stony Brook of natural causes a day after his 88th birthday.

Mr. Robertson never rose into the top ranks of leading men, but he remained a popular actor from the mid-1950s into the following century. His later roles included kindly Uncle Ben in the “Spider-Man’’ movies.

He also gained attention for his second marriage to actress and heiress Dina Merrill, daughter of financier E.F. Hutton and Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress to the Post cereal fortune and one of the world’s richest women.

His triumph came in 1968 with his Academy Award performance in “Charly’’ as a mentally disabled man who undergoes medical treatment that makes him a genius - until a poignant regression to his former state.

“My father was a loving father, devoted friend, dedicated professional, and honorable man,’’ daughter Stephanie Saunders said in a statement. “He stood by his family, friends, and colleagues through good times and bad. He made a difference in all our lives and made our world a better place. We will all miss him terribly.’’

Mr. Robertson had created a string of impressive performances in television and on Broadway, but always saw his role played in films by bigger names. His TV performances in “Days of Wine and Roses’’ and “The Hustler,’’ for example, were filmed with Jack Lemmon and Paul Newman, respectively.

Mr. Robertson’s role in Tennessee Williams’s play “Orpheus Descending’’ was awarded to Marlon Brando in the movie. Robertson first appeared in the “Charly’’ story in a TV version, “The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon.’’ Both were based on “Flowers for Algernon,’’ a short story that author Daniel Keyes later revised into a novel.

Mr. Robertson was determined that this time the big-screen role would not go to another actor. “I bought the movie rights to the show, and I tried for eight years to persuade a studio to make it,’’ he said in 1968. “Finally, I found a new company, ABC Films. I owned 50 percent of the gross, but I gave half of it to Ralph Nelson to direct.’’

Critic Roger Ebert called Mr. Robertson’s portrayal “a sensitive, believable one.’’ The motion picture academy agreed, though Mr. Robertson was unable to get a break from an overseas movie shoot and was not on hand when his Oscar was announced.

Another memorable movie role, portraying future President Kennedy in the World War II drama “PT-109,’’ presented other challenges. Released in 1963, it was the first movie to be made about a sitting president, and dozens of actors were considered. Kennedy himself favored Mr. Robertson, but he warned him that he didn’t want someone trying to imitate his distinctive New England accent. “That was fine with me,’’ the actor commented in 1963. “I think it would have been a mistake for me to say ‘Hahvahd’ or try to reproduce gestures. Then the audience would have been constantly aware that an actor was impersonating the president.’’

After seeing photos of Mr. Robertson in costume, Kennedy had one critique: His hair was parted on the wrong side. The actor dutifully trained his hair to part on the left.Critics roundly rapped the film, although Mr. Robertson’s work won praise.

In 1977, Mr. Robertson made the headlines by blowing the whistle on a Hollywood financial scandal. He had discovered that David Begelman, president of Columbia Pictures, had forged his signature on a $10,000 salary check, and he called the FBI and the Burbank and Beverly Hills police departments.

Hollywood insiders were not happy with the ugly publicity. “I got phone calls from powerful people who said, ‘You’ve been very fortunate in this business; I’m sure you wouldn’t want all this to come to an end,’ ’’ Mr. Robertson recalled in 1984.

Begelman served time for embezzlement, but he returned to the film business. He committed suicide in 1995.

Mr. Robertson said neither the studios nor the networks would hire him for four years. He supported himself as a spokesman for AT&T until the drought ended in 1981 when he was hired by MGM for “Brainstorm,’’ Natalie Wood’s final film.

In 1957, Mr. Robertson married Jack Lemmon’s former wife, Cynthia Stone, and they had a daughter, Stephanie, before splitting in 1960. In 1966, he married Merrill and they had a daughter, Heather. The couple divorced in 1989.