The late Cliff Robertson – who passed away yesterday, just a day after his 88th birthday – gained a whole new generation of fans over the last decade of his life, following his portrayal of Peter Parker’s kindly Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movie trilogy. He personally and professionally embraced Ben’s famous creed (“With great power comes great responsibility”) for the duration of his film acting career, which spanned nearly six decades.
Robertson was born in Los Angeles, California, on September 9th, 1923. He began his television acting career at age 20, eventually landing recurring parts on shows like Hallmark Hall of Fame and Robert Montgomery Presents – along with a starring role on Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers – during the early 1950s.
Following his big screen debut in director Joshua Logan’s Oscar-winning Picnic adaptation in 1955, Robertson starred opposite Joan Crawford in Autumn Leaves and appeared in noteworthy titles such as The Naked and the Dead, Gidget, Underworld U.S.A., and My Six Loves, among others.
However, the actor’s career was given a major boost after then-president John F. Kennedy personally recruited Robertson to play a younger version of himself in PT 109 – a well-received dramatization of Kennedy’s experiences when he served in the U.S. Navy as the captain of a PT boat during World War II.
The next several years saw Robertson take on many an acclaimed role, including that of an unscrupulous presidential candidate in The Best Man; Mosca in the then-contemporary retelling of Ben Johnson’s famous 15th century dark comedic play “Volpine,” retitled The Honey Pot; and, most famously, that of the mentally-disabled Charly Gordon in the 1968 film Charly – a performance that landed Robertson a Best Actor Oscar.
Robertson not only continued to take on challenging roles during the 1970s – he also became somewhat of a rabble-rouser in the area of politics, during that period. In addition to directing/starring in the western drama J.W. Coop – not to mention, his parts in counter-cultural titles such as The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid and Three Days of the Condor – Roberston campaigned for Congressman Mo Udall during the New Hampshire Democratic Presidential Primary in 1976. That’s not to mention, his recurring role on the Emmy-winning 1977 TV mini-series Washington: Behind Closed Doors, which was inspired by the presidency of Richard Nixon.
Things took a turn for the potentially career-wrecking in 1978, when Robertson served as the whistle blower that exposed the illicit dealings of then Columbia Pictures head David Begelman – who ended up pleading no contest to charges of grand theft. Robertson was blacklisted by Hollywood studios for several years after the event.
Nonethless, Robertson still managed to find work throughout the 1980s and 90s, including a brief recurring role on the soap opera Falcon Crest and parts in films like Star 80 (where Robertson played Hugh Hefner), Class, the TV movie Ford: The Man and the Machine, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken and the cult classic sequel Escape from L.A.
Mainstream audiences rediscovered Robertson in 2002, when he portrayed Uncle Ben in Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie – a part he would go on to reprise (via flashback) in the next two sequels. Robertson was also bestowed with a more personal honor during the early 21st century when, in 2006, he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame for his lifelong work as a sailplane pilot and advocate of aviation in general.
Ben Parker will be portrayed by award-winner Martin Sheen in the upcoming reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man. However, for many a Spidey fan, Robertson’s portrayal of the character will remain the iconic one – and not just because he embraced the same values that good ol’ Uncle Ben held tight to (honesty, fairness, responsibility, and a willingness to see justice done) in his personal life as well.
Screen Rant would like to express our sincere condolences to the friends and family of Mr. Robertson.
R.I.P. Cliff Robertson: September 9th, 1923 – September 10th, 2011.