Cliff Robertson had the best possible reference for landing the role of naval officer John F. Kennedy in the 1963 movie PT 109: JFK himself. But the president had one stipulation—that the actor promise not to even try to mimic his famous Boston accent. Robertson complied, and the film became a milestone in an Oscar-winning Hollywood career that spanned 50 years.
Clifford Parker Robertson III was born in San Diego and began acting in high school, said The New York Times. After serving in the merchant marine during World War II and attending Antioch College in Ohio, he moved to New York to pursue an acting career. He first found success on the stage, but by the mid-1950s he moved into TV acting during “what came to be called television’s golden age,” appearing in The United States Steel Hour, The Chrysler Theater, and Playhouse 90.
Playing JFK brought Robertson fame, said Politico. Treating a sitting president “as a matinee idol” was unheard of in Hollywood, earning both the movie and its star plenty of attention. Though the film was “hardly considered a classic” by critics, it propelled Robertson toward more prestigious roles. He won an Oscar in 1968 for his title role as a mentally disabled man in Charly.
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Robertson’s career “lost its momentum” in 1977, said Variety, after he blew the whistle on a high-level check fraud. David Begelman, the head of Columbia Pictures, forged a $10,000 check in Robertson’s name and cashed it. Robertson noticed the missing payment and exposed Begelman as an embezzler. Robertson later claimed that “Hollywood’s old-boy network,” angry that he had crossed one of their own, blacklisted him from major roles thereafter.
But Robertson “became known to a whole new generation” in 2002, said the A.V. Club, when he played Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben in Spider-Man. His delivery of the movie’s most famous line (“With great power comes great responsibility”) gave the blockbuster a “moral backbone”—something Robertson had given Hollywood itself “for so many years, both onscreen and off.”
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