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Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Big Kahuna


This past Saturday Cliff Robertson died.  He survived his 88th birthday, which was the day before.  He died of natural causes, and was said to be surrounded by family and friends.  The day was ironic, as the next day was the tenth anniversary of the disaster of 9/11/01.  On that fateful day, Cliff Robertson, an avid aviator, had been piloting a private airplane over New York City.  He was directly over the World Trade Center when the first Boeing 767 struck.  He was ordered to land immediately at the nearest airport by air traffic control in a nationwide order to ground all aircraft following the attacks.

Robertson began his acting career in 1943, and made some 25 films before Charly, based on the book Flowers for Algernon, at first a short sci-fi story, then novel, by Daniel Keyes.  This Hugo-winning award for best short story in 1960, and Nebula Award for best novel in 1966, was made into a movie in which he starred and won the 1968 Academy Award for Best Actor.

As Charly with Claire Bloom.  Image courtesy AP.

Prior to that in 1963, he portrayed John F. Kennedy in PT 109, and was chosen by Kennedy himself to play the part.  Among his many, many roles, he also portrayed Hugh Hefner in Star 80.  His last big role was as Ben Parker, Spider-Man's uncle, in Spider-Man, and returned in cameo roles to the next two sequels.

He was blacklisted for several years for his part as a whistleblower in one of the biggest scandals of Hollywood in the 1970s.  He found out from the IRS that his name had been forged on a $10,000 check by Columbia Pictures head, David Begelman.  This was money that was not due him.  His report started a criminal investigation, and Begelman was found guilty, although only sentenced to community service.  Columbia Pictures' own investigation turned up another $65,000 that he had embezzled, but not wanting the adverse publicity they fired Begelman and tried to keep things quiet.

With Rosemary Harris in Spider-Man.

But not Robertson,  He and his then wife, Dina Merrill talked to the press.  David McClintick broke the story in the Wall Street Journal in 1978, and later wrote a best-selling book about it, Indecent Exposure.  Robertson was offered few roles during this period, which he attributed to coming forward about Begelman.

With ex-wife Dina Merrill.

Although he was born the heir to ranching money in La Jolla, California, he apparently had respect for working people.  For ten years he was the national TV spokesman for AT&T, even winning an Advertising Age award for best commercial.  But when he was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at an AT&T stockholders' meeting during a strike, Robertson refused to cross the picket line and did not speak.

But his most iconic role, and favorite of this once little girl, was in the movie Gidget.  Released in 1959, Gidget was the precursor to the "beach party films", and was very influential despite only garnering one award nomination - the 1960 Golden Laurel nomination for Top Female Comedy Performance, which went to co-star Sandra Dee.  Yet the film has been credited since as being the single main influence to bringing surfing and surfing culture to the mainstream.

With Sandra Dee in Gidget.  Couldn't find a pic (except in my mind!)
of his hunky self standing in a doorframe with seduction in mind.

I was five when the film came out, and even though I watched it endlessly through its many replays on TV, I never did see the attraction of "Moondoggie".  But "The Kahuna" - hubba, hubba!  Robertson played Korean War Air Force veteran Burt Vail, who was fed up with rules.  Dropping out before it became a buzz word for the 60s, Kahuna traveled and surfed, working when he needed money.  He was the first sex symbol I became aware of, even though I didn't know what sex was.

Rest in peace, Mr. Robertson.  You were a good actor, a good person, and my first crush.  I will remember you always...

Images, unless otherwise stated, courtesy of his website.

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