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Image: Cliff Robertson in 1966
AP
Actor Cliff Robertson holds the Emmy he won for the outstanding single performance by an actor in a leading role in a drama at the 18th annual Television Academy Awards in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles on May 22, 1966. He won for an episode of "Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre."
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updated 9/11/2011 12:26:54 AM ET 2011-09-11T04:26:54

President John F. Kennedy had just one critique when he saw photos of the actor set to play him in a World War II drama.

The year was 1963 and actor Cliff Robertson looked convincing in his costume for "PT-109," the first film to portray a sitting president. Kennedy had favored Robertson for the role, but one detail was off.

Robertson's hair was parted on the wrong side.

The actor dutifully trained his locks to part on the left and won praise for a role he'd remain proud of throughout his life.

Robertson, who went on to win an Oscar for his portrayal of a mentally disabled man in "Charly", died of natural causes Saturday afternoon in Stony Brook, a day after his 88th birthday, according to Evelyn Christel, his secretary of 53 years.

Robertson never elevated 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.

Image: Cliff Robertson
John W. Ferguson  /  Getty Images
Cliff Robertson is seen in October at a celebration of the historic television series "General Electric Theater" at Paley Center For Media in New York City.

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."

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. Robertson's role in Tennessee Williams' 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. 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 Robertson's portrayal "a sensitive, believable one." The motion picture academy agreed, though Robertson was unable to get a break from an overseas movie shoot and was not on hand when his Oscar was announced.

Portraying Kennedy in "PT-109," presented other challenges. The president warned Robertson 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."

Image: Cliff Robertson as JFK in 'PT 109'
AP
In this Feb. 25, 1963 file photo, actor Cliff Robertson takes a break as the skipper of the PT 109, Lt. John F. Kennedy, in the movie "PT 109."

He added that the film obviously couldn't be done with heroics, "like Errol Flynn gunning down 30 of the enemy. This young naval officer just does things because they have to be done."

"PT-109" was plagued with problems from the start: script changes, switch of directors, bad weather, snakes and mosquitoes in the Florida Keys where it was filmed.

The troubles were evident on the screen, and critics roundly rapped the film, although Robertson's work won praise.

In 1977, Robertson made the headlines again, this time 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,'" Robertson recalled in 1984.

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

Robertson said neither the studios nor the networks would hire him for four years.

Slideshow: Classic stars in Venice (on this page)
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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.

Born Sept. 9, 1923, in La Jolla, Calif., Robertson was 2 when he was adopted by wealthy parents who named him Clifford Parker Robertson III. After his parents divorced and his mother died, he was reared by his maternal grandmother, whom he adored.

Robertson studied briefly at Antioch College, majoring in journalism, then returned to California and appeared in two small roles in Hollywood movies. Rejected by the services in World War II because of a weak eye, he served in the Merchant Marine.

He set his sights on New York theater, and like dozens of other future stars, profited from the advent of live television drama. His Broadway roles also attracted notice, and after avoiding Hollywood offers for several years, he accepted a contract at Columbia Pictures.

"I think I held the record for the number of times I was on suspension," he remarked in 1969. "I remember once I turned down a B picture, telling the boss, Harry Cohn, I would rather take a suspension. He shouted at me, 'Kid, ya got more guts than brains.' I think old Harry might have been right."

Robertson's first performance for Columbia, "Picnic," was impressive, even though his screen pal, William Holden, stole the girl, Kim Novak. He followed with a tearjerker, "Autumn Leaves," as Joan Crawford's young husband, then a musical, "The Girl Most Likely" with Jane Powell. In 1959, he endeared himself to "Gidget" fans as The Big Kahuna, the mature Malibu surf bum who takes Gidget under his wing.

He remained a busy, versatile leading man through the '60s and '70s, but lacked the intensity of Brando, James Dean and others who brought a new style of acting to the screen.

"I'm not one of the Golden Six," he commented in 1967, referring to the top male stars of that day. "I take what's left over."

"They all know me as a great utility player. 'Good old Cliff,' they say. Someday I'd like to be in there as the starting pitcher."

The chance came with "Charly," but after the usual Oscar flurry, he resumed his utility position.
Robertson had the most success in war movies. His strong presence made him ideal for such films as "The Naked and the Dead," "Battle of Coral Sea," "633 Squadron," "Up From the Beach," "The Devil's Brigade," "Too Late the Hero" and "Midway."

He had a passion for flying, and he poured his movie earnings into buying and restoring World War I and II planes. He even entered balloon races, including one in 1964 from the mainland to Catalina Island that ended with him being rescued from the Pacific Ocean.

In 1957, Robertson married Lemmon's ex-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.

Robertson's funeral is set for Friday in East Hampton.

What was Robertson's best role? Discuss with us on Facebook.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Discuss: Cliff Robertson remembered

JFK? Charly? Uncle Ben? The Big Kahuna? What was the actor's best role?

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Video: Award-winning actor Cliff Robertson died

  1. Closed captioning of: Award-winning actor Cliff Robertson died

    >>> display. we wanted to catch up tonight with word from over the weekend that cliff robertson died. he was an oscar winner for the film "charlie," a product of the actors studio in new york he was a veteran of stage, tv and film. he played john f. kennedy and memo r memorably played hugh hefner in "star 80."

Photos: September movies

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  1. 'Apollo 18'

    Stars: Lloyd Owen, Warren Christie

    Director: Gonzalo López-Gallego

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 2

    Think there wasn't an "Apollo 18" lunar mission? Think again. Decades-old found footage from the supposed secret expedition reveals the reason the U.S. has never returned to the moon. Hint: Didja see "Alien"? (The Weinstein Company) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. 'The Debt'

    Stars: Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington and Tom Wilkinson

    Director: John Madden

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 2

    "The Debt" begins in 1997, as shocking news reaches retired Mossad secret agents Rachel (Mirren) and Stefan (Wilkinson) about their former colleague David. The group supposedly tracked down a Nazi war criminal in 1966 -- or did they? (Miramax Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 'Shark Night 3D'

    Stars: Sara Paxton, Dustin Milligan and Alyssa Diaz

    Director: David R. Ellis

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 2

    The title, "Sharl Night 3D," says it all. But sharks in a freshwater lake? Hollywood will do anything to get the blood, bikinis and severed limbs flying in 3-D. (Relativity Media) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 'A Good Old Fashioned Orgy'

    Stars: Jason Sudeikis, Leslie Bibb and Tyler Labine

    Directors: Alex Gregory, Peter Huyck

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 2

    In "A Good Old Fashioned Orgy," Jason Sudeikis and pals have partied for years at his dad's beach house. But when dad (Don Johnson) announces he's selling the place, his son decides it's time for the ultimate party. (Samuel Goldwyn Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. 'Contagion'

    Stars: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Jude Law

    Director: Steven Soderbergh

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 9

    Have your face masks ready -- you'll want one after seeing "Contagion." The action thriller follows people trying to survive a lethal virus. Big stars abound, and it sure looks like from promos that things don't go well for Gwyneth Paltrow. (Warner Bros) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. 'Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star'

    Stars: Nick Swardson, Don Johnson and Christina Ricci

    Director: Tom Brady

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 9

    "Bucky Larson" is a kid from the Midwest who moves out to Hollywood in order to follow in his parents footsteps -- which for him, means becoming a porn star. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. 'Warrior'

    Stars: Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte and Joel Edgerton

    Director: Gavin O'Connor

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 9

    In "Warrior," two estranged brothers face the fight of a lifetime. Nick Nolte plays their alcoholic dad, who trains one to eventually land in the ring against the other in a mixed martial-arts tournament. (Chuck Zlotnick) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. 'Straw Dogs'

    Stars: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth and Alexander Skarsgard

    Director: Rod Lurie

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 16

    "Straw Dogs" is a remake of the 1971 Dustin Hoffman thriller, infamous for its controversial rape scene. L.A. screenwriter David Sumner relocates with his wife to her hometown in the deep South. There, while tensions build between them, a brewing conflict with locals becomes a threat to them both. (Screen Gems) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 'I Don't Know How She Does It'

    Stars: Sarah Jessica Parker, Pierce Brosnan and Kelsey Grammer

    Director: Douglas McGrath

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 16

    "I Don't Know How She Does It" is a comedy centered on the life of Kate Reddy (Parker), a finance executive who is the breadwinner for her husband and two kids. Based on the best-selling novel. (The Weinstein Company) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. 'Drive'

    Stars: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan and Bryan Cranston

    Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 16

    In "Drive," Gosling plays a Hollywood stunt performer who moonlights as a wheelman. After a heist goes wrong, he discovers that a contract has been put on his life. (Richard Foreman Jr Smpsp / FilmDistrict) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. 'Moneyball'

    Stars: Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright and Jonah Hill

    Director: Bennett Miller

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 23

    Brad Pitt stars as Oakland A's manager Billy Beane in "Moneyball," based on Michael Lewis' book. The focus is on Beane's attempt to create a competitive team despite Oakland's unfavorable financial situation. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. 'Abduction'

    Stars: Taylor Lautner, Lily Collins and Alfred Molina

    Director: John Singleton

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 23

    In "Abduction," Taylor Lautner plays a young man who sets out to uncover the truth about his life after finding his baby photo on a missing persons website. (Lionsgate) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. 'Dolphin Tale'

    Stars: Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr.

    Director: Charles Martin Smith

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 23

    IThe 3-D film "Dolphin Tale" is is inspired by the true story of a bottlenose dolphin named Winter who lost her tail in a crab trap. Her human friends work frantically to create a prosthetic so she can still swim. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. 'Dream House'

    Stars: Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz and Naomi Watts

    Director: Jim Sheridan

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 30

    The beautiful home in "Dream House" is more of a nightmare. Soon after moving in, a family learns that a mother and her children were brutally murdered there. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. '50/50'

    Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick

    Director: Jonathan Levine

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 30

    "50/50" is a comedic account of a 27-year-old man's cancer diagnosis, and his subsequent struggle to beat the disease. (Summit Entertainment) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. 'Killer Elite'

    Stars: Jason Statham, Clive Owen and Robert De Niro

    Director: Gary McKendry

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 30

    Action film "Killer Elite" focuses on a retired member of Britain's Elite Special Air Service (Jason Statham) who is forced into action when his mentor (Robert De Niro) is taken hostage. His mission: kill three assassins dispatched by their cunning leader (Clive Owen). (Open Road Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. 'What's Your Number?'

    Stars: Anna Faris, Chris Pratt and Chris Evans

    Director: Mark Mylod

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 30

    "What's Your Number?" refers to the number of men a woman has slept with. Anna Faris plays Ally, a woman whose number is 20, as she looks back at those men wondering if any of them are her true love. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. The Weinstein Company
    Above: Slideshow (17) September movies
  2. Image: FILE PHOTO: A Look Back At Stars In Venice
    Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche / Getty Images
    Slideshow (14) Classic stars in Venice

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