Remembering Cliff Robertson’s compassion

REMEMBERING CLIFF ROBERTSON, from top: Playing John Kennedy in PT 109 in 1963, with Jane Fonda in Sunday in New York in 1963, the DVD cover of Charly from 1968, costumed for Disney’s Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken in 1991 and as a wise uncle in Spider-Man in 2002. (Images courtesy of MPTVimages, IMDB and Walt Disney.)Author and film critic Ed McNulty writes occasionally for ReadTheSpirit about the many connections between film and faith.
(To read more, Ed’s previous story was about 9/11 movies—a story that includes links to many other articles and books by Ed.)
If you are moved by today’s remembrance to see the 1968 film again, we recommend the DVD of Charly, available from Amazon.
Ed McNulty’s home website is Visual Parables.

Cliff Robertson’s

By Edward McNulty

Cliff Robertson died the day before 9/11 and a day after his 88th birthday. To many younger film lovers he is remembered as Uncle Ben in the Spider-Man movies. Older moviegoers recall him in the movie Charly. The news of Robertson’s death took me back to March 1994 when I spent a couple of hours with the actor. The place was Dayton, Ohio, at a gala showing of Charly to launch a film festival bringing greater awareness to developmental disabilities. That evening, I had a relaxed opportunity to sit with Robertson as he talked about his crucial role in bringing Charly to the screen.

The 1968 film was a mix of science fiction and heart-rending drama about the title character who moves from disability to artificially induced brilliance and then back again. The novel and the film were considered landmarks in showing the challenges of living with developmental disabilities.

Robertson told me that he probably would have been bypassed in the casting of this film. He was a popular star in 1950s TV dramas, but Robertson found himself shut out by more famous movie stars when teleplays were produced as feature films. He starred in the original Days of Wine and Roses, The Hustler, and Orpheus Descending, but he was replaced respectively by Jack Lemmon, Paul Newman and Marlon Brando in the movie versions. However, after the U.S. Steel Hour’s Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon received a positive response on TV, Robertson was determined that this production would have a different future. Not only did he star in the teleplay, he also won a Best Actor Oscar when the drama was released in theaters in 1968 as Charly.

Robertson got the part this time, he told us with a smile, because he owned the rights to the play and was willing to face the tough challenge of convincing a studio to take on his project. The drama began in the 1950s as an award-winning science-fiction story by Daniel Keyes, called Flowers for Algernon. Keyes expanded the story into a book in 1966 and won a Nebula Award for Best Novel. The story has moved through many forms of media, including a 2006 contemporary dance work that won honors in France. The most famous adaptation, though, was Robertson’s Charly co-starring Claire Bloom.

In the story, the main character is a mentally challenged man working in a bakery where he is often the butt of cruel jokes by his coworkers. When he and a mouse named Algernon become the subject of a scientific experiment, his mental faculties grow almost exponentially. As a genius he becomes romantically involved with the woman leading the research project. Then it is discovered that the effect is temporary, and he slowly descends into his former foggy existence—one of the saddest sequences ever filmed.

The night we talked, I told Robertson that my favorite scene in the film is one of grace—a scene adapted for the movie that I believe is an improvement over the original book. Charly is dining with friends in a restaurant when the clatter of breaking dishes interrupts the conversations of the diners. There is momentary silence. Everyone turns to look at the bus boy kneeling to gather up the broken dishes that he had dropped. The room erupts in laughter. It is evident to Charlie by the young man’s confused expression and slow movements that he is mentally challenged. In the book, Charly stands up and berates the callous diners for their cruelty. In the film, Charly never says a word. He just gets up, walks over to the bus boy, and kneels down to help him pick up the shards. Shamed by this compassionate gesture, the onlookers cease their laughter.

The actor’s eyes lit up as I described this adaptation. Then, he broke into a big smile. “You know, I was the one who suggested that change,” he explained. “Somehow it just didn’t seem right for Charly to express anger. I suggested to the director that Charly’s act of compassion, of solidarity with the bus boy, would be more dramatically effective. He agreed, and that’s the way we filmed it.”

My friend and I came away from our evening with Cliff Robertson not only with a new insight into a film we both loved, but also into the man who brought this story so vividly to life. Cliff Robertson never became a Big Name on movie marquees, but in our eyes none of the Hollywood stars who took on the roles he had originated would ever outshine him as a human being.

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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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