New York — America's newest culture hero is not a punk rocker, late night TV comic, or underground purveyor of the counterculture - he is the man who ''blew the whistle'' on allegedly unethical behavior in Hollywood and Wall Street.
Cliff Robertson, the Academy Award-winning actor who refused to allow certain illegal business practices in Hollywood go unprosecuted, has emerged as the major hero in a book that has just hit the best-seller lists. ''Indecent Exposure,'' by David McClintick, (New York: William Morrow & Co.) is an account of what it considers the questionable activities and manipulations in the business affairs of an ex-Columbia Pictures president.
Mr. Robertson, who discovered in 1977 that he was expected to pay taxes on $ 10,000 he says he never received from Columbia, started a whole chain of internecine battles and legal actions that resulted in what has been called the greatest scandal and most bitter power struggle in Hollywood's history. He pressed for prosecution of a forgery charge, despite the antagonism of much of the business community of Hollywood, which closed ranks and seemingly ''blacklisted'' the actor for several years because of his insistence that the act that used his good name illegally should not go unpunished.
Now universally acclaimed for his forthright stand (at least on the surface in some segments of the Hollywood establishment), Robertson is working again. He has a motion picture under his belt (''Brainstorm,'' in which he co-starred with the late Natalie Wood - her last film, which will soon be released), two films about to be made (''Star 80,'' about Dorothy Stratton and ''Class,'' with Jacqueline Bisset), and a television special on the way ''Two Of A Kind'' (CBS, Oct. 9, 9-11 p.m.). And even more important to Mr. Robertson, during his unwilling sojourn from screen acting, he wrote a sequel to his award-winning movie, ''Charlie,'' and is ready to start filming it as soon as financing is made available.
At his luxurious United Nations Plaza duplex here, we recently chatted, ostensibly about his television special, in which he plays the father of a young retarded boy who takes under his wing his seemingly senile grandfather, played by George Burns. But, actually, Mr. Robertson was willing and eager to talk about his recent legal-ethics ordeal.
Does Robertson feel that the scandal was just the tip of the iceberg?
''I think anybody would be naive to believe that 'that's all, folks.' I think that Hollywood is not unusually corrupt, but for many years there people at high levels have created an atmosphere of fear. And the writers, directors, actors living out there sometimes just play the game, don't object to the corruption they suspect exists at all levels.''
Robertson has just taken the overnight plane from Los Angeles and, although tired, agrees to do the interview before leaving for the weekend for his home in the Hamptons.
''I don't want to malign the industry in which I work. But, on the other hand , I don't want to be a hypocrite and say that it is lily-white. It's quite evident that traditionally there's been quite a lot of 'creative bookkeeping.' Things that have been going on so long that it is accepted as the norm. So if you question it they look at you as if you're crazy and say 'Come on, that's the way it's done.' Well, I say to them, 'Crazy or not, I don't accept that kind of 'norm.' ''
Mr. Robertson studiously avoids saying that he was blacklisted but makes it clear that he sees no other reason for the fact that he didn't work for over three years when he had had a fine career before that. ''I went out to speak to college groups, I wrote a play which I directed. I wrote the sequel to 'Charlie.' All here in the East. My agent told me that the pattern of 'it's not going to work out for Cliff' on specific acting jobs was repeated many times in Hollywood.''
''Charlie'' was a labor of love for Robertson who spent about seven years getting it to the screen. Now, the idea of a sequel is also a labor of love. ''I always said I would not do a sequel,'' he says, ''but now I've changed my mind because it will be Charlie plus ten.'' His eyes have the sparkle that occurs whenever he goes off on a subject in which he believes strongly.
''Now I believe what I want to do is not an exploitation. Usually when sequels are done, they are ten minutes after. I've got the same actors, the same locations. We will go back to Boston where Charlie was and the first scene is in the playground in which we last saw him playing with the children. He's still there, only it's a whole new generation of children.''
Does Robertson feel that the ordeal is finally over, now that there has been a prosecution, now that the jobs are coming his way?
He grins. ''I hope so. For me, anyway. I think there will always be some residue, with a couple of those characters showing venomous resentment toward me. But I think they fear me, too. They fear that which they can't understand. They don't understand the word 'No,' when it comes to buying a person's integrity.
''Look, we want freedom and we want liberty in this country. But we've also got to have the guts to stand up and run a tight ship in America. Morality is now a word that many people consider very square and outdated. But if we don't stand up for it, we deserve what we will get in the end - unprincipled anarchy. All I did was stand fast for a principle.''
Don't be surprised if the industry that is finally recognizing his contribution to ethics and morality soon decides to make a movie called ''The Cliff Robertson Story.'' After all, as Mr. Robertson says, the bottom line is money.