A man with a moral mission
LOS ANGELES — Hollywood stars often pay lip service to the importance of being a role model, but even then, they're usually referring to the acting roles they choose, not the way they conduct their private lives. Those real-life class acts, particularly in high-stakes Hollywood, are much more elusive and usually come with a price, as Oscar-winning Cliff Robertson can attest.
The man who may arguably be the Hollywood encyclopedia entry under "integrity," stood up to Hollywood's "creative bookkeeping" in the 1970s and paid with several years of unemployment while David Begelman, the studio executive who was caught forging checks, received not much more than some bad press.
But it wasn't just being blackballed that hurt the actor. It was the career momentum lost during what should have been his most productive years - the afterglow of winning a Best Actor Academy Award for his seminal film, "Charly." Although he has bounced back since then, many critics suggest that he has never had the career he could have had.
Robertson has no regrets.
The actor-writer, who began his professional career as a journalist, says he has always preferred to live outside Hollywood, if for no other reason than the lack of perspective that movie-industry town generates.
The son of an heir to a fortune, he maintains a house in La Jolla, just south of Los Angeles, where he grew up, but resides on Long Island, N.Y. He says in a phone interview that this choice to reside in the East hastened the demise of his 20-year marriage to actress Dina Merrill, who wanted to remain in L.A. to pursue her career.
Understandably, in the wake of his own run-in with the industry, Robertson wanted some distance from the entertainment hub. "This inability to see outside our own cocoon that Hollywood wrestles with is a dangerous thing," he says.
This wasn't the first time Robertson flirted with career-altering choices. He soared to international fame for tackling a role his agent called "professional suicide," playing the retarded man who briefly becomes brilliant through a surgical procedure. " 'Charly' was before Dustin Hoffman in 'Rain Man,' " he says. "Nobody thought that kind of role would sell to the public."
Robertson has been more visible recently, doing publicity for his latest film, "Family Tree" (about a boy intent on saving an old oak tree from developers), in which his character provides moral guidance for the youngest members of the cast.
Not surprisingly, the producers chose Robertson in part for the moral weight of his own persona. "[The character] is one that hasn't forgotten what it was like to be a child," says coproducer Jordan Leibert.
The father of two daughters, Robertson has other concerns on his mind these days, such as the challenges faced by the next generation. "We're very fortunate in this country, but the sad thing is we're moving at such an accelerated pace."
An early literary favorite of his, Aldous Huxley, once wrote a book, "Time Must Have a Stop," a phrase Robertson says he didn't understand when he was younger. "I do now. What's lost now is reflection. There is a ... kind of myopia in which we're no longer looking at true values."
The speed of technological change worries him, perhaps ironic for a man chosen to represent AT&T during its 1980s ad campaign targeting a younger generation.
But it's not technology per se that concerns him.
"I think it's stunning what they've done with high tech, but you have to wonder if it's at the expense of basic values," concepts such as fidelity, loyalty, and courage.
Loyalty in Hollywood today, he says, is predicated on "what you can do for me. If you can't do anything for me, well, then, maybe we'll have lunch next year."
As an adjunct professor at Antioch College in Ohio, he says he tries to tell his students not to be eager to leave the thoughtful school environment.
"Maybe if you stay, you'll find your ideas have changed, and you'll have other options."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society