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Cliff Robertson (1923-2011)

Cliff Robertson (1923-2011) (photo)

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Various outlets report that Cliff Robertson, the versatile actor and star of six decades of films and television shows, passed away on Saturday. He was 88 years old.

Robertson won an Academy Award in 1969 for his lead performance in “Charly,” the big-screen adaptation of Daniel Keyes’ novel “Flowers for Algernon.” But to people of my generation and younger, he’s best known as Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi‘s “Spider-Man” trilogy. And with good reason: Robertson was amazing in the role, making a huge impression in a small amount of screen time.

In the original Stan Lee – Steve Ditko “Spider-Man” comic books, Uncle Ben dies off-panel. Peter Parker, newly imbued with the proportionate powers of a spider, is so wrapped up in himself and his newfound stardom, that he can’t be bothered to stop a thief who’s stealing money from a wrestling promoter. By the time he returns home that night, the same thief has broken into his aunt and uncle’s house and killed Ben. In Raimi’s version, the thief carjacks Ben outside the wrestling venue while he’s waiting to pick up Peter. Peter arrives on the scene just in time to hold Ben in his arms as he passes away. This isn’t one of those touching, beatific movie deaths where the victim has time to reconcile with his loved one and send him off with some inspirational words. Ben, clearly in agony, barely has time to cry out Peter’s name before he’s gone.

It’s such a moving scene, and it’s a very important one to the success of the movie. That’s the moment when Raimi makes it clear this is not a “Biff! Zap! Pow!” kind of comic book picture. There are real stakes and these are real people. It’s pretty dark beat for a comic book movie, but I have always loved the way Raimi refused to soft-peddle that moment, and the fact that he moved me with a version of a scene I had literally read hundreds of times. To his credit, Robertson played it perfectly. It’s the reason why we become so invested in Peter as a character, and it still gets me choked up every time I watch it.

No question: Robertson will always be remembered as Uncle Ben. But younger fans of Robertson’s performance in “Spider-Man” are missing out if that’s all they’ve seen of his work. Obviously, they should go back and check out “Charly,” with Robertson as a mentally handicapped man who undergoes an experimental procedure to boost his intelligence. They should also look for him in “Obsession,” which is director Brian De Palma and screenwriter Paul Schrader’s moody riff on Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”

He’s also terrific in my favorite 1970s paranoid thriller, “Three Days of the Condor.” At the end of the movie, Robertson has this verbal showdown with Robert Redford, the star of the picture. Essentially, Redford is telling Robertson that he knows about his massive conspiracy and that he’s going to bring the truth to the press. Robertson had the near-impossible task of making us hate this guy while also recognizing that he might be right about everything. He pulled it off. You can watch the scene on YouTube, but be wary of spoilers. And if you’ve never seen Robertson as the guy who begins to believe his ventriloquist dummy is coming to life in a great episode of “The Twilight Zone” and you’ve got Netflix, you can watch that right now here. It’s Season 3, Episode 33, “The Dummy.”

I got to meet Robertson one time, when I worked the red carpet for “Spider-Man 3” at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival. Robertson walked the press line and when I spotted him I practically leapt over the barricade to interview him. Generally speaking, I don’t typically get starstruck. I never ask for autographs or photographs. But this was Uncle Ben! Ignoring every journalistic instinct, I humbly requested that he recite Uncle Ben’s iconic line — “With great power, comes great responsibility,” — for a lifelong Spider-Man fan. With a huge grin, he obliged, and gave a nerd-turned-professional-nerd one of the biggest thrills of his professional life.

For more on Robertson’s life and career, be sure to read his obituary in The New York Times, which includes details on a period of his life that I’d never read about before. In the late 1970s, Robertson discovered that the head of Columbia Pictures was embezzling money from the studio using a check forgery scheme. Rather than follow the advice of friends and advisers and keep quiet, Robertson publicized the incident, and helped bring charges against the executive. For his honesty, Robertson was blacklisted from Hollywood for years.

No wonder he was so good at saying “with great power comes great responsibility.” It was an ethos Robertson clearly understood.

What is your favorite memory of Cliff Robertson? Tell us in the feedback below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.