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.