by Kim-Jenna Jurriaans
Humble and majestic is the impression actor Cliff Robertson leaves on his audience during an intimate and humorous speech in the Herndon Gallery Friday night. The Antioch alumnus with more than 60 movies and countless TV appearances attached to his name made his way back to his alma mater to be lauded with the Rebecca Rice Award for his life’s achievement in the performing arts.
“Who the heck is Rebecca Rice?” I can hear myself thinking in the third row in the audience. Reading some of the faces around me when president Steve Lawry takes the stage to shed some light on the matter, I dare to assume that I am not the only one. And indeed, even our distinguished president acknowledges he didn’t know untill several days before. In a priceless Freudian slip, Lawry recalls his e-mail exchange with “Antioch’s renowned anarchist” Scott Sanders, much to the amusement of the audience who figure that “archivist” is probably the word he was looking for. The president quickly corrects himself, but by that time the room has already burst out in laughter. When the giggling dies down, we find out that Rice was a student of that other Rebecca, professor Rebecca Penell, back in the late 1800s, and known to be the first woman trustee of Antioch College.
The attention moves back to the man with the star on the Hollywood walk of fame, as head of the Alumni Board John Feinberg takes over the lectern to go through an extended list of achievements in a flattering introduction to Robertson’s life off and on the silver screen. Robertson became critically acclaimed in the 1950s, winning the academy award for his leading role in ‘Charlie,’ before being hand-picket by John F. Kennedy to portray a young JFK in ‘PT 109.’ “Too bad he didn’t also get you into Harvard,” Feinberg jokes when mentioning the movie, much to the actor’s amusement.
But Robertson applied to Antioch for a reason. “They seemed to have a realistic approach to life,” he says. “I knew that the world was different from that little schmug old place I had grown up in. I had seen poverty before, everybody had, but I had never really seen it. I came here and saw people who wanted to see what was out there, and wanted to know whether they could do anything for the people out there. And obviously, there’s always more to be done. “
For the baby-boomers growing up in the 70s, Robertson was CIA agent J. Higgins in ‘Three days of the Condor’, as well as a young Hugh Heffner in ‘Star 18.’ In the mid-80s it was Falcon Crest, to which even I, barely born around that time, had — thanks to Dutch network television re-running American soaps for decades in a row– at some point been exposed. The rest of my generation, however, will better know Robertson as Uncle Ben in the recent Spiderman trilogy.
Standing on the sideline with his notes in hand, Robertson manages to make the audience laugh even before he takes the stage, pretending to rub away some tears when Feinberg addresses him as ‘Cliffton Parker Roberson the third.’ “Congradulations John, you have just out-staged me,” the actor jokes after taking over the microphone. “If I were better educated, I would know the precise definition of the word intimidating. But I don’t.”
Softly spoken and quick witted, he captures the audience immediately: “Yes ladies and gentlemen, like the speaker indicated, I was a student of miss Rice in the 1870s?” There’s widespread laughter in the audience, as Robertson continues to tell his little fake anecdote. “She was a hell of a teacher! And she kept telling me ‘hang in there.’ And I’ve been hanging there all my life. But I thought I give you little disclaimer in addition to that whole list that was just presented.” Robertson flips through the pages of his notes, as if he is looking for actual facts. “I am the only recipient of the Rebecca Rice Award with a bare minimum of scholastic credits; with professional recognition not paid for through political extortion, nor organized crime. In addition, I’m the sole recipient of the RIS Bookkeeping Award, as well as the Foe Humility Award for fake modesty.”
By this point the audience is his. The actor goes on to entertain the guests by reciting a short story starring a 5-year- old Cliff Robertson attending his cousin’s miserable high school play, recalling a phone conversation with his 8-year-old granddaughter advising him to get another job, and sharing childhood anecdotes about his fascination for aviation.
When Robertson came to Antioch, in the early 1940s he had set his mind on becoming a journalist, but things went a little different for the boy from South California. “I worked for the Springfield news for about 20 minutes. Then I fell in with the wrong companions and didn’t really care anymore,” he jokes.
“I never intend to be and actor. I never had that plan. But In grammar school I learned that if you volunteered for that stupid little play and you play a vegetable –I was a reddish, I was short for my age– then you wouldn’t have to stay after school and clean the erasers. And in prep school I learned that if you volunteer for that stupid little play you wouldn’t have to walk around with a 40 pound military pack and a rifle. So for me, acting has always been a gimmick. And sometimes I think it still is.” So far, that gimmick has brought RObertson an Oscar, an Emmy and the prestigious Theatre Award, making him one of the few actors rewarded with the “triple crown.”
But above all, Robertson’s passion lies with flying. He feels free and calm in his little glider between the mountains, he says. And even here, the man has managed to move into the rows of the great, with his recent ascend into the Aviation Hall of Fame.
As he approaches the end of his speech he lowers his voice. He stops for a moment. Then softly, almost whispering he says:
“The wind is my closest friend, and I’m for ever, ever grateful.”
The audience prologues the silence for a second, but then moves on to present Robertson with a standing ovation. After the speech, it seem to be the women in the audience who are especially eager to make use of the opportunity to shake hands, express admiration, hug, kiss and congratulate. Robertson undergoes all of it kindly — after 50 years in the industry he must have gotten used to the attention. Still, he makes everybody feel welcome, joking and taking time for each and every one who wishes to share a moment with the actor. “Makes me feel younger already!” Robertson remarks to an enthusiastic blonde who gives him a passionate peck on the cheek.
In his five decades of cinema, Robertson starred in movies alongside actors like Michael Cain and Robert Redford and turned the heads of leading ladies like Faye Dunaway, Janer Fonda. 81 years old, Mr Robertson is still as charming and flirtatious when he sits down with me for a chat, about to turn the head of yet another lady.
“What’s that accent? Where are you from sweatheart?” Taken off guard, I briefly mention the clogs and tulips and quickly move on to the original subject of the conversation: Cliff Robertson.
But alas…. No such luck. The room has largely emptied out by now and we’re joined by his oldest college friend and partner in undergraduate crime back in ‘42, Frank Woodress. Both look nowhere near their 80 plus years and, judging by their wit and cheekiness, are not planning to any time soon. Seeing the two of them together, all sparkle-eyed and still full of boyish charm, it is easy to visualize two boys in their late teens, hanging out of a 4th floor window in South Hall, trying to catch a glimpse of the girls on the other side of the lawn.
“Do you hear that accent Frank? I used to go out with this Dutch girl when I was younger. She just had the loveliest accent and beautiful blond hair. This one sounds exactly like her.” Feeling slightly mocked in my serious journalistic endeavors, I take some comfort in thinking I can take it from the man whose last movie included Tobey Mcguire in a red body suit.
Flattered as I am, I and can only imagine what a heartbreaker this man must have been when he wandered the halls of Antioch in the summer of ‘42. Answering my question whether he was a ladies man back in those days, Robertson says: “I didn’t have time for it. I was too busy doing other stuff. I worked at a news paper and radio in Springfield, so I had to hitchhike every night.” one can’t help but smile a little at the fact that the honor guest of the night has actually only been to Antioch for one semester, of which he evidently spent the largest part somewhere on the road between Springfield and Yellow Springs. But it’s the thought that counts, right?
Robertson last visited the campus 11 years ago when he gave a lecture on America’s corrupt corporate climate. “Did you know they made me an adjunct in the theatre department? They did. But they never called back.”
I ask Mr. Robertson whether he has any wisdom to share with the college community, besides, of course, never trusting the college to call you back. “You want some wisdom? From me? Well, I’m not a philosopher, but I have been around the block a few times. I would seriously consider injecting some new dimensions of a little humor around here.” Somehow I get the feeling I could have seen this one coming. Robertson himself, at least, seems to have gotten his own advice down to perfection. “As you are younger, you tend to take yourself very seriously. When you grow older, you start to take yourself a little less seriously. Lighten up a little.”
In perfect cinema fashion, Mr. Robertson and I depart with a kiss.
I’m still in the afterglow of excitement when I open the door of South hall to make my way into the fresh October night. Looking into the brightly lit Herndon gallery, I can see the two friends leaving towards the foyer, walking arm in arm, helping each other out a little. I smile and make my way across the lawn, towards the hall where once the girls had been secretly looking over to the boys. And all the way home I can’t help but think:
If only I were 60 years older…