Cliff Robertson

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

Academy award winner and TV star Cliff Robertson is as comfortable in the air as on the air. When he's not acting or directing in movies or TV, you'll find him flying or promoting aviation or winning an award for doing one or the other. In this month's Profile, Cliff talks with AVweb's Joe Godfrey about his prolific career on both sides of the camera, his collection of airplanes, and his lifelong passion for flying.

Cliff RobertsonCliff Robertson was born in La Jolla, Calif,. and saw his first airplane at age five. By age 13, he was a dedicated hangar rat and his reward for washing and waxing was a little unofficial stick time. Years later, in the suburbs of London, the urge to fly surfaced again and hasn't gone away since.

Cliff is far more than a casual flier. He holds single-engine land and sea, multiengine, commercial, instrument, balloon and glider ratings. He keeps a P58 Baron near his home on Long Island, N.Y., a Stampe SV4 aerobatic biplane at Santa Paula, Calif., for fun around L.A., and a Grob Astir glider in the Sierras.

Cliff just finished his 58th feature film playing a variety of roles. He won the Academy Award for best actor in "Charly." He was handpicked by President Kennedy to play the lead in "P. T. 109." He blended acting and flying in "The Pilot," "633 Squadron," and added directing in "J. W. Coop." He "reached out and touched us" for several years in ads for AT&T. He created and played a Shane parody called "Shame" on the "Batman" TV series. Fans of "Outer Limits" know that Cliff starred in the very first episode, "The Galaxy Being." "Gidget" fans know that Cliff was the original "Big Kahuna." One of his roles in Hollywood was exposing the systematic corruption of studios, producers and agents known as the "Begelman Scandal."

He has used his celebrity to promote aviation, too. He was the first Honorary President of the EAA and won the Freedom of Flight Award in 1987. He has spoken to and won awards from almost every pilot and aviation industry group, and set up the Cliff Robertson Work Program at EAA to give kids a chance to earn flight lessons by doing some hangar ratting of their own.

Did you always want to be an actor?

I started as a journalist. I never intended to be an actor, but you can see what happens when you fall in with bad companions. I went to Antioch College in Ohio and wrote for the Springfield Daily News. They accused me of being able to write, but it was suggested that I consider writing for the theater instead of a deadline. I ventured into New York exploring the possibility of writing for the theater, although I didn't know a damn thing about it. I took a job with some regional companies to learn the craft. I drove a truck. I learned how to build flats. And I acted because everybody in the company had to act.

I was a cocky WASP from La Jolla and I was in an environment that was hardly La Jolla. The actors took themselves and the theater very seriously and I didn't. I didn't care much at all or try very hard, and now I look back on my attitude in that period as shameful. Nevertheless, I was lucky to get good reviews and got some jobs in off-Broadway and finally Broadway. Then I was accepted in the Actors Studio so I got my training and began to learn how little I knew.

Eventually I did my first film in Hollywood. I came out West, said the lines, picked up the check and went home. And I still do it that way. I never really lived in Lala Land, never embraced the lifestyle. I've just finished my 58th feature film and I've been a lot luckier in the business than I deserved. I have a lot of friends who live here [in Southern California] and I have high regard for them, but I've never felt really comfortable in the Hollywood scene. I'd rather be in the country by myself, or with a bunch of pilots.

Cliff RobertsonWhen did you get interested in flying?

When I was 13 years old, I would ride my bicycle 13 miles from La Jolla to what was then called Speer Airport, which was not far from where San Diego's Lindbergh field is now. I was a hangar rat. I'd go there six days a week in the summer just to work never got paid to get the opportunity to be around airplanes and pilots. I'd wash planes and engine parts and never got paid a dime. I was short for my age, and every third or fourth day someone would say "Go get your cushion" and I'd get about 15 minutes in a little red Taylor Cub. I thought I was the luckiest kid on the block. That was my active introduction to aviation.

I use the word "active" because my first exposure to aviation was at about age five when a little yellow airplane was circling over my house. I was watching it with my uncle and another man and I was just fascinated with it. I remember one of the men saying, "Damned fool ... you'll never get me up in one of those little planes." We got into the car and the car wouldn't start and something clicked in my head that the little airplane was purring along safely back to its nest and we were stuck with a car that wouldn't start. So I got the realization early that aviation could be safer and more dependable than cars ... depending on the airplane and the car, I guess.

Did you solo and get a license as a teenager?

I didn't get a license. I wasn't old enough. Did I solo? [smiles] Well, you have to be a certain age, don't you? Years later, I was doing a movie in England and I decided it was time to get back to flying. I joined the Fairoaks Flying Club in Chobham, Surrey and took lessons from Wing Commander Arthur, who had to have been 70 years old. He was a raspy old curmudgeon that had flown in WWII and a little bit in WWI. He would bring his picnic basket with a sandwich in it before the lesson. Someone told me that when he got older they wouldn't let him fly anymore but he said "Well, you can't keep me from coming out out to the airport," which he did, and finally they broke down and let him go flying again. So that's where I soloed, at Chobham.

What airplane did you solo in?

In the Tiger Moth. I wanted to I insisted in training in the Tiger. I figured that if I could land a biplane in a crosswind, particularly a low-horsepower biplane, I could land anything. They allowed me to do it, but it was a little unusual. They had Cubs and Tri-Pacers and the standard trainers.

Then I joined the Royal Aero Club and the Tiger Club in Redhill, Surrey. I bought my first Tiger Moth from there and flew it across the Channel so I'd have something to keep me company when I was in Normandy doing a film called "Up From the Beach." Every weekend I'd take it out and fly over Mont St. Michel and just had a blast. I shipped it back and realized I needed parts, and I found out about another Tiger Moth at Clark in the Philippines. So I bought that one, very cheap, for parts for the first one. Well, when it arrived it turned out to be in better shape than the first one. Then I bought a third one from England for parts for the other two and it was in good shape, too. So that's how you wind up with three Tiger Moths.

Cliff RobertsonYou fought the battle for the certification of the Tiger Moth. What was that like?

Unending bureaucracy. A Kafka nightmare. It took six years of flying back to the FAA and finally we were able to get the experimental designation removed. I didn't expect it to take six years. It became a kind of crusade for me. I was whining one time to a fellow at the FAA and he took me into a room filled floor to ceiling with books and he said "That's why you're having so much trouble. It's all law books." That's how lawyers make money, and they write the rules.

In 1986 you flew Gustave Whitehead's design which is supposed to have flown before the Wright Brothers. How did you get involved in that issue?

They found me. They asked if I'd come up to Bridgeport, Connecticut where they had made a model based on his plans and documentation. They didn't have the engine for it, but they had the airplane. They had evidence that he had actually flown in 1901. He was a German immigrant, very intelligent, native genius. They talked to people that had lived there back then, and they found a woman who had been a young girl. Her family had a farm nearby and Whitehead was experimenting there. So they asked her if she had seen the airplane and she said "Oh yeah, I used to see the airplane. I'd see it up at this end of the field and then later on I'd see it down at that end of the field." Then they asked her "Well, did you see it fly?" And she said "No, it didn't fly." And they said "How did it get to the other end of the field?" And she said "Well, it went up in the air and flew along for a while and then came back down, but it didn't go anywhere." She was thinking in terms of an airline.

So then I was interested. I got on it and they put it on a flatbed behind a sports car and a tether line on it. The plan was for me to stand on it more on it than in it and they'd tow it along and when it got enough speed I would try to get it in the air. So we went out early one morning, with a lot of press, and I'm just standing on it. We did a run and nothing happened. And we did a second run and nothing happened. Then the wind came up a little and we did another run and, sure enough, I got her up and flying. Then we went back and did a second one. So his aircraft was capable of flying.

Do you get a chance to fly when you're working in L.A.?

I have a hangar in Santa Paula which I built about 25 years ago. I housed the Tiger Moths there for about 20 years. Now I keep the Stampe SV 4, the French aerobatic biplane there. I have a Baron, a P58 straight, in East Hampton, Long Island, just 10 minutes from where I live. I fly the Baron across the country when I'm not in a hurry. I usually take a couple of days to make the trip. I've done it in one day, but coming west it takes about 14 hours, and that's a long day.

I got into soaring about a dozen years ago and I've become really addicted to that. I keep a Grob at Minden [Nevada] at High Country Soaring. Tom and Bill Stowers are great people and they get soaring enthusiasts from all over the world that come there for the Sierra waves. I was able to get my diamond altitude, over 26,000 feet. I got lucky and set a Nevada state distance record in my Grob Astir. I went about 240 miles from Tonopah to Parowan. Six hours and twenty minutes is a long time to sit there nursing your kidneys.

Were you trying to set a record or did you just get some lift that was too good to give up?

We set out to do it. A friend of mine had the idea and he brought along the barograph and all the technical things we needed to qualify. The poor guy is 6-foot-5, so his knees were under his chin the whole time.

Cliff and friends
Standing L to R: Jim Coyne, President, NATA; Tom Poberezny, President, EAA; Cliff; and the late Admiral Don Engen. Seated: Ms. Cliff Henderson

I lost two good friends up there last summer. Don Engen and Bill Ivans. Bill lived in La Jolla and had flown gliders for many years, and Don had gotten into soaring just after I did. They were both rather quiet men, so I wrote a poem called "Quiet Men on Quiet Wings." Bill's son Dennis read it at the funeral.

How has Hollywood changed since you exposed the Begelman scandal?

Someone asked me what I'm proudest of and it would be my two daughters, but I'm also proud of the fact that we did expose that corruption. My accountant says "No more Don Quixote, Cliff." I was blackballed for three and a half years and didn't work at all. The town was for me, the actors, writers, directors, but there were a few scoundrels that as the FBI put it their honeymoon was about to end. But somebody had to stand up to the barracudas and as a result more and more people came out and exposed what had been going on. They were afraid. Within two years of what we did, Laurence Olivier, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Richard Attenborough, and James Garner, among others, started confronting corporate corruption and creative bookkeeping. They figured since I was still alive that maybe it was safe and they'd survive, too. Hollywood is a town that thrives on pointing the finger at corrupt governments and individuals, but they're very reluctant to turn that finger around and point it at themselves.

I've written a sequel to "Charly." I'm waiting for somebody with deep pockets who wants a movie that's not filled with violence and prurient sex, and is still based on an Academy Award-winning performance, and I can do it for a modest budget. Hollywood doesn't operate that way. A guy said "What's your budget?" and I said "About seven million," and he said "I can't steal a million out of seven million ... now if it's 27 million, I can take a little off the top for myself." Well, I'm an old Scot and I'm pretty careful about other people's money, as well as my own, so the sequel is going to have to wait for the right deal to come along.

I'm also proud that after all these movies, I've never been obligated to salute, snap heels or live in Hollywood. I'm the last of the independents in that sense.

Have you done any stunt flying for the movies?

In "J. W. Coop" I flew the biplane. It wasn't stunt flying particularly. It was a film that I wrote, directed and starred in about a rodeo cowboy. It was really about man's confrontation with change, but I flew the Tiger Moth in that. In a picture I directed and starred in called "The Pilot" about an alcoholic airline pilot, I flew a DC-8. Those are the only two that come to mind.

Who are some of the stunt pilots you worked with?

I don't think anybody can touch my buddy Sean Tucker, but there are so many great pilots. I knew Art Scholl very well. Frank Talman was a friend of mine. They're both gone now. They held Frank's funeral in Orange County, about an hour south of L.A. He risked his butt for actors and directors of course, he was paid but he risked his butt for 30 years so that they could get the shots they needed. Over 700 people showed up for the funeral, some from the east coast, and there wasn't one actor star in the bunch. No directors that we know of. Certainly no producers. But the stunt men were there. It was sad that they couldn't take an hour's drive to pay homage to the guy.

JFK picked you to play him in "P. T. 109." Did you get to meet him?

Oh, yeah. He was great. I was doing a movie in New York with Jane Fonda called "Sunday in New York" and the White House called and said the President would like me to come down to Washington. We corresponded after that, and he gave me some gifts, but it wasn't too long after that he was killed.

Did you meet John, Jr.?

I did. I talked to him on the phone, then we met at Oshkosh in '98. I never flew with him. He was a good guy. Often there's a cocoon around celebrity and people are afraid to tell the emperor he has no clothes. John was a 38-year-old man using the judgment of a teenager. It was tragic. It didn't have to happen. All he had to do was call his instructor or a charter pilot and take them along and buy them a ticket home. He could certainly afford it. He could have gone the next morning, stopped along the way. So many outs he didn't take. Long Island is my neighborhood. I won't fly my Baron over there in bad weather ... and I'm instrument-rated and I'm flying a twin.

If I were a flight instructor and I had a student who was famous, I hope I'd be able to say "Listen, I don't care what your name is or how much money you've got. All I care is that on my watch you're not going to do something dumb. You're not going to kill yourself and you sure as hell aren't going to kill someone else." I hate to say too much about him since he's dead, but if there's a plus side to it, it would be that it draws attention to the carelessness and may prevent somebody else from making that mistake.

Cliff RobertsonWhat's the tightest spot you've had as PIC?

Flying gliders is not only a great recreation, it's also very good training because when you don't have an engine, you're committed. Like all glider pilots with any experience I've had a few land-outs, where you don't get back to the airport, but I always managed to find a road or a field that worked just fine. Back at Speer, when I was 14 years old, in one week I was in two forced landings. Not with me flying, but flying with guys whose airplane I had washed. One was a Great Lakes trainer up at Camp Kearney, which is now MCAS Miramar. We were doing touch and goes, he blew a rod and it went right through the cowling, and he sideslipped and brought it down. He was white as a ghost. I was 14 and I thought it was pretty exciting. Three days later I was up in a Kinner Sportster at 15,000 feet, freezing my butt off, and oil pressure dropped and we deadsticked back in. I went home proud as a peacock to have two forced landings in one week.

I was shooting a film out in the boonies and they wanted me to fly the Tiger Moth out of a hayfield in a canyon. There was a lot of wind up there and the Tiger Moth is a low-horsepower airplane. So I said I would only do it early in the morning in calm winds, and I wanted two cameras on the wings and one on the front cockpit, and I wanted them mounted on the airplane two days ahead of time. Then I gave them the key to the hanger in Santa Paula.

You can guess what happened. I got there at 5 a.m. on the day of the shoot and nothing was ready. I flew the airplane over to the hayfield and the winds came up and I refused to do the shot. It's my own fault but I let them talk me into it. I got all the shots, pulling little strings to trigger the cameras from the cockpit. Now it's time to land. I did a low pass and realized the wind was really blowing. I had seen an area of grass when I checked out the area before the flight. After my low pass I got a big downdraft, like the fist of God, and I hit the power. The Tiger Moth is a gravity feed fuel system and when the airplane went down I had fuel starvation. I instinctively aimed for that little patch of grass, but there were a couple of crewmembers practicing golf over there. So I aimed the other way, and I'm coming down fast, and I saw a horse. And I figured where there's a horse there's liable to be grass, and I did a pretty good job of planting the wheels at the edge of the grass. But when the undercarriage sheared off, the airplane went upside down and I had to scramble out. Bumped my nose but that's about all.

But you got the shot?

Classic Hollywood. The director was hysterical. I'm a director, too, so I said "This is a great break for you. The airplane is upside down. Get a few guys to throw some dirt in the air, spin the one wheel that was left on the airplane, and roll your cameras. We'll dissolve into the dust and pull back and see a real airplane that's pretty well bruised." So I went to the doctor to get some stitches figuring that I had broken my airplane and almost broken my ass, but at least we'd get a good shot out of it. But they didn't. The director said everybody was nervous and sent them home.

What's keeping you busy in aviation now?

I love flying and I love the flying fraternity. I'm very active in the EAA ... I was the first Honorary President and I'm on the President's Council of the EAA. I've flown a lot of Young Eagles, and we're well on our way to the goal of flying a million kids by 2003. Every year we choose four kids who apply for the Cliff Robertson Work Program. These are boys and girls that have shown great passion and energy for flying and they get free lessons in return for doing what I did cleaning out dirty hangars and washing airplanes. After 10 weeks they solo, and they've all gone on to good things. Most of them have stayed in aviation.