News of the death of actor Cliff Robertson on September 10th took me back to a Friday evening in March 1994 when I spent an hour and a half with the actor and a fellow film critic. The place was Dayton, Ohio, and the occasion was a gala showing of Charly to launch the Mental Retardation/Developmentally Disabled Film Festival at a downtown movie theater. Mr. Robertson was on hand to introduce the film, his appearance designed to draw a large crowd. I was one of two members of the press invited to the reception after the film. We went through the line, exchanging a few words of praise with the actor and then headed for the heavily laden snack table.
We both noticed that after everyone had shaken hands with him Mr. Robertson was standing alone. We went over and started up a conversation, each of us prepared to step back when someone else wanted to talk with the actor. That never happened, the result being that we had him all to ourselves for over an hour. We soon discovered that he is a great raconteur, giving us his own perspective on some major events in his career, and on Charly in particular.
A popular star in television drama shows of the 1950s, Mr. Robertson told us that he found himself shut out by more famous movie stars when the teleplay was transferred to the big screen. Although he starred in the original Days of Wine and Roses, The Hustler, and Orpheus Descending, he was replaced respectively by Jack Lemmon, Paul Newman, and Marlon Brando in the film versions. But with the U.S. Steel Hour’s The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon, it would be different. Not only did he play the lead role, he also won the Best Actor Oscar for it when it was released in 1968 as Charly.
He got the part this time, he told us with a smile, because he owned the rights to the play and was willing to spend the long years trying to get a studio to take on the project. In case you may have forgotten, Charly evolved from the teleplay The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon, which in turn is based on Daniel Keyes Flowers for Algernon, first a short story and then a novel. Charly is a mentally challenged man working in a bakery where he is often the butt of cruel jokes by his coworkers. When he becomes the subject of a scientific experiment, his mental faculties grow almost exponentially. Now a genius he becomes romantically involved with the women scientist heading up the project. Then it is discovered that the effect is temporary, and Charly slowly descends into his former foggy existence, this sequence being one of the saddest of any ever filmed, with Charly deliberately breaking off from his lover.
I told Mr. Robertson that my favorite scene in the film is one of grace, one that had been changed from the book and actually improved on it. Charly is dining with friends in a restaurant when the loud clatter of dishes breaking on the floor interrupts the conversations of the diners. There is momentary silence. Everyone turns to look at the bus boy kneeling to gather up the broken dishes that he had dropped. The room erupts in laughter. It is evident to all by the young man’s eyes and slow movements that he is mentally challenged. Now in the book Charly, feeling akin to the confused lad, stands up and berates the callous diners for their cruelty. However, in the film Charly never says a word. He gets up, walks over to the bus boy, and kneels down to help hum pick up the shards. Shamed by this compassionate gesture, the onlookers cease their laughter.
The actor’s eyes lit up and his face broke into a big smile as I described the scene. “You know, I was the one who suggested that change,” he explained. “Somehow it just didn’t seem right for Charly to express anger. I suggested to the director that his act of compassion, of solidarity with the bus boy, was more dramatically effective than the original scene. He agreed, and that’s the way we filmed it.”
My friend and I came away from our evening with Cliff Robertson not only with a new insight into a film we both loved, but also into the man who brought Charly Gordon to life. Cliff Robertson, whose brave fight against a corrupt studio head had hurt his career, never became the big name on the marquee, but in our eyes none of the stars who took on the roles he had originated would ever shine as bright as human beings.
I will post next week Part 2 of my Films To Honor 9/11.